There was one major idea that both political parties and presidential candidates seemed to intentionally avoid, despite Hurricane Sandy: climate change.
To better understand what’s at the heart of this “too hot to handle” topic, we need to understand carbon.
Carbon is a naturally abundant nonmetallic element that forms the basis of most living organisms. It is the fourth-most-abundant element in the universe and plays a crucial role in the planet’s health and stability. The carbon cycle is complex and illustrates the interconnection between organisms on Earth.
Carbon exists in a pure or nearly pure form as diamonds and graphite, but can also combine with other elements to form molecules. Carbon-based molecules are basic building blocks of humans, animals, plants, trees and soils. We are made up of carbon. Some greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, also consist of carbon-based molecules, as do fossil fuels, which are largely made up of molecules consisting of hydrogen and carbon called hydrocarbons.
The atomic number of carbon is 6 and it is identified by the symbol “C” on the periodic table. Carbon molecules bond readily with a wide range of other elements to form thousands of compounds. The molecules also bond with each other in different ways, to create the purer forms of carbon such as diamonds, the hardest substance on Earth, and graphite, one of the softest materials on the planet. Its changing personality makes it a very unique element.
As living organisms decay or change, they continue to contain carbon. Coal, limestone and petroleum are fossilized forms of living organisms that contain abundant amounts of carbon. Plants and animal life that died millions of years ago were slowly compressed into these substances and their integral carbon was preserved.
Carbon is burned to create fuel. It also is used to filter various substances. When combined with iron it makes steel. Carbon is used as the basis of drawing pencils and charcoals, to make synthetics like plastic, and, in the form of an isotope, is a dating tool for archaeologists.
On its own, carbon is not very dangerous, since it is nontoxic and nonreactive. However, some forms such as carbon monoxide can be harmful to many organisms. The element may also appear in conjunction with more dangerous elements, or may generate harmful dust in the case of coal and diamonds.
The fossil fuels (coal, crude oil, natural gas, oils sands and shale oils) are chiefly hydrocarbons. Carbon is the active element of photosynthesis and the key structural component of all living matter. That’s a big job. The isotope carbon-12 is used as the basis for atomic weights. Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 5,730 years, is used to date such materials as wood and archaeological specimens.
Carbon exists in the Earth’s atmosphere primarily as the gas carbon dioxide, or CO2. Although it is a very small part of the atmosphere overall (about 0.04 percent, but rising rapidly), it plays an important role in supporting life. Other gases containing carbon in the atmosphere are methane and chlorofluorocarbons (the latter is one that man has introduced and is still adding to). These are all greenhouse gases, whose concentration in the atmosphere are increasing and contributing to the rising average global surface temperature.
Due to carbon’s unusual chemical property of being able to bond with itself and a wide variety of other elements, it forms more than 10 million known compounds. Carbon is present as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and dissolved in all natural waters. It is a component of rocks as carbonates of calcium, limestone, magnesium and iron.
Carbon dioxide is an important part of the carbon cycle. Scientists have become concerned that humans are producing too much carbon dioxide for plants to process. The practice potentially leads to serious environmental problems. We’ll talk more about this next week.
Roth, a former Oklahoma corporation commissioner, is an attorney with Phillips Murrah P.C. in Oklahoma City, where his practice focuses on clean, green energy for Oklahoma.