Climate Change and the Nature of Science: The Carbon “Tipping Point” is Coming

The two attached pictures are schematic diagrams of the circulation of carbon on Earth (IPAA Report (2001) – the Carbon Cycle).  If I Google “Carbon Cycle Diagram” in the image mode, I get close to a million entries.  Most of these entries look like the second image – not the first.  What is the difference?  The second one doesn’t have numbers (photoshopping on my part).

The numbers in the arrows of the first image represent fluxes of carbon per year in units of billion tons of carbon.  The numbers outside the arrows represent quantities in the same units of billion tons of carbon. The man-made (anthropogenic) contributions are shown by the dashed red arrows.

Scientifically, it is very difficult to argue with the second diagram.  I have to make qualitative statements like, “I don’t believe that carbon is exchanging between the atmosphere and the oceans.”  It is much easier to argue – scientifically – with the first diagram.  If I have the background and tools, I can either try to follow the original measurements or to take the measurements myself.  It doesn’t really matter if the job is too big; the fact that, in principle, I can do it, makes the first diagram science, while the second figure is obviously a good qualitative description but is not actually science.

Back to deniers and skeptics: I have been approached by friends (some of them with good science backgrounds) and students, who tell me (nicely) that since carbon dioxide is a “natural” product, it cannot be bad, so the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) should not have to identify it as a pollutant.  Sometimes the conversations have gone on to suggest that if I want to avoid global warming, I should simply stop breathing (since they know that we exhale carbon dioxide).  They have asked me kindly to get off their backs and stay away from commenting upon their energy usage.  In the cases where conversations got more heated and evolved to include other greenhouse gases, the suggestions went as far as, “Well, why don’t we regulate cows so they’ll stop farting.”

Well, here is where science comes in.  When it comes to the carbon cycle, we can analyze the numbers.  We can add up the amount of carbon that is going from the earth to the atmosphere, and subtract that which is doing the reverse – entering the earth from the atmosphere.  (The carbon in theses fluxes mainly takes the form of carbon dioxide.)

The result? It shows that there are 3.1 billion tons of extra carbon being added to the atmosphere.  Since carbon dioxide is a very stable compound, it will stay in the atmosphere for many years.  If we assume that this same kind of flux will be more or less maintained from now until the end of the century (the “end of now” time-frame that I talk about in my book), the atmospheric concentrations of carbon will grow by close to 50%. This is a major difference that directly affects our energy balance with the sun.

3.1 billion tons is less than half of what we emit into the atmosphere (red broken arrows in the picture).  The difference means that both the earth and its oceans have now become net “sequesters,” or absorbers of the excess carbon dioxide that we produce.  Vegetation and soil, in the form of enhanced growth because of the carbon dioxide that fertilization contributes, and areas of the ocean that absorb carbon dioxide, contribute as well.  As the temperature rises, the capacity of these methods of compensation is expected to decrease, until they reach the point where both the earth and our oceans no longer absorb the carbon dioxide, but instead reverse themselves to be net emitters.  Some would call this a “tipping point.”

This makes us part of the physical system that we investigate, and negates, at least in my mind, the option of waiting with remedies until the consequences of these changes are absolutely certain.  Science tells us that the danger exists, so the remedies should be approached as an insurance premium.

We are now busy searching for planets outside the solar system.  We are particularly interested in finding planets in the habitable zone of stars- an area defined as a zone around a star, within which it is possible for a planet to maintain liquid water on its surface.  We have, up to now, been able to identify more than 700 exoplanets; last December, NASA announced the its discovery of the first exoplanet in a habitable zone of another star.  It is a narrow zone, but it offers the best chance so far to find life forms outside our own planet.  We are doing well, but we have a long way yet to go in that quest.  On a cosmological scale – destruction of a habitable zone is not very difficult – Venus can serve as a good example. The pace of the atmospheric changes that we are inducing, meanwhile, might lead to the first observable instance of the destruction of a habitable zone.  For a far away civilization, it will be scientific observation.  For us it will be a collective suicide.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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27 Responses to Climate Change and the Nature of Science: The Carbon “Tipping Point” is Coming

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  13. Is it not a error in the start of the 6th section? Where it should be to and not from?

