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We Are Living In a Carbon World

An Interview with Eric Roston on The Carbon Age

The Carbon Age SOURCE: Walker & Company Carbon fuels evolutionary systems and climate change—and the story of this element cuts across a wide swath of scientific fields, underscoring much of the research that’s changing the way we think about everyday life.

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Carbon, often hailed as the “building block of life,” is an element with a remarkable natural history. Tracing carbon from its interstellar origins to combustion in our gas tanks and muscles is a multi-billion-year story. But as Eric Roston explains in the subtitle to his first book, The Carbon Age, the six-proton atom may be “life’s core element,” but it has simultaneously become “civilization’s greatest threat.” The story of carbon is the story of some of the biggest scientific discoveries and controversies of the last two centuries, from evolutionary biology to synthetic biology, from the industrial revolution to climate change.

Roston, a former correspondent for Time, is a senior associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. In his narrative, the story of carbon connects these various areas of science and also draws them closer together. Among his intriguing conclusions along the way: the more scientists understand about the element, the more they must work across disciplinary boundaries.

Carbon fuels evolutionary systems and climate change. But it also underscores much of the science that’s changing the way we think about everyday life. Roston joined us at Science Progress to talk about how a close look at carbon can redraw the lines between fields as seemingly disparate as geology and economics. This interview has been edited.

Andrew Plemmons Pratt, Science Progress: In the prologue, you quote Shirley Ann Jackson, President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who has said that, “a number of important questions are only able to be addressed at the nexus of the life sciences with the physical, computational, and information sciences.” And you later write that the biological and computational sciences are actually evolving into sort of an “uberscience.” How will these convergences of scientific research tell us more about the natural world, and will they actually be able to help us make smarter policy solutions?

Eric Roston: We’re learning about the natural world at a clip that is just accelerating and it will help us make smarter policy solutions. So, the answer to the question is actually, yes. Now what’s extremely noteworthy is something we’ve seen in the last year: the scientific community really getting its act together and realizing that they need to play a bigger role in policy. If they are not communicating to the public and to policymakers and not informing everyone what their observations of the natural world are, then our policy will not be based on what is occurring in the natural world.

This is something I think about frequently. There was an article from Physics Today in June 2007 and about Dwight Eisenhower and his scientists. Shortly before his death in 1969, he was telling a friend of his, “You know Jim, this bunch of scientists was one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seemed to be there to help the country and not just themselves.” There is this element that scientists are curious about: how the world works and how to try and explain it to the best of our ability. What is important is the linkage between studying the natural world and making smarter policy initiatives. You introduced me in connection my work at the Nicholas Institute; we actually exist to take science and help bring it to Washington and inform policy. So this is a linkage that is growing.

SP: In the book you talk with people who are working across a huge swath of scientific research. Do you now find yourself working with these same groups, coming together at these same intersections through your work with the Nicholas Institute?

Roston: Yes. One thing we are seeing in universities—possibly more than any other place—is the emergence of new disciplines and the emergence of new categories of thought. And the Carbon Age is my attempt to say: “Look, we divide the world in our experience into administrative and intellectual categories of thought that are dozens—in some cases hundreds of years old. And the science we understand now no longer justifies a lot of these sorts of categories.”

The book is also an attempt to say, “Alright look, lets just take a breather here for a second. Lets peel back some of these categories, look at something very fundamental, and see if we can’t come up with a way to rethink the way we think about the world.” If you retreat to carbon, which is the central structural element of all life and civilization, and you build up from the central element of our civilization, then you understand how energy and climate and personal health and industrial materials are all far more interrelated and interconnected than we give them credit for.

SP: People probably hear about carbon in the mainstream media most often in the context of climate change. There is some recent survey data from the Pew Research Center indicating that the proportion of U.S. citizens who say that there is solid evidence of global warming has dropped since the beginning of last year and is about where it was at the beginning of the summer of 2006. And less than half of the U.S. population, only 47 percent, believe that humans cause global warming. As someone who is an expert on carbon, how do you go about explaining that humans are the cause of global warming?

Eric Roston: The easiest answer is in the IPCC report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the consortium of 3,000 scientists that over the past twenty years has produced four reviews of everything we know about climate science. If you go to Chapter 9 of the Working Group 1 IPCC 2007 report, you have the physical science basis of climate change. There are two crucial figures: figures 9.4 and 9.5 [PowerPoint].

