For the first time since homo sapiens evolved, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have struck 400 parts per million (ppm) due to burning fossil fuels. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that readings of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii hit the symbolic number on Thursday and are expected to continue rising in coming years. The last time concentrations were this high for a sustained period was 4-5 million years ago when sea levels were 5-40 meters higher than today and the poles were 10 degrees Celsius hotter. During this epoch, forests grew along the shores of the Arctic Ocean and coral reefs were almost wholly absent.
“At the beginning of industrialization the concentration of CO2 was just 280ppm,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “We must hope that the world crossing this milestone will bring about awareness of the scientific reality of climate change and how human society should deal with the challenge.”
Concentrations of carbon dioxide fluctuate depending on the season with May usually showing the highest numbers, followed by a slight dip. However, scientists say that concentrations are expected to hit 400ppm more frequently over the next few years, until eventually concentrations will remain above the milestone until the world starts slashing emissions and decades after (carbon stays in the atmosphere for 50-200 years). Last year, concentrations actually hit 400ppm, but that was only in portions of the northern hemisphere. While scientists say that hitting 400ppm is largely a symbolic milestone, it’s nonetheless illustrative of how much carbon has been pumped into the atmosphere in the last 150 years.
For most of human history, concentrations of carbon dioxide fluctuated between 180ppm and 300ppm. But the Industrial Revolution led to widespread burning of fossil fuels for energy, which released a deluge of carbon into the atmosphere. Additional carbon was emitted by the destruction of forests and other ecosystems. These emissions have raised global temperatures by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolutions leading to melting glaciers, sea level rise, vanishing Arctic sea ice, species migrations, and increases in extreme weather such as droughts and floods.
Hurricane Sandy storm surge on the New Jersey shore. Research shows that while climate change may not cause more hurricanes overall, it’s likely to lead to increasingly intense hurricanes. Rising sea levels also contribute to the damage inflicted by hurricanes such as as Sandy. Photo by: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard.
“Hundreds of billions of tons of fossil-fuel pollution have poisoned our climate, bringing to our world increasingly extreme floods, droughts, and wildfires,” Brad Johnson, campaign manager with Forecast the Facts said in a statement. “We must respond with urgent resolve to end this uncontrolled experiment on our only home.”
Globally, nations have pledged to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), however pledges and action to date have not succeeded in cutting global greenhouse gas emissions which continue to rise year-after-year. Both the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have warned that if business-as-usual continues, the world is headed towards a total climate catastrophe, devastating coastal cities, global agriculture, and leading to mass extinction. Some scientists have even warned that global warming