This past April, carbon dioxide levels rose to above 400 ppm (parts per million). This did not only happen once in that month; in fact, every day had a CO2 level of at least 400 ppm, with levels averaging for the entire month at 401.33 ppm. With this month, carbon dioxide levels have now reached as higher than they have in recorded history, which dates back 800,000 years. With CO2 levels now much higher than they have ever been, and threatening to continue this rise, humanity is being faced with the increasingly urgency of this issue; how can we mitigate the impact we are having on our environment before we begin to see more catastrophic results from our emissions?
This issue has gathered so much attention that it has even been addressed by Neil Degrasse Tyson on his show, Cosmos. In the most recent episode, he describes the way in which we are emitting carbon dioxide by saying that we have reached to point that levels in the atmosphere have only been seen previously in times of mass extinction on this planet. Considering the show’s place on television as one of the most mainstream scientific programs available, this issue has proven that it is beginning to be addressed by even the more conservative networks, like Fox.
One of the biggest issues with carbon dioxide, especially in city zones, is the effects that this deadly gas has on human health. Emissions from cars, planes, and industrial production were reported to have been causes of up to 19,000 deaths per year in Britain alone, according to a study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. With carbon dioxide levels rising to the highest levels that have been seen in recorded history, it is likely that this trend will only increase. The cause of these deaths by emissions are cancer and heart disease, two of the most deadly killers in this modern age. Comparing the deaths resulting from road accidents per year in 2010, which totaled at 1,850, to the number of deaths caused by emissions shows a startling revelation that many do not expect.
Another issue of concern with fossils fuel emissions such as carbon dioxide is the impact that they can have on crops. Though the combination of rising temperatures and increasingly long periods of heavy rain and drought are projected to decrease the production of both crops and profits. The fluctuations of both soil quality and rainfall can lead to a huge drop in production, which in turn leads to a higher cost for consumers. Higher temperatures also allow diseases to spread among plants, coffee rust being one of the main problems; even coffee is not safe. Higher prices means more strain on economies, all the way from local to global in scale.
In addition to the problems associated with agricultural production due to increased CO2 levels, there is also another threat facing farmers and consumers alike: crop nutrients. Two of the main nutrients affected by higher levels of carbon dioxide are zinc and iron, nutrients for which about 2 billion people on Earth are already deficient (that comes out to almost 30% of the global population). Iron in particular is of increased importance to women, who require a significantly greater daily intake than men, according to the NIH. Plants that go through C3 photosynthesis, which include wheat, rice, and soybeans, suffer from a significantly lower density of iron and zinc when subjected to higher levels of CO2 where they were grown. Wheat and rice, in addition to field peas, also reacted to this environment with a reduced production of protein, one of the three vital macronutrients humans need to survive. Protein is the main component of muscle tissue, and is composed of amino acids. Amino acids are vital to the human body, as they serve as a means to both grow and break down food, both of which are absolutely necessary for the human body to thrive and be healthy. Without these necessary nutrients, humanity as a whole could be facing a generation of malnourished, unhealthy youth that will have grown up on these new, nutrient-lacking crops.
With all of the consequences linked to increased carbon dioxide emissions, humanity is reaching a point at which the consequences of fossil fuel-based energy are increasingly prevalent and deadly. With the current path humanity is on, it will soon be faced with damage to crops, more deaths by exhaust, and higher prices for foods that are undeniably essential to a healthy diet.
By Joseph Chisarick