Figure 9.5

Figure 9.4

Figure 9.5 shows the amount of climate change from natural forcings. The two biggest natural forcings are generally volcanoes, first and foremost, and solar variability. If you graph only what we know about CO2 coming from volcanoes and solar variability, you can’t even begin to really see an increase in temperature. There is a tremendous gap in this graph between observed natural forcings and observed temperature increases. So in the graph above this you add anthropogenic forcings or man-made forcings, and once you add the man-made gases on top of these natural forcings, it is identical to the temperature rise.

So science moves forward and is emboldened by correlations: correlations from fields that have nothing to do with each other, correlations from people who have never spoken, correlations from within and outside of disciplines. In general, this is where the strength comes from. We have seen the rises in temperature, we know these natural forcings have occurred, and we know these unnatural forcings have occurred and they match—the predictions match—and that’s what makes science trustworthy.

SP: You’ve straddled a huge breadth of scientific research and drawn connections between evolutionary biology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and climate change. The link between them, the thread, is carbon. Can you to talk about how this particular link can actually help us communicate more effectively in public debates over how to teach evolution or climate change?

Roston: It’s a good question, and goes to the very heart of this project. I used to write for Time magazine and this book emerged after I’ve been there for a couple years, and I did spend a lot of time covering energy and climate. And since it’s a general news magazine, you end up covering a lot of things. Then I began to ask myself, “How can I make sense of everything I am covering?”

At the end of 2003, climate change was picking up steam in the private sector; energy prices were on the rise; the price of oil had begun its steady ascent; Lance Armstrong was riding to victory every year on a $6,500 carbon-fiber bicycle; and the Atkins, low-carb diet was careening its way toward a spectacular blowout. So, then I said, “It’s going to be carbon”—that’s going to be my tool for probing all of these things I’ve covered.

I wasn’t a science writer before this; I was a business and technology journalist who had had a lot of questions about science. Once I went back to the carbon atom, as a unifying explainer, from there I ended up writing a book—much to my surprise. I had no idea what this book was going to look like—three years of research that took me in this direction.

So once you have the carbon atom, it bonds with other carbon atoms out in space, they bond with other kinds of atoms, you accrete into big clouds and condense into big stars and planets, and it turns into a book about old earth geology and the origin of life and evolution, and evolution’s effect on the global carbon cycle—and that’s how the book took its shape.

I also realize that there is no reason to call these scientific disciplines what scientists call them. Who cares what scientists call them? (I’ll get in trouble for saying that.) I am holding here the National SMART Grant Department of Education Fields of Study list of majors for students who can apply for these grants. This is a very long list. In fact, this list became infamous in early 2006 when it became clear that the Department of Education removed environmental biology from this list; since then it has been added on. You go through this list, and unless you are majoring in one of these things, there is no reason for guys like you and I to distinguish between biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, molecular biochemistry, molecular biophysics, photobiology, structural biology…and it goes on and on. So what I decided to do was say, “Hey, let’s skip this and talk about it like we are not scientists and just call it ‘carbon science.’”

Follow the carbon out of the volcano, down into the plant, into our stomach; we pass away, and bacteria go out of us and back into the atmosphere, and it eventually washes into the ocean back into the sediment and is subducted into the earth’s mantel. By following the carbon it allows you to restructure, to give a dynamic rather than a static picture of this cycle of how the world works and how various parts of experience correlate.

SP: You write: “Anthropogenic global warming erases the line between ‘biological’ and ‘geological’ timescales as vividly as anything else humans do on this planet.” You also have a great quote from Scott Wing of the Smithsonian Institute who says, “We are plate tectonics.” How do we have to rethink these distinctions between disciplines and between ideas of natural and unnatural planetary events and natural and unnatural disruptions to the carbon cycle?

Roston: One thing that happens if you start to challenge the way we think about things is you see the bigger picture. You see how behaviors in certain parts of the world and in certain industries affect the whole world. There was a headline from a magazine from a couple years ago, a teaser from a front section to a series of book reviews about economics books: “Guess what the hottest new science fad is? Here’s a hint: It’s not geology.” That’s great; that’s a perfectly acceptable teaser to get you into this series of book reviews about economics. The problem is not with the headline; the problem is that we do not see economics or geology as the same thing.

