In Defense of Carbon


Carbon is the basic building block of life.  It is an element, indestructible.  We have the same amount of carbon on earth now as always.  It goes through a cycle.  Because it is so versatile, it can join with numerous other atoms to create complex structures.

I’m a climate change agnostic.  I know the climate changes every day and every season.  Whether human beings are changing the climate in a significant way is the subject of heated debate.  I do know humans are poisoning the environment, but the most dangerous chemicals involved are not carbon dioxide or methane.  These two are naturally occurring substances that are intimately involved in the cycles of life and death.

Organic chemistry is based on whether the compounds under study contain carbon.  Photosynthesis is the means by which plants use energy from light to convert water and carbon dioxide to food for the plant.  In this process, water is hydrolyzed (meaning broken down into its constituent atoms) with the hydrogen joining with carbon to form sugars, such as glucose and sucrose.  The sugars contain energy that fuels plant growth, maintenance and manufactures the substance of the plant itself, like cellulose.

That plants can make their own food from light, carbon dioxide and water is a marvel of solar technology, because all food ultimately comes from plants.  The mechanism of photosynthesis, according to my botany text (Botany:  An Introduction to Plant Biology, 6th edition, T., Elliot Weier, et al., 1982) took almost 200 years to be understood, and it still contains undiscovered secrets.  Researchers are now working on harnessing the 100% efficiency of plants to make electricity.  In contrast, solar panels are only between 15-20% efficient.

According to Botany, a series of discoveries beginning in 1700 led to the eventual understanding of how photosynthesis works.  In 1700, a Flemish physician and chemist Jan van Helmont grew a willow branch in measured soil and water.  It grew from five to 169 pounds in five years, but used only two ounces of soil.  In 1772, Joseph Fleming noted a sprig of mint could restore confined air that had been made impure by burning a candle, but in 1779 Jan Ingen-House noticed air was only revitalized when the green portion of the plant was exposed to light.  In 1782, Jean Sonebier discovered carbon dioxide was necessary in the “fixed air” supply of the green plant, and in 1796 Ingen-House determined the carbon went into the nutrition and structure of the plant.  In 1804, Nicholas Th. de Saussure observed water was also involved in the photosynthetic process, and in 1800 chemists discovered that carbohydrates were formed.  Experiments using “heavy oxygen” (oxygen with atomic weight of 18 rather than the usual 16) proved the oxygen liberated in photosynthesis came from water rather than CO2.

The basic chemical reaction for converting carbon dioxide and water to glucose is:

6CO2 + 6H20 +686 kcal –> C6 H12 O6 + 6O2

The oxygen is released into the atmosphere.  Plants also release water vapor through evaporation, and this induces liquids and nutrients to move upward through the xylem (the plant’s substance, including transportation “vessels”).

The glucose produced is used directly, or stored as insoluble starch.  It’s used to make cellulose and other structural components, or is combined with nitrogen, sulfur or phosphorus to make proteins.

When a plant or any life form dies, the stored carbon is either consumed by another life form or it is released as CO2 and methane (CH4), among other substances.

Igniting the hydrocarbon molecules reverses the photosynthetic process in a one-to-one ratio.  CO2 and water are re-created, and the energy bound up in the molecule is released as heat or used to do work.

The chemical reaction when the simplest hydrocarbon, methane (natural gas), is burned is:

CH4 + 2O2 –>  CO2 + 2H2O

Natural gas, oil, coal, ethanol, and plastic, to name a few, have the same carbon and hydrogen building blocks, in different combinations.  All have high energy contents and produce CO2 and water when burned.

Ethanol—which is now a federally mandated gasoline additive—has a lower energy content than gasoline so lowers gasoline efficiency. Ethanol, also called “ethyl alcohol,” is old-fashioned grain alcohol, the same substance distilled by farmers in Revolutionary War days, and the stuff that led to the Whiskey Rebellion when the whiskey tax was passed in 1791.

