We are now standing on the threshold of the carbon age. Throughout the rest of our lifetimes, and far into the future as global warming takes hold, we will progressively measure our actions in the stuff.
Already the rules for the new age are beginning to emerge. We are beginning to learn that we should reduce our "carbon footprint" - the amount of greenhouse gases we each produce - to tread more lightly on the Earth. Companies are taking up "carbon trading". Ministers are even starting to consider carbon rationing (except that they dare not use the words), where each of us will be entitled to cause only a limited, and diminishing, amount of pollution. It has all come a long way since the element was known mainly as the "lead" in a pencil.
Carbon - which combines so readily with other elements that it is known to form nearly 10 million different compounds - is the most important building block of life.
We exhale it with every breath, eat it in every meal. And, since the Industrial Revolution, we have used it, laid down over eons in underground "fossil fuels" - coal, oil and gas - to power our ever more prosperous and mobile lives.
Yet it is our very use of these fuels and the felling of forests that are causing our carbon crisis. Each emits carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Thanks to us, concentrations of the gas are higher than they have been at any time in the past 650,000 years, and they are rising. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps some of the energy that reaches Earth from the sun, preventing it from escaping back into space; thus, like an invisible blanket, it warms the planet. We know this happens because natural levels of the gas keep in enough heat to make the world habitable - without it, ours would be a freezing planet. It is little more than common sense that adding more carbon dioxide will make the blanket thicker, heating the world up more.
The warming effect of the gas was first pointed out in 1827 by the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Fourier. And on Christmas Eve 1896w Svante Arrhenius, a depressed 35-year-old Swedish chemist trying to take his mind off the collapse of his marriage to his beautiful research assistant, sat down and started a year-long mathematical calculation. This concluded that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise global temperatures by some 5C to 6C.
And ever since, the basic physics has never been seriously challenged. So why the much-touted scientific debate over global warming? The truth is that there really isn't one. A recent survey of 928 scientific papers found not one that disputed the reality of climate change. Last year, the scientific academies of the G8 countries, plus India, China and Brazil, issued a joint statement confirming it.
Yet a handful of much-publicised contrarians create the illusion of a debate. Few are climatologists. Even fewer publish any research. Some openly admit to being funded by the oil industry.