Carbon Consciousness

Hundreds of millions of years ago, tiny ocean creatures converted atmospheric and oceanic carbon into the organic stuff of their cells, and then sank to the sea floor, where eventually they turned into oil and natural gas. A similar process turned swamp plants into coal. These were the gifts of energy that powered the Industrial Revolution. In 2007, the Western world got serious about returning that gift for a refund.

Why now? In part because the science of global climate change has gotten harder to argue with. Also, it finally seems possible to break our carbon dependence without breaking our economy. Although biofuels are looking more and more like a dead end—not least because they now appear to be taking food out of the mouths of the world’s poorest people—there are a host of other promising developments. Market mechanisms like the European Union’s cap-and-trade system, and private offset vendors, offer a minimally traumatic path to a lower-carbon lifestyle. Meanwhile, alternative technologies, from safer nuclear reactors to hybrid cars, are becoming more feasible. Silicon Valley and its private-equity funders have started investing in green companies. Hollywood is also lending its money and, more important, its fame. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Natalie Portman have been featured in climate-change publicity campaigns.

But the best reason to go green is green, and it folds. Higher prices for oil and natural gas present an ugly dilemma. We can rely more heavily on coal, with its attendant heavy air pollution; or we can stop snapping carbon bonds to harvest their stored energy. Carbon will remain the building block of our bodies, but we can now—just barely—imagine a day when it will no longer be the cornerstone of our economy.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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