    There is written:
    “… that there are 3.1 billion tons of extra carbon being added from the atmosphere …”

    Should been:
    “… that there are 3.1 billion tons of extra carbon being added to the atmosphere …”

    … and it could be also be added in the end of the sentence: … every year.
    (If so, nice if it is corrected in the SkS-version as well …)

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  22. Nick says:

    great info.Tthanks Nick

  23. Thank you for your reply. Your thesis seems to be that our carbon dioxide emissions will upset a natural balance. That assumes that carbon dioxide is a major driver of temperature. Do you have any physical evidence that carbon dioxide is a major driver of temperature? Looking at temperature history from 1900 to now we see a distinct lack of correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide emissions at centennial scales and even at decadal scales except by coincidence.

    The question of negative/positive feedback has been hotly debated in the literature. Observational evidence shows that the assumed forcing by carbon dioxide appears to be very weak and easily overwhelmed by the much stronger forces of natural variation. Models make assumptions, but fail to take in the totality of the physical world.

  24. Thank you Jonathan for the thoughtful comment. It requires a detailed response (apology
    to the many readers that are turned off by the technical jargon).

    I assume that your comment is based on data such as the one shown in Figure 4 in an article by Pearson & Palmer (Nature, 406, 695 (2000)) that
    shows carbon dioxide accumulations during the early late Paleocene and Early Eocene
    periods, together with the oxygen fractionation data that serves as a proxy for the
    temperature at the period.

    The Early Eocene and the late Paleocene (about 40 to 60 million years ago) are known as
    very hot periods where the planet was ice free and the difference in temperature between
    the poles and the equator was considerably smaller than in today’s world. There is another chart (Figure TS.6) of Impact Predictions of the IPCC that includes
    temperature based on two societal scenarios – one is the “business as usual” (A2)
    scenario that predicts continuous temperature rise and the other is an “environmentally
    friendly” scenario (B1) that stabilizes the temperature around 2.50C increase. The
    difference in the two scenarios is a difference of 0.5 children in fertility rate and shift in
    global energy sources that reduces the fraction of fossil fuels from the present 85% to
    around 50%.

    The climate sensitivity that the IPCC is basing its projections is based on the same
    logarithmic functionality that Pearson & Palmer are using.

    The climate that the IPCC is projecting is mild compared to what we believe took place
    50 million years ago. Our knowledge as to the cause and effect of the carbon dioxide
    concentrations and the climate of that period is very limited.

    But here’s the important part: the time scale is also completely different – the climate
    change in the Eocene period took millions of years. The climate change we’re talking
    about today will happen in only generations.

    We have very limited knowledge about the physical processes that led to the carbon
    dioxide accumulation 50 million years ago, so we can not talk about tipping points in that

    Tipping points in our era refer to the rate of the chemical atmospheric changes: will they
    be minimized, as they are now, due to negative feedback; or will they be amplified due
    to positive feedback, as physics tells will probably happen with disappearance of the ice,
    release of powerful greenhouse gases with thawing permafrost, and converting the oceans
    to net gas emitters.

    It’s important to remember that, since our modern climate change is happening
    comparatively quickly, we do not have the luxury of “waiting” to see what will happen.

    If we act now, and adopt the “environmentally friendly” scenario, we can still avert total


    Note: I am sorry for the lack of charts included- it’s difficult to add pictures and other media into the comments section. I hope that you will follow the links I included- they really are worth checking out.

  25. Since, in the geologic past, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were up to 10 times the current concentration, can you demonstrate the postulated “tipping points” due to carbon dioxide? When did they occur?

  26. sidd says:

    Sir, thank you for your articles. May I clarify that the carbon emitted by respiration or digestion from living organisms merely recyles carbon compounds newly formed by photosynthesis, as opposed to fossil carbon release from mineral stores which have taken megayears to create and sequester.


  27. Wyo says:

    This is the first time the carbon cycle has been explained in a way that even I get it – and while I don’t hate science, it was never my best subject. Thanks for that.

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