The Precedence of Carbon

By Kolby Hoagland | June 26, 2013

Today, President Obama outlined his plan to mitigate climate change by limiting the emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels to the atmosphere. The plan that President Obama and others in charge (primarily in Europe) have laid out aims to reduce the ever climbing concentration of atmospheric carbon. Academia and researchers are very confident in their understanding of the influence of carbon dioxide and other GHGs emitted into the atmosphere, despite the dispute from pundits in media.

One academic, Dr. Galen McKinley at the University of Wisconsin- Madison developed a website to help those of us without atmospheric science degrees but a strong interest in how humans affect the carbon cycle to understand how our actions directly affect climate change.  The website enables perusers to tweak the foundations of carbon’s life on earth, carbon sinks and carbon sources.

The Applet portion of McKinley’s website allows users to run different scenarios on how humanity affects the sequestration of carbon on earth into sinks and the emission from sources into the atmosphere. McKinley’s website runs variable scenarios that the user controls and provides an estimated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (ppm)in the atmosphere and the presumed average global temperature change according to the provided scenario. After running multiple carbon uptake and emissions scenarios on McKinley’s website, it was striking to grasp the great potential of mitigating climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels and implamenting agriculture that increases “land uptake” of carbon.

The photo below is a screenshot of an optimistic scenario where we assumed that bioenergy increasingly replaces fossil energy and our land is managed to sequester more carbon. In the scenario, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peeks at roughly 500 ppm in 2065. The purpose of the Applet on McKinley’s website is not meant to run scenarios that will exactly predict the futre, but rather to help us understand the magnitude of changing the current momentum of our changing climate and the importance of why we must do something to decelerate that momentum.

Carbon Cycle Scenario