What are people going to think fifty years from now when they look back and say this is a civilization of people completely bored out of their skulls about geology, yet who excavated carbon minerals out of the ground to make their economy run? Economics is geology—it is powered by rocks we pull out of the ground. And the practical repercussions of drawing this distinction between economics and geology is that we only have a price tag of what we get out of the ground, so when we burn that into atmospheric gas, it no longer has any value to the economy—that’s changing, and that’s where federal and international carbon emissions trading policy is going to solve this question.

SP: You have another other great metaphor, when you’re discussing the Stern report and other economic analyses of climate change, and you write that, “Chronic illness is to personal income what global warming is to economic output.” So in the present, we’re really going to have to think critically about a future where we continue to separate geology and economics. Keeping them in separate bins is not going to get us to the right place.

Roston: That is not going to get us to the right place; that is absolutely correct. And there have been a lot of interesting papers by a number of economists around the country and around the world in the last couple of years. Here is how I would frame an answer to this question: economists have a much harder job than geophysicists and geochemists have studying Earth’s carbon cycle. The Earth is a very complicated thing, but it is consistent. Carbon has always flowed through the Earth in the same way; plate tectonics have always shaped the continents. You can always build models that are very powerful because of these Earth processes.

Economists have to do two things: they have to build models that predict how groups of people will behave, and no one knows how to do that with the same precision that geophysicists can do their work. So economists are in this unenviable position of having to build a model on top of the science model, and that adds more variables into the mix and into their analyses.

For me it’s a little weird that so many people doubt climate science, but economists have as much influence as they do. Because when you look at it from this perspective, economists have a much harder job to do, and I don’t envy them, and I’m not putting them down because I work with economists and they are some of the smartest people I know working on some of the hardest problems ever conceived. In the last year or two, you have some people like Martin Weitzmen at Harvard University saying maybe neoclassical economics actually is not suited to a problem as big as climate change. Global warming is a unique geological event.

How do scientists and economists think about it differently? There is a huge gap between how scientists and economists think about climate and I think it’s because they don’t talk to each other as much as you would think. At the center of the discussion that they are not having enough of is the central question of climate change: What does the current generation owe to the future? How do we value the future? Literally, it is a variable in an equation that economists use in cost-benefit analyses to determine how much a climate change policy will cost.

You alluded to the Stern report. The big debate in economics over the last two years has been over how the Stern report broke with economic tradition by choosing a variable in this equation that places a very high value on the future. And because of that, the Stern report has a recommendation that says we should do as much as possible now because it will be cheaper to act now then to wait and let later, richer generations deal with it. That idea is entering the public sphere slowly, but it has not gotten to policy makers yet.

SP: Some people who work in energy and climate policy talk about the “technology trap,” the idea that the solution to climate change is breakthrough technology like hydrogen-powered cars. How do we need to think about science and how do we need to think about technology to get us out of this mess?

Roston: Since there has never been anything like climate change—with the exception of the threat of nuclear war—this is an “all hands on deck” affair. We need to fundamentally change the way we behave in order to have what will be interpreted by future generations as a real attempt at dealing with climate change. I think it’s easy to fall into the technology trap or fall into any little trap along the way that makes climate change seem like something you can parcel out from one aspect of our experience, from one aspect of our national governance, when in fact we really have to reach for every possible technology that might work. One area of conflict: there are a number of firms and scientists who are trying to experiment with pouring iron into the ocean so that it catalyzes biological activity and draws carbon from the atmosphere.

SP: A geoengineering solution?

Roston: Yes. A lot of marine biologists are conducting research showing that this can have negative effects; this can have no net gain; this can add carbon to the atmosphere through the air-sea interaction and the transport of carbon in between them. I read all the papers that come out, and I’ve talked to some of the people who run these companies, and it is easy to come to the conclusion that we need to try everything and that businesses as usual will alter the climate in places that people have settled for tens of thousands of years and make them no longer good places to have settlements. I think that scale gets lost in the noise.

SP: What’s important to remember about carbon when people are thinking about energy or environmental policy?

Roston: You can tell a big story; you can tell a single story about our experience by looking at carbon. As I said earlier, energy and climate and personal health and pharmaceuticals and industrial materials and all these topics that we treat as stove-pipe categories all become episodes of this grand story of the carbon cycle. As a book, I hope people enjoy it. I spent a lot of time taking this material and trying to make it fun and easy to read. I hope it is an organizing tool for helping people think about the way we think about things.

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