Plastic has a high energy content and burns hot.  Plastic waste is accumulating around the planet, in huge ocean “gyres,” as well as other bodies of water, sewage and drainage systems.  Its breakdown products are associated with endocrine (hormonal) changes in people and animals.

The main weakness of the climate change initiative is that the focus on “greenhouse gases” diverts attention from more immediate and ongoing threats to the planet.  The use of single-use packaging, for instance, uses valuable natural resources, such as paper, and environmentally harmful industrial products, such as plastic, that end up in landfill or in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The ethanol mandate, passed in 2007, is a particularly toxic piece of legislation.  Under this scenario, farmland is used to produce corn, soy, or other carbon-containing plant matter, to be distilled into alcohol for burning in cars.  Not only does this deplete soil that might otherwise be used to grow food, but it requires massive amounts of water, time and money, so is a pox on the planet and on the engines that use it. It is particularly harmful in small engines, like lawnmowers, so conscientious users must use ethanol-free gas to protect their engines.  That Archer Daniels Midland, the main corporate beneficiary of the ethanol mandate, is set up to distill ethanol for cars as well as ethanol for drinking, should provide clues as to how regressive this mandate is.

In summary, I contend that, “climate change” includes changing the political climate to recognize that growing trees is better for the planet than giving corporations “carbon credits” not to cut them down.

15 thoughts on “In Defense of Carbon

  1. Rosaliene Bacchus

    “The main weakness of the climate change initiative is that the focus on “greenhouse gases” diverts attention from more immediate and ongoing threats to the planet.”

    Katharine, there are indeed many immediate and ongoing threats to our continued existence on this planet that we have to address. The threat of a nuclear World War III is also building up over North Korea and Iran. Earth’s sixth mass extinction is also under way. And, yes, the accumulation of plastic waste threatens oceanic and human life.

    The warming of Earth’s atmosphere is a slow process much like cancer cells spreading in our body. We often don’t know they are there until they have reached a critical mass. If we are lucky to catch the cancerous growth in its early stage, we can take preventative action to destroy it or slow down its spread. It all depends upon the malignancy of the cancer. To do nothing, while we focus only on a heart or other serious health condition, is not an option if we want to prolong our lives.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      As always, I appreciate your reading and commenting. Nowhere do I suggest ignoring the climate change scenario. My hope is to expand awareness beyond the greenhouse gases. I contend that the ethanol mandate, for instance, contributes significantly to climate change, and it’s easier to repeal in the short term. Certainly longer term solutions are desirable, too, and they are occurring, such as the rise of alternative energy options. The difference is that the ethanol mandate is a governmentally controlled assault on taxpayers and the environment, but the alternative energy movement comes largely from a grass-roots desire for change.

      I believe the climate change controversy arises because regular people suspect they are not getting the whole story. To describe something about the carbon cycle and photosynthesis, for instance, might help individuals see how they can contribute to solutions by changing toxic habits and becoming aware of policies and laws that run counter to our common purpose.

      1. katharineotto Post author

        You may be right, in which case it’s even more important to confront specific infractions head on. For instance, plastic is a petroleum product. And, I guarantee the fossil fuel industry is a significant contributor to our wars in the Middle East. The ethanol mandate probably comes from a consortium of fossil fuel industry, food industry, and chemical industry (Montsanto and Dow both have GM corn) lobbyists. Electric cars, I believe, need to be re-charged, with power coming from the grid. If coal-fired power plants are eliminated, we’re probably looking at more nuclear plants, if electric cars take off. That’s one reason I’m such a believer in reviving passenger rail, to reduce the need for so much driving.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Heath, Thanks for the affirmation. I’m now reading predictions that nuclear energy will play a bigger role in our futures, because it doesn’t emit CO2. This is yet another way “climate change” is being used to scam the public. What they don’t tell us is that nuclear requires enormous amounts of water for cooling, a third of which evaporates, with the rest dumped back into rivers, like the Savannah River, and raising the temperature. Now, in Georgia, they’are talking about pumping water uphill from the coast, to Atlanta and its environs, because Atlanta has been having water shortages. They don’t tell us that Plant Vogtle’s two nuclear reactors–with a third being built and way over budget and behind schedule–has a voracious appetite for water. It is probably leaching radioactive tritium into the groundwater, but nobody wants to investigate that. There is a swath of cancer along the river’s path, according to rumor.

