The gas of life and the climate

I was a bookish child. While others honed their skills on the round leather, I devoured encyclopedias. You read right. At the time, I thought that if I read a certain number of pages from the biggest encyclopedia every day, I would have read everything one day and would hence be all-knowing. I always wanted to know everything there is to know.

Of course, that’s a very childish dream. Life taught me many things, One among them is that in this day and age it is utterly impossible to know everything there is to know. 

Then a friend of the family bought me the biggest illustrated encyclopedia of life money could buy at the time. I learned about the basics of life, how life evolved from simple bacteria to complex cells and how it all was based on one primordial element that’s present in all life as we know it, no matter how exotic it may seem to us – CARBON.

That made me curious so I asked if there could be non-carbon-based life. There was no internet I could query at the time so I was petty alone with my question. In the meantime, I learned a good deal more about carbon and how essential it is for life.

Today, carbon has become enemy number one as the IPCC and a whole plethora of other institutions hold it responsible for the warming of the Earth. Oh sorry, its called Climate Change now.

4 billion years back, it was very different though. Primitive Earth had no life yet, but it had a proto atmosphere, courtesy of millions of volcanoes spewing their load from the bowels of the Earth for many millions of years. This proto atmosphere would have been unrecognizable to man as it was composed by way more than 90% of CO2. I wonder how Earth did not transform into hell straight away with so much CO2. That’s more than 2000 times of the CO2 that we have in the atmosphere today – just for reference.

The CO2 in our early atmosphere was the seed of life as it allowed the formation of amino acids which in turn gave rise to first primitive sacks full of chemicals – you know them as primitive bacteria. I will not go through the entire evolution of life now as this would be a neverending story. My wife keeps telling me that I can lecture for hours without even breathing so we better leave the evolution thing here.

Suffice it to say that the emergence and explosion of life brought CO2 levels down radically as it freed up the Oxygen from the CO2 and bound the carbon in solid compounds. Over billions of years, an atmosphere that we would mostly recognize today emerged. CO2 was still a lot higher than today – in the thousands and even tens of thousands of ppm. Until towards the end of the Paleozoic age, about 300 million years ago Earth hit a cul-de-sac. 

Trees and giant ferns had bound vast amounts of CO2 over millions of years but those trees could not rot as no organism was capable of digesting lignin which is the main constituent of wood. This means that when trees died, they toppled and fell over each other building up vast layers of compressed wood that would, in turn, transform into the coal we find today. But when the CO2 could not be released to the environment, the CO2 stores of Earth would soon deplete and life on Earth would come to an unspectacular end. Death by Co2 asphyxiation.

Fortunately, life one-upped the game by developing the capability of digesting lignin. I have read about this molecular compound and it is a real hardass of a polymer so we got incredibly lucky. CO2 values rose again.

During the vast majority of the last 200 million years, CO2 levels were comfortably above 1000ppm, way above today’s levels that are considered elevated.

Recently in Earth history, we have entered a period of very low CO2 combined with major glaciation periods. The last glaciation period ended around 15K years ago. The resulting warmth enabled the rise of humanity from the stone age towards today’s civilization. But this was not a time of uniform temperatures. There were major warm periods each often lasting decades or even centuries. The last four of them each correspond to major advances in human civilization. 

About 3000 years ago, the Minoan Warm Period peaked which corresponded with the peak of the New Egyptian Kingdom and the Ramses area. About 1750 years ago the Roman Warm Period (RWP) peaked and with it, the Roman Empire had reached its golden age. About 700 years ago the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) peaked and kicked off the Renaissance and the current Warm Period led to the civilization we know today.

Conversely, about 3900 years ago, a cold period ended the Minoan age and brought the Sea people ending the Bronze Age and a number of ancient high civilizations in the process, about 2250 years ago a cold period corresponds to the fall of classical Greece, about 1280 years ago an even colder period corresponds with the European Dark Age and the fall of the Frankish empire and about 400 years ago, the Little Ice Age and coldest of those cold periods ended the Renaissance. 

It must be noted that each successive warm period was a bit cooler than the preceding one and each successive cold period was significantly colder than the preceding one. We have a pattern that has delivered its effects since the beginning of the Holocene 15K years ago. Plus, those cold periods were no Glaciation events but sub-cold-events in the Holocene. 

During all those ups and downs, CO2 was remarkably stable – well it was not completely stable as there was a slight increase in CO2 sometime after a new warm period started. Warmer temperatures release more carbon that’s solved in the seawater when its colder and hence give the atmosphere a CO2 boost. CO2 is the result of warming. Warming is not the result of CO2.

Another consequence of all this is that warm periods are good for us and cold periods are detrimental to life. As there was more CO2 around, plants grew better and harvests were more bountiful. With more food to go around, human societies could afford to invest in innovation and expanding their knowledge resulting in technological ad human progress. 

Greenhouse growers know the effect. They buy CO2 and enrich the air in the greenhouses with it in order to boost plant growth and the results are astonishing. Plants grow significantly larger and stronger with more CO2 and they also need much less fertilizer and bind more water. The plant matter is also a lot richer in nutrients for those eating it and regrowth is much faster. 

CO2 is the gas of life. Without CO2 there would be no life, higher CO2 is good for plant growth, and of course, if CO2 goes too low plants would start to die and we with them. It has been established that most plant growth would stop below 150ppm. And Greenhouse growers feed additional CO2 up to 1500ppm into their Greenhouses in order to help plants grow. 

Pre-industrial levels of CO2 were at 280ppm. This is incredibly close to the lower end and hence plant death. 

The current CO2 concentration in the air is about 400 ppm – that’s parts per million. Just in order to give you some sense for how little that is. It’s 0,04% of the air we breathe. Oxygen is about 500 times more abundant. The rare gas Argon is about 20 times more abundant.

CO2 is incredibly rarefied in today’s atmosphere – even in today’s relatively elevated state. Compared to Earths history it is still abysmally low and we should be thankful for the new lease of life this gives us. 

In light of this, knowing that additional CO2 actually spares us from plant death, it is highly fraudulent to commit trillions of USD in forlorn investments in order to negate something that we need for our survival.

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