Carbon dioxide, that treacherous compound is wreaking havoc upon our atmosphere and our very way of life. How did it become so prominent and how can we stop it, before it further impacts our economy, society and environment? First, let’s look a bit deeper at its fundamental parts. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is made up of one part carbon and two parts oxygen. Carbon–the building block of fertile soils, necessary for food production–is essential to the continued existence of humanity. Oxygen, that stuff that you and I breathe, is another essential component to life. When combined they become CO2, which is a pollutant at a level too great to be absorbed within the atmosphere. Climate scientists believe that ideal ratio is 350 parts per million (PPM) of CO2 in the atmosphere.

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Photo courtesy of 350.org.

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.” – James Hansen, former head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies

The powerful cousin, methane (CH4), is released from regular biological functions. When cows burp, CO2 and CH4 are released; when fuel is burned to propel our cars or heat our homes – CO2 is released; when you and I breathe – CO2 is released. The question becomes how do we collectively decrease the volume of CO2 being released into the atmosphere while still meeting the needs of people?

Many once believed that the solution to pollution was dilution. That belief system resulted in rivers catching on fire and eventually the founding of Earth Day and establishment of the Clean Water Act. Dilution didn’t work to solve earlier environmental problems, and it will not solve the problem of excess CO2 in the atmosphere either. It is a problem we all share and all must be responsible for solving.

Garrett Hardin addressed this very issue within Tragedy of the Commons, theorizing that unregulated, collective stewardship is impossible, and such an effort would ultimately result in over-exploitation of resources. It is why we see litter in national parks and overgrazing in public range lands. It is also why we see excess CO2 emissions being released into our atmosphere. The consumers and emitters are operating within an unregulated market – be it formal regulation set by a governing body or social mores that have evolved within and among communities.

Our neighbors, our communities are what root us and give us a sense of what is socially acceptable in that place. When we look each other in the eye we remember the responsibility that we have to each other. The responsibility to not take more than one’s fair share, to not dump waste upstream from our neighbor’s home or farm.

We must not demonize emitters either though. Remember that CO2 is the natural by-product of biological processes. Cows burping eventually become milk and meat, products that please and nourish us. Which means that, going back to the initial question, we are all responsible; the coal-fired power plants and everyone that uses the electricity produced therein, the farmers who produce nourishing food, and everyone that eats. The over-saturation of CO2 in our atmosphere is everyone’s problem, and everyone’s responsibility to address.