Episode 1: It's All About Carbon To get to the heart of the global warming story, you've got to look past the polar bears and melting glaciers. Because the scientific explanation for climate change depends to a very large degree on the behavior of one very particular atom: carbon. In five animated episodes, Robert Krulwich explains why it's all about carbon.

Episode 1: It's All About Carbon

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


Climate change - it is the most far-reaching and complicated issue of our day. It is measured in eons and in molecules. It is now a staple of political discourse in this country and abroad.

AL GORE: Our world faces a true planetary emergency. I know the phrase sounds shrill, and I know it's a challenge to the moral imagination to see and feel and understand that the entire relationship between humanity and our planet has been radically altered.

GEORGE W: Addressing global climate change will require a sustained effort over many generations. My approach recognizes that economic growth is the solution, not the problem. Because a nation that grows its economy is a nation that can afford investments and new technologies.

TONY BLAIR: This issue is the definition of global interdependence. We have to act together. This is an international challenge. And in the end, only an international solution will meet it and overcome it.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: If you are against taking action on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, your political base will melt away as surely as the polar icecaps. I can guarantee you that. You will become a political penguin on a smaller and smaller ice floe that is drifting out to sea. Goodbye, my little friend, that's what's going to happen.


SIEGEL: For Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Blair, President Bush and Al Gore, the debate is no longer over the reality of global climate change, it's about what we can and should do about it. To help us understand that debate, NPR has joined with National Geographic to launch Climate Connections. It's a year-long exploration of how people are changing climate and how climate changes people.

BLOCK: Each month, we'll take you to a different part of the world to hear about different approaches to this global problem. And we'll consider how matters far away can affect life here in the United States. We'll also explore the connections between Earth's past and present. We thought it best to start small, so we asked NPR's Robert Krulwich to kick off our climate coverage with the 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.

DAN NOCERA: That atom being carbon.

KRULWICH: Carbon is the key. First, because it's everywhere. The lead in a lead pencil, really carbon. Diamonds? Carbon. Professor Nocera...


KRULWICH: He's, well, mostly he's water. But if I squeeze him...


KRULWICH: Like a sponge, got all the water out of Dan, well, his dry weight, the non-water part is what part carbon?

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

KRULWICH: Well. we looked it up. An all-dry Dan is about two-thirds carbon.

NOCERA: Yup. 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...


KRULWICH: ...from the smallest beast to the biggest thing you could imagine. This is a singing whale. Inside every cell of every creature, bar none, if you look you will find...


NOCERA: Carbon.

KRULWICH: 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.

NOCERA: Carbon next to carbon next to carbon, all holding hands.

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

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


KRULWICH: Unidentified Man: And promenade.



KRULWICH: Unidentified Man: Grab your partner.

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

NOCERA: That's right. That's the nature of the grip or the bond. It's stored right now - stored 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.

DONALD SADOWAY: The idea is that those bonds are strong and they remain strong. They don't require...

KRULWICH: Even in death.

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 zooplankton. 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.

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

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

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.


KRULWICH: Set a log on fire. The fire excites the carbon atoms inside the log and they break their connections.

SADOWAY: So you're really just freeing that carbon from its - all of its bonds, its hand-holding. 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.

POST: Or here's another form of bond breaking. Eat a carrot.


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

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.


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


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

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.


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 oxygen, CO2. That's the perfect union.

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.

SADOWAY: Made in heaven, yup. That'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 Prof. Sadoway.

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


SEAN CONNERY: Bond, James Bond.

KRULWICH: 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.

NOCERA: The richer you are, the more carbon dioxide you are making because you are using more carbon, because you are using more energy.

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

NOCERA: 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.

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

KRULWICH: Unidentified Man #2: We could see a wind-driven storm surge that could threaten the entire eastern seaboard...


KRULWICH: Unidentified Man #3: This is unbelievable.


KRULWICH: ...which it is, still says Professor Nocera...

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.

NOCERA: Because that's what the laws of nature say. And it does what's it 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.

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: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

SIEGEL: You can see Robert Krulwich's animated history of the carbon atom at npr.org/climate. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, NPR's Renee Montagne visits the tiny English village of Coalbrookdale, where people learn to harness the power of fossil fuels and put the world on a path to global warming.

BLOCK: Finally, you may have specific questions about climate change. And now is your chance to get them answered. Here's what you should do: call our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED question line at this number 202-898-2395. That number again is 202-898-2395. Remember, we're looking for succinct questions, not opinions. And at the end of the week, we'll have answers to some of your questions.

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