In the late 1980s, say circa 1988, in a prepared statement to the South Carolina
State Board of Health and Environmental Control, I compared the burning of fossil fuels
to the Earth as smoking cigarettes is to humans. I think this analogy remains relevant today.
Concerns about increases in atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentrations leading to global
warming/climate change had been growing in the scientific community for decades, but it was not
until the late 1980s that these concerns began to be expressed as public warnings.
Having grown up during the 1950s and 60s, I was aware of the wide-spread extent of smoking
tobacco products. Smoking was heavily promoted in all forms of advertising and in movies and
television stories. The link between smoking and lung cancer was scientifically identified in
the 1920s and strongly confirmed in the 1950s. A war of scientific research funded by tobacco
product companies followed in attempt to discredit and prevent control on smoking. Decades of
wasted time, resources, and human life resulted.
We dispose about ninety percent of all our pollutants directly into the atmosphere! In expressing
my analogy, I was making the comparison of smoke damaging human lungs with combustion products damaging
the Earth’s lungs, the atmosphere. I was trying to get my point across to the medical doctors on the board
and within the agency. I was also warning scientists, law-makers, and regulators that accomplishing any
control upon CO2 emissions would be long and hard fought.
Smoking tobacco evolved during a time that the human environment was filled with unpleasant odors.
Burning tobacco helped mask these odors as we still do today by lighting a match in a bathroom. Although
humans, like other animals, have a natural aversion to breathing smoke, smoking tobacco seemed benign
compared to the large quantities of smoke ingested from heating and cooking fires which could kill. It was
not until much of the human population had become hooked on smoking that we learned that it contained the
addictive narcotic, nicotine.
Burning fossil fuels has its addictive narcotic, cheap energy. The Industrial Revolution exponentially
increased our demand for energy and established the mining, processing, and distribution of fossil fuels as the
low-cost source for energy. Today we are addicted to this cheap energy. Although there is very strong evidence
that burning fossil fuels is damaging Earth’s lung, we lie to ourselves and say it is not so, rather that kicking
I am not a climate scientist. However, I am an environmental systems engineer, and I understand the vital role
CO2 plays in our atmosphere. We measure CO2 emissions using large quantities (million metric tons). Such large
numbers have little meaning to an individual human. The number that is most important is the concentration of CO2
in the atmosphere. There is no reasonable doubt today that burning of fossil fuels is rapidly increasing the
concentration of atmospheric CO2.
Why is atmospheric CO2 so very important? First, essentially all life on Earth is dependent upon atmospheric CO2.
CO2 is essential to photosynthesis. It is the substance upon which life feeds! Second, there is very little CO2 in the
atmosphere. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 parts per million (ppm) or 0.028 percent.
By 2018, the concentration was 410 ppm, an increase of nearly 50 percent. Increasing atmospheric CO2 is like depressing the
gas pedal of our environmental and ecological system. The faster we go, the greater the risk of catastrophic outcomes. The
heating of the Earth due to the greenhouse effect is only one of the catastrophes that will occur. Ecological catastrophes will
develop that we have only begun to ponder. The Earth will survive, but will humanity?