Global Warming: It's All About Carbon The 12th Annual Webby Awards are announced tomorrow. Robert Krulwich — and his team of Odd Todd and BPP Video Producer Win Rosenfeld — are nominated in the Best Use of Animation/Motion Graphics category for their feature on carbon.

Global Warming: It's All About Carbon

Global Warming: It's All About Carbon

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The 12th Annual Webby Awards are announced tomorrow. Robert Krulwich — and his team of Odd Todd and BPP Video Producer Win Rosenfeld — are nominated in the Best Use of Animation/Motion Graphics category for their feature on carbon.


Tomorrow the 12th annual Webby Awards will be announced. You know, the Webbys!



PESCA: They're also known as the Oscars of the Internet, or the Pritzker Prize, for you architecture enthusiasts. NPR is up for eight awards, including...

MARTIN: Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! in the humor category. NPR's series, This I Believe, and Project Song, were also nominated.

PESCA: The NPR politics site got a nod in the politics category. This very sentence, in the field of self-referential blather, and received an honorary recognition in the radio category.

MARTIN: An honorary recognition is a special designation given to certain nominees. According to the Webby Awards' website, the honoree recognition is a, quote, "testament to usable usability and functionality, and a handful of nominees excel across the board. To be selected among the best is an incredible achievement worthy of praise and perhaps a little bragging."

PESCA: I don't know if it's one of those in an earlier ceremony we handed it out, but we do think that it deserves a little bragging. So, along with the overall site, NPR music, NPR podcasts, and the blog, my cancer, they have all been given honoree recognition.

MARTIN: And esteemed NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich is on the list, too, of course. Robert, along with cartoonist Odd Todd, and BPP video producer Win Rosenfeld, is an honoree in the best use of animation motion graphics for their video, "Global Warming: It's All about Carbon."

PESCA: It's part of the NPR's Climate Connection series, NPR's yearlong series about how the Earth's changing climate is shaping everyday lives. The video, along with a radio story, kicked off the series. You can see the video on our website, but first, Robert's radio story of a single, very important atom.

ROBERT KRULWICH: To get to the heart of the global-warming story, the very heart of it, it turns out that the scientific explanation hangs on the behavior of one very particular atom.

Dr. DANIEL G. NOCERA (Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): That atom being carbon.

KRULWICH: The more you know about carbon, says Professor Dan Nocera, who teaches chemistry at MIT, the more you'll know about global warming. Carbon is the key. First, because it's everywhere. The lead in a lead pencil? Really carbon. Diamonds? Carbon. Professor Nocera...

Dr. NOCERA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: He's - well, mostly he's water, but if I squeeze him with a sponge and got all the water out of Dan, well, his dry weight, the non-water part, is what part carbon?

Dr. NOCERA: It's a big percentage. Boy, I don't know that number.

KRULWICH: Well, we looked it up, and all dry, Dan's about two-thirds carbon.

Dr. NOCERA: Yeah. Carbon is the central element of life.

KRULWICH: So much so that everything that is alive, and I mean everything, a housefly, a rooster, a tiger, from the smallest yeast to the biggest thing you can imagine...

(Soundbite of whale calls)

KRULWICH: This is a singing whale. Inside every cell of every creature, bar none, if you look you will find, carbon, and why? Because, says science writer Natalie Angier, carbon is the duct tape of life. It's what holds living things together. That's carbon's job.

Dr. NOCERA: Carbon next to carbon next to carbon are holding hands.

KRULWICH: In a limp sort of way? Or in a firm-grip sort of way?

Dr. NOCERA: In a grim grip sort of way.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Grab your partner, don't let go. Grab them hard and do-si-do.

KRULWICH: If you think of carbon atoms at, say, a square dance, not that you would, but why not? You are looking at a very social atom which likes to grab hold of a partner, and not just one partner, but sometimes four simultaneously.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) OK, carbons, grab a friend, promenade and grab again. Keep on grabbing, form a chain, hold on tight and shout your name. Carbon!

KRULWICH: The thing to remember here is that when a carbon atom grabs hold of another atom...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Grab your partner!

KRULWICH: Like that. You do it with real force, like a really tight handshake, so there's energy in the bond.

Dr. NOCERA: That's right. That's the nature of the grip or the bond. It's stored right in that - stored right in that firm handshake.

KRULWICH: So what holds the atoms together then, and what holds creatures together, in the end, is energy, but now here's the surprise. When a creature dies, the atoms inside still hold on, says MIT professor Donald Sadoway.

Dr. DONALD R. SADOWAY (Materials Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The idea is that those bonds are strong and they remain strong. They don't require...

KRULWICH: Even in death?

Dr. SADOWAY: Yes. Yes.

KRULWICH: So, a long, long time ago there was a sea, it was a shallow sea in what we now call the Middle East, and in that sea, there were little creatures called zoaplankton, kind of like jellyfish, and they would swim around all day long filled with carbon atoms gripped inside, and then they died, and their corpses upon corpses upon corpses, millions of years worth, sank to the bottom of the sea and got squeezed into a mush.

Dr. SADOWAY: But didn't get so mushed that it gave up its handholding with other carbon atoms. That's why it's called fossil fuels. Fossils, sort of - the fossil of decaying corpses of plants and living things got pressed into oil.

KRULWICH: Oil, yes. So oil, then, is ancient life, but it's liquefied?

Dr. SADOWAY: That's right.

