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How humans disrupted a cycle essential to all life

This is the one thing you need to understand before thinking about our options to fight climate change.

I recently read a passage from my colleague Umair Irfan that vastly improved the way I thought about how humans can fight climate change.

In a piece a few months ago, he described the carbon cycle — but in a way that helped frame virtually every other piece I read on climate change:

Using sunlight, plants and microorganisms take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. Those plants are then eaten by animals, which then convert the plants to energy and exhale carbon dioxide. Or if the plants don’t get eaten, they die and decay, putting some carbon in the soil and returning some carbon to the atmosphere.

It’s almost a closed loop, though over the course of millions of years, enough decaying plant and animal matter gradually built up in the ground to yield vast reserves of fossil fuels while reducing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere bit by bit.

Humans have breached this cycle by digging up fossil fuels and burning them, leading to carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere faster than natural systems can soak it up. This has led to a net increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up.

His piece uses this framing to describe the different methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

But I thought this passage did one thing incredibly well: It helped me build a mental model of how something worked without humans, which then helped me understand exactly what humans had disrupted.

This video is a very truncated depiction of the carbon cycle.

I highly recommend you read Umair’s piece in full, as well his piece on a recent United Nation report that says we only have 12 years to act on climate change. (It’s been three months since that report, so we’ve already lost 2 percent of that time since the story published.)

But before you do, watch the video above so you’ll have a framework with which to better understand these pieces. For more videos, subscribe to Vox’s YouTube channel.