Too Much of a Good Thing: Carbon Dioxide, Building Block of Life, Best in Moderation

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

AngierA typical American car, Dr. Alley said, belches a pound of carbon dioxide through its tailpipe for every mile driven. A typical American power plant that burns coal to generate the electricity that lights up your home, your computer and your vibrating toothbrush releases more than 20 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the sky each day, said Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.

And too bad, when you pick up your luggage after your flight from Chicago to Salt Lake City, that you can’t also collect the 2,000 pounds that is your portion of the CO2 exhaust expelled en route by the burning of jet fuel. But it’s too late. The buoyant, odorless, colorless carbon dioxide molecules have dispersed into their surroundings, where wind and currents will stir them more or less evenly through the nitrogen and oxygen gases of which our atmosphere is overwhelmingly composed, and where the bouncing triplets will remain, on average, for 1,000 years. Researchers emphasize the importance of understanding the basic character of carbon dioxide and related greenhouse gases, and the fundamental role such gases have played in making our planet a Goldilocks haven, fit for life. But just as a pinch of salt can bring out the flavor in food but a fistful will ruin it, so too can excess CO2 transform our world into a two-thumbs-down stew.

More here.