Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Global atmospheric CO2 now higher than 400ppm for the first time in millions of years

On November 11th, just a few weeks ago, the Mauna-Loa Observatory in Hawaii (which produces some of the most accurate and longest-running measurements of atmosphere carbon in the world) recorded that, of every million molecules in the atmosphere, 399.68 were carbon dioxide. The next day, November 12th, it measured 401.64 ppm of carbon dioxide.

As you know, carbon dioxide is the greatest contributing factor to the global climate change. Created through human fossil-fuel emissions, it traps heat in the atmosphere and slowly warms the globe. Of course, we're no strangers to this ongoing environmental debate that has been raging on for decades and affected millions of people all around the world. But what exactly is the significance of this 400ppm mark that we've now passed?

Putting it into perspective, the last time the planet has experienced such CO2 levels has been at least a million years ago, according to Bloomberg. This is the extreme low end of the scientific estimates; Scientific American says 23 million years ago, NASA climate Carmen Boening says 2.5-5.3 million years ago, her colleague Charles Miller says it has been nearly 25 million years since the Earth has crossed the 400ppm thresh-hold. However, one might argue that since the world is experiencing the strongest El Nino since 1997, the side effects of the extreme weather may naturally cause more CO2 emissions than normal through wildfires, etc. Climatologist Keeling partially supports this claim, saying that "the loss of CO2 from tropical forests in El Nino years is temporary as the forests tend to regrow in normal years, building back their biomass and sucking CO2 out of the air in the process", however, "the eventual recovery from this El Nino won't bring us below 400ppm, because its impact will be dwarfed by the global consumption of fossil fuels, pushing CO2 levels even higher."

At any rate, this is simply another major climate milestone added to the growing list of environmental issues before the planned Nov. 30 - Dec. 15th UN climate talks in Paris. It follows the reports that 2015 will be the hottest year ever recorded, with temperatures more than one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels - exactly halfway to the "two-degree benchmark" that global governments promised not to exceed. (the 2 degree Celsius was approved by nearly government in the world as of 2009).

The undeniable truth is that humans have never seen CO2 concentrations this high. This is uncharted territory, and that's what makes it so scary. No matter how many studies we conduct or how many reports we create, it's clear that there needs to be some sort of change in human consumption of fossil fuels and unsustainable business practices if we are to, 1) avoid crossing our self-set 2 degree benchmark, and 2) avoid the continuing trend of drastic global climate change that could lead to potentially cataclysmic results in our lifetime. We can only hope that the upcoming UN climate talks will address these issues seriously and work towards environmental and fossil fuel policy reform.

What do you think needs to be done to combat the growing issue of climate change? Are these statistic in-fact all blown out of proportion and humans don't have anything serious to fear? With all of the other issues in recent history, such as the ISIS attacks/terrorism, is climate change even an issue that's worth prioritizing on the global agenda?



Abhishek Paramasivan said...

This is a fairly interesting topic, and for me a nice change of pace seeing something other than ISIS, terrorism, and gun control in the news. I think these increased statistics are definitely something that humans should be concerned about. The 1 degree change in temperature may not seem like much but can definitely cause a huge impact with rising sea levels. Rising sea levels would cause impacts both economically and socially with coastal cities in jeopardy. ISIS is an issue at this time but I do think that global warming should not be underplayed because it can be a major issue for all nations. I believe that some steps to solve this are probably enforcing better pollution regulations and better energy development rather than fossil fuels. More specifically for the US, I believe that the US is the only developed country that has not signed the Kyoto protocol yet, which would be a tested and proven way to curb emissions.

Crystal Lee said...

I agree with Abhishek that climate change issues are not something that should be just swept to the side in favor of more "thrilling" news stories. While those news stories are undoubtedly important, climate change is equally, if not more, important. However, it is also true that governments around the globe probably feel the pressure to deal with ISIS/terrorism groups, i.e. immediate, tangible threats, more than they feel for less immediate threats, such as global warming. Furthermore, within the U.S. itself, you'll still find significant groups of people who dismiss climate change statistics as not a "real" danger to the livelihoods of real people. However, outside of conspiracy theorist circles, you'll find barely anybody who doesn't "believe" in ISIS, terrorism, and the effects that terrorism has.
Also, is it possible for the United States government to have two issues that they have to tackle at once? Capacity of our government officials aside, what about even mustering the public opinion that could lead to action by members of Congress? One possible solution, I think, is to allow the federal government to deal with the international terrorist groups while local and state governments pull themselves together and get environmental regulations passed.
Speaking of local and state governments, and focusing on their interaction with lobbyists and corporations: Jeff, you mention "unsustainable business practices" in your post, which leads me to this question: do you think that it's possible for the majority of businesses to, for once, support government regulations that would help save our Earth? Or are we doomed to go the way of Wall-E, ruining our planet until it's essentially a garbage cloud in space?

Jeffrey Song said...

Thank you for your comments!

Crystal, good question. I'm not an expert on the exact business practices/policy that are contributing to the climate change, but I doubt and would not expect any major corporation to support government regulation of their industry purely for the sake of "saving the Earth." However, if it per say became in their best interest to support said regulations, (such as through the local/state governments getting legislation passed restricting unsustainable business practices), then we could see a definite change in global fossil fuel consumption and climate change. As a result, the issue at hand becomes whether or not the politicians in charge of our nation will be able to look long-term to renewable energy sources and resist the influence of fossil-fuel conglomerates. As of now, these companies often lobby with their enormous pool of resources to block legislation restricting their business and pass legislation favoring them.

This article on priceofoil.org explains this cycle: http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-industry-influence-in-the-u-s/

Essentially, the fossil fuel pools money into Congress (combined total of around 150 million dollars during 2014) and in return Congress grants federal subsidies to these oil/gas companies (nearly 15 billion dollars in the same year). A "10,200% return on political investment." Thus, the fossil fuel industry is the undisputed major barrier to a clean energy transition in the US. Still, it's impossible to make an absolute judgement, but it sure looks like we're headed more towards WALL-E becoming our reality than saving the Earth if we keep heading down this path.