KRULWICH: But if the energy is still in there, now the question is, how do you get the energy out? Well, if you can make a bond, you can break a bond. We do this all the time, you just don't realize it. Set a log on fire, the fire excites the carbon atoms inside the log, and they break their connections.

(Soundbite of fire crackling)

Dr. SADOWAY: So, you're really just freeing that carbon from all of its bonds, its handholding. It's the releasing the grip.

KRULWICH: And as the atoms unclasp and switch around, they release energy in the form of heat, which is why you get warm when you sit by a fire. Or here's another form of bond breaking, eat a carrot.

(Soundbite of chewing)

KRULWICH: Carrots have carbon locked inside, but when the carrot gets into your stomach, your digestive juices break down the bonds, and release calories.

Dr. SADOWAY: Calorie is a measure of energy, and that helps you get around, that powers you.

KRULWICH: Same thing happens when you put a spark to gasoline.

(Soundbite of car starting)

KRULWICH: That excites the carbon atoms, breaks the bonds, releases energy, and off you go. So, we break carbon bonds all the time, and every time we do the waste product is the same. Whether it's a fire, a carrot, or an engine, when you break carbon you get carbon dioxide.

Dr. SADOWAY: And guess what, when you burn coal, you get the same thing.

KRULWICH: And this isn't an accident. Carbon deep down, yes, is a very social atom. It doesn't like ever, ever being alone.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: The instant its bonds are broken it immediately seeks a new mate.

Dr. SADOWAY: Immediately, that's right.

KRULWICH: And whenever it can, whenever possible, what carbon really wants, what makes it most stable, most settled, is to bond permanently with oxygen.

Dr. SADOWAY: Oxygen is a very happy mate for carbon.

KRULWICH: And not just one oxygen. It likes two. Carbon is a polygamist. One carbon plus two oxygens, CO2. That's the perfect union.

Dr. SADOWAY: That relationship of carbon's lifestyle with oxygen is so happy that it is incredibly stable.

KRULWICH: So, once carbon finds two oxygens, it clings to them fiercely. Once CO2 is formed, it's very, very hard to pry apart.

Dr. SADOWAY: Made in heaven. Yeah. It's for a long time.

KRULWICH: So, the more we break those carbon bonds, the more we form CO2 bonds. It's all about the bonds, says Professor Sadoway.

Dr. SADOWAY: Absolutely. It's all about bonds. It's about making bonds, and breaking bonds. It's all about the bond.

(Soundbite of movie "James Bond")

Mr. SEAN CONNERY: (As James Bond) Bond, James Bond.

KRULWICH: No. Not that "Bond," but bonds do matter. One could argue that civilization began when man learned to tame fire, learned how to break carbon bonds, and those fires then became furnaces, and then factories, and engines breaking more carbon bonds. Then people got cars, and planes, and appliances breaking more carbon bonds. And as people on earth get richer, they use more and more and more carbon, and when they break bonds we get more and more and more carbon dioxide.

Dr. SADOWAY: The richer you are the more carbon dioxide you're making, because you're using more carbon, because you're using more energy.

KRULWICH: And carbon that's been hiding for eons deep in the Earth gets pulled to the surface.

Dr. SADOWAY: Now we've freed it, and it's out there, and it's in our oceans, it's in our sky, and it's in our ground.

KRULWICH: And because CO2 doesn't dissolve or go away, the oceans can absorb some, trees can absorb some, but we're making more than our trees and oceans can handle, so we end up with more and more CO2 in the air.

Dr. SADOWAY: That's scientific fact. We know scientists have been monitoring this for years, and the world is filling up with carbon dioxide.

KRULWICH: And the problem is when sunshine hits the Earth and then bounces back up to the sky, it now bumps into all those new carbon dioxide molecules floating up there in the air, which warms those molecules, which then warms the air, which warms the oceans, which melts the glaciers, which raises the seas, and that's when you get a greenhouse effect, classic global warming, not to mention global-warming movies.

(Soundbite of movie "The Day After Tomorrow")

Mr. TERRY RHOADS: (As L.A. Anchorman) We could see a wind-driven storm surge that could threaten the entire eastern seaboard...

KRULWICH: But even if you think this is unbelievable, which it is, still, says Professor Nocera...

Dr. NOCERA: We should be worrying about this carbon dioxide...

KRULWICH: Because we can't afford to get too much warmer. So, what are our options? Well, we can't stop people from using carbon, we can't stop people from wanting to get richer, and most of all we can't stop a carbon atom from behaving like a carbon atom.

Dr. NOCERA: Because that's what the laws of nature say, and it does what it's supposed to do.

KRULWICH: But while carbon's nature is fixed, people happily can be flexible. There may be ways, new ways, to use less carbon, or capture carbon dioxide, but they will not be cheap.

Dr. NOCERA: It's going to be really tough, scientifically and engineering-wise. I think we can do it, but it's going to be the will of the people how much they want to do it.

KRULWICH: Because in the end, global warming is less about science than it is about choice. Carbon can't choose. People can. Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

PESCA: Robert Krulwich does work out of the New York bureau, and sometimes he auditions his pieces or shows us a rough cut, and I remember seeing that in its germinal stages, and a cute little carbon atom was played by Jason Robards, which I thought was an odd choice until he recast it. The man's a genius. And you can see that video that accompanies this story at our website, It was given an honoree recognition in this year's Webby Awards, which will be announced tomorrow.

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