The Mauna Loa 400

Last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded, for the first time ever, a daily average carbon dioxide level in the Earth’s atmosphere above 400 ppm (parts per million).  150 years ago, when people first started burning fossil fuel in a big way, the level was 280 ppm.

That’s FORTY-ONE PER CENT more carbon!  We did that!


We’re not talking 2 percent or 5 percent – we’re talking 41%.  That’s big.  That’s a huge change in the chemistry of the atmosphere.  That much new carbon dioxide cannot help but change how the atmosphere works. 

It is why we are seeing more energy in weather patterns, why 2012 was the hottest year on record, and why half of the Arctic ice cap has melted.  What else should we expect if we change the entire planetary system by that much?

We can no longer avoid climate change.  It’s going to happen.  It will happen even if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow morning, because there is a 20 to 30-year time lag between the introduction of new carbon and the increased warming it causes.  It takes about a generation for hotter global temperatures to show up.  This means that the climate changes we are now seeing are not the result of the carbon we have emitted in the last few years – not the result of the new 400 ppm – but the result of carbon emitted by our parents.  The new 400 ppm we have emitted will show up during the lives of our children.  They are going to see a lot more climate chaos than we ever will.

But I think they will be all right.  I think our children will find a way to adapt to the new 400 ppm.  It will be hard for them – there will be droughts and floods, bigger storms and hotter days, habitat destruction, extinctions, perhaps famines – but I think they will make it through.  The Arctic ice cap won’t survive, but they will.  Over a century or so the 400 ppm will begin to drop back to a more livable level, say 350 ppm. 

But that’s only if we keep from going past 400 ppm – only if we stop burning fossil fuel tomorrow morning.  If we take the billions we’re now investing in tar sands, shale oil, fracking, mountaintop removal, and the Keystone XL pipeline, and invest instead in wind, solar, geothermal, and sustainable bio fuels, we can still make it through – I think. 

If we decide, NOW, to build a future that plants, animals, and people can live in, our children may have a place to have their own children.

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