Carbon is everywhere—in the food we eat, the homes we build, the clothes we wear, the fuels we use, and even the air we breathe. It moves through nature in cycles and through our economy as commodities, goods and, ultimately, waste.
This cycling of carbon matters. It matters because the right balance of carbon between the atmosphere, plants, animals, soils and oceans is central to the healthy functioning of habitats and ecosystems. Indeed, it is one of the necessary conditions for life on Earth.
Carbon is truly a master element. It readily binds with other elements to form a broad range of compounds and materials, more than any other element on the periodic table. When paired with oxygen, it becomes carbon dioxide (CO2), an important greenhouse gas.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like a blanket to keep heat in. Without it, the Earth would be a dead, frozen planet (like Mars). With too much of it, the Earth would become a pressure-cooker hot enough to melt lead (like Venus).
So maintaining this balance is vitally important. Fortunately for us the Earth has been doing a pretty good job of balancing carbon for millions of years to keep conditions ideal for the development and flourishing of life. But that could change.
As a result of increased emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen from 280 to 417 parts-per-million in a few short centuries. Today, levels are higher than they have been in over 800,000 years.
A changing climate poses many risks to nature and society, including an intensification of weather and storm systems, changes in precipitation patterns, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. Ultimately, many parts of the world could experience major climatic shifts, a wide-spread loss of species, ecosystem failures, and global economic and political collapse.
Clearly, something to pay attention to.