As debate over regulations proposed by the Obama Administration today to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide inevitably becomes shrill, you might keep in mind the image above, and six others in the gallery below.
They dramatize an important fact: Our atmosphere is not an endless dumping ground. In fact, when seen from the vantage of space, it looks like not much more than a thin blue line.
By 2030, the proposed regulations would cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels. That cut would result in 2 billion fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere each year — an amount equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States.
But the ambitiousness of the plan depends quite a lot on how you look at it. U.S. carbon emissions have actually been declining without the proposed rules, and we’ve made a quite a lot of progress. In fact, as of 2013, energy-related emissions were already nearly 10 percent below 2005 levels, thanks to a switch from coal to natural gas for producing electricity, as well as gains in energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy, and the Great Recession of 2007-2008.
I’ll have more to say about this in a post later in the week. But for now, I thought I’d take this visual approach (make sure to enlarge the images):
I think you’ll agree that the images are stunning in their own right. But I think they also can help us wrap our minds and hearts around a salient point: In a relatively brief period of time, we humans have managed to fundamentally alter the chemistry of one of our planetary life support systems: the Earth’s atmosphere. In so doing, we’re running increasing risks from climate change.
So, just how big a step forward is the Obama Administration proposing to take? How much of a difference will it make to the atmosphere? More about that in a day or so.
But for a preview, click on the thumbnail at right from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It shows projections for world energy-related carbon dioxide emissions out to 2040, for the developed nations (OECD) and still developing nations (non-OECD).
We still have a lot of work to do.