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Published on May 5th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley


410 PPM & Rising — CO2 Levels Reach Dangerous Levels

May 5th, 2018 by  

Carbon Dioxide & You — A Cautionary Tale

High atop Mauna Loa on the island of Hawai’i, there is an observatory scientists use to study the cosmos. At 14,000 feet above sea level, it has a clearer view of the heavens than most places on Earth. (It is a neighbor of Kilauea, the volcano that erupted this week after a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the island.) The observatory is also an ideal place to monitor the Earth’s atmosphere in a place with no local pollution from large cities. One of the instruments installed there measures the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.

Keeling Curve Carbon Dioxide

For years, carbon dioxide levels have been monitored by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where Ralph Keeling is the director of the  CO2 program. He plots the data, which has come to be known as the Keeling Curve, shown above. It shows that the concentration of carbon dioxide was above 410 parts per million for the entire month of April this year. The level has risen above 410 ppm before for a day or two, but never for an entire month — at least, not since people first began being collecting the data.

The sawtooth pattern indicates the levels vary over the course of a year due to seasonal variations and other factors, but the overall trend is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically upward. On average, the concentration of carbon dioxide has been rising about 2.5 ppm per year, but the rate of change has accelerated since 2010.

“It’s another milestone in the upward increase in CO2 over time,” Keeling tells the Washington Post. “It puts us closer to some targets we don’t really want to get to, like getting over 450 or 500 ppm. That’s pretty much dangerous territory.”

How dangerous? CO2 levels were around 280 ppm in 1880, when the Industrial Revolution was getting started. Today, they are nearly 50% higher. “But wait!” the climate skeptics will cry. “CO2 levels have been higher in the past and the world is still here.” That’s true. During the mid-Pliocene warm period about 3 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels were 400 parts per million or above. But here’s the kicker. Ocean levels back then were more than 60 feet higher then than they are today. Think about that for a moment.

People like Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, pooh pooh the data, claiming people will simply adapt to changes in the environment. Well, no, Rexie, they won’t. Biological adaptation occurs over long periods of time. The pace of change today means humans would have to adapt to living in a world that is significantly hotter within a generation or two. Call it a century at most. Which means, Rex, your great grandchildren will likely bear the brunt of your stupidity. It is unlikely they will think kindly of you when that happens.

In the past few weeks, the highest April temperatures ever recorded were set in Pakistan — 50.2°C, or 122.4°F, according to Sky News.

Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, says, “As a scientist, what concerns me the most is not that we have passed yet another round-number threshold but what this continued rise actually means: that we are continuing full speed ahead with an unprecedented experiment with our planet, the only home we have.”

Let’s put this in perspective. You are walking down the street one day when you see a house on fire. Do you:

A. Go running down the street screaming about Hillary’s emails?

B. Write a letter to the editor complaining about illegal immigrants?

C. Run home to grab your assault rifle and put on your NRA hat?

D. Call the fire department?

(Hint for Donald Trump supporters: D is the correct answer.)

Ralph Keeling says the Earth is not yet destined for average global temperatures that are 2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, but “We don’t have a lot of headroom. It’s not going to be a sudden breakthrough, either. We’re just moving further and further into dangerous territory.”

If you are offended by any of my remarks, good. It’s long past time for all of us to awake from our Koch-induced stupor and realize we are smack in the middle of a full-blown existential crisis.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. We have to stop treating our world as a communal toilet. Yes, young people urinating in the wrong bathroom at school is a horrendous injustice that must be stopped — right after we figure out how to avoid the largest act of mass suicide since Jim Jones led his followers to their death in Guyana in 1978 — a much larger one than that, in fact. In the final analysis, there is little advantage to being in a cult if all the members are dead.

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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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