CO2 rising: The world's greatest environmental challenge

CO2 rising: The world’s greatest environmental challenge

Tyler Volk

Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press 2008 | 223pp | ?14.95 (HB) ISBN 9780262220835

Reviewed by John Davidson 

CO2 is necessary in the atmosphere. Its natural levels absorb and re-radiate the sun’s energy and it is a vital component in the earth’s carbon cycle. 


In CO2 rising  Tyler Volk explains the carbon cycle by giving carbon atoms ’personalities’ and tracing the paths they take during their global circuits. He follows one carbon atom, called Dave, into a leaf of barley, then into an alcohol molecule in a glass of beer, through the human bloodstream, and then back into the air. He also compares the fluxes of carbon brought into the biosphere naturally with those created by the combustion of fossil fuels (called Coalleen, Oiliver and Methaniel) and explains why the latter are responsible for rising temperatures. 

Volk outlines projections of future levels of CO2; predicts which energy systems and processes will power civilisation in the future; and considers the enormous global variations in climate, energy use and per capita CO2 emissions. 

Facts about global carbon fluxes may convince readers of the need for action, but what about policy makers? In a situation where the nature and speed of change is uncertain, people always tend to want to wait and see, especially as some seem set to gain while others lose.  

In acute emergencies, like the current credit crunch, people are motivated to respond, yet do so with insufficient coordination and too much self-interest. In chronic emergencies like global warming, coordinated responses are even more difficult to achieve.  

What we need is a much more urgent response to global warming than we have attempted to date, before the chronic becomes the acute.