7:46 AM CDT, May 14, 2013
Happy 400 ppm week! What’d you get me?
This past week the Earth passed a wondrous milestone: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million, a level not seen on the planet in at least two million years but probably more like ten (okay, so it hasn't hit 400 ppm at every measuring station, but in the Arctic it's actually been there for nearly a year).
Seeing as how scientists have now concluded that the safety level for CO2 levels is roughly 350 ppm, and we breezed by that rest stop in the early Nineties, 400 ppm doesn’t make all that much difference other than a nice marker for your kids to fondly dream about when we’ve reached 500 ppm and the Earth is on course for a civilization-ending six degrees centigrade rise in global average temperature.
With CO2 levels rising about 2 ppm each year, we’re roughly on course to hit 500 ppm in the next fifty years if we continue burning fossil fuels the way we’re doing now. The people knowledgeable about these kinds of things tend to think that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak in the next decade if humanity wants even a prayer of keeping the planet habitable. In order for that to happen, the entire developing world will have to skip economic development via fossil fuel extraction and burning, while those of us whittling our thumbs away at the apex of late-stage capitalism will have to stop our emissions on a dime.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. As New York Mag’s Jonathan Chait aptly points out, President Obama is well on his way to the emissions reductions he promised at Copenhagen in 2009 (not enough, but then again nothing politically palatable would be), and he still has one huge card to play. In twenty years no one is going to remember Benghazi or Boston or budget negotiations or any of the other distractions that flit by in the daily news cycle. The EPA regulations for existing power plants could be the most important component of his entire presidency, and we’ll find out within the next two years if he’s serious about climate change, and in turn, his legacy. While the Keystone pipeline remains a more potent litmus test for environmentalists (and Obama should reject it), the more powerful and important step would be for the EPA to regulate existing power plants by giving states an emissions cap, similar to a proposal from the National Resources Defense Council.
There are other signs that the world’s waking up to the utter catastrophe that lies in our immediate future. South Korea has passed the heaviest carbon price in the world. Germany’s solar power boom proves renewable energy is totally viable if the political will exists. Bill McKibben’s divestment movement continues to gain steam.
The problem is that none of this is happening fast enough. Having hit 400 ppm with emissions still climbing, it seems virtually unthinkable that the earth will avoid the 2 degree temperature increase that looks increasingly terrifying. The storms will get more powerful, the droughts will get more severe, the wildfires more devastating, sea levels will rise at least another foot this century.
Now all of that may sound rather anodyne in the abstract, but think about it this way: if you are one of these brave, foolhardly souls who has or is planning to have children, and if we continue with business as usual when it comes to burning fossil fuels, your child is virtually guaranteed to see the end of the world.
How does that sound, people my age having babies?
No equivocating on that one: If the world does not cooperate in bringing global emissions to a rapid halt and develop multiple ways to remediate carbon out of the atmosphere, your kids are going to watch the end times play out in disaster after disaster after disaster.
And you say I didn’t get you anything for 400 ppm week.
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