      1. Heath Muchena

        The self-destructive nature of human beings is quite astonishing at times. Short-term gains and permanent destruction. Let’s hope communities keep fighting back. Public just stopped a multi-billion dollar nuclear project scheduled to go ahead here in South Africa and thank God for that.

      2. katharineotto Post author

        Really?! I’m hearing a lot about South Africa lately. Plant Vogtle (#3), on the GA/SC border, is the only nuclear power plant under construction in the US now, and the Public Service Commission is scheduled to decide whether to continue or abandon it 8/31/17. Your info is timely.

  2. navasolanature

    I think climate change is already happening and causing more unpredictable and intense weather in different ways in different places. However I agree that our response must be to care for the environment as a whole and a comnected system. Yes, trees are important but trees which will support local biodiversity. Here in Spain eucalyptus was planted as part of an EU funded project. No koalas here to benefit. Now there is better understanding of such impacts. Unfortunately we need to keep vigilant as the nuclear and pther industries are good at making it all into a woolly mess! I agree with you anout dealing with local issues. This can have an impact.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I also think climate change is already happening, but contend CO2 and methane are only bit players. Deforestation, pavement and ground-covering massive structures, as in cities, collect heat and emit “thermals” that rise and affect climate all around. The pavement and concrete restrict the earth’s ability to breathe or to absorb rainwater, and on and on. Then there are all the toxins the industrial age has produced.

      I’ve lived on a salt water river all my life. The river is dying, with crabs, shrimp, fish, and other marine life a mere fraction of what they used to be. We had the first tornado I’ve ever seen ten years ago. We’ve had violent hurricanes the past three years, with multiple trees down and power out for a week with Matthew. Irma caused a tidal storm surge that flooded my crawl space. First flood ever.

      I’ve heard eucalyptus gets rid of fleas. A friend had a eucalyptus collar for his dog.

      1. navasolanature

        Sounds like quite a lot of local environmental concerns for you. I think local action is very important but without some national and international regulation I do not think that humanity will be able to address the environmental disasters we are facing. Unfortunately that creates legislation, rules e.g for river pollution and penalties. The river Thames running through London is now swimmable in (but dangerous currents still) but without the pollution that was there 20 to 30 years ago. The EU finally tackled environmental protection, networks of nature reserves after some of their unaware funding of Non native trees like the eucalyptus. Glad these are good for flea prevention though! And paper I think. Good to discuss this with you and I wish more people would act for their local environment and reduce waste.

      2. katharineotto Post author

        I lost your second comment, apparently pushed the “Trash” instead of the “Like” button after reading it. Don’t know how to undo it without causing more damage. Sorry. It was worth saving. You wrote about the trash problem and export to China. The rivers that contribute to the gyres, I believe. I read recently that China has announced it will curtail trash imports. I also read that trash is the US’ primary export to China.

        I’m so glad you are on top of this and doing some research beyond what I’m able to do.

      3. navasolanature

        No worries, I think it was partly about changes in our local waste and recycling in a London suburb and the regulations that have cleaned up the River Thames. Yes, there is an irony in sending plastic for recycling to China when they can’t keep their major rivers clean and these contribute the most to tonnes of plastic going into the ocean. I think I looked up the 10 worst polluted rivers in the world. Oh WordPress and buttons, how quickly it goes to trash! Funny really if not serious issues. Have a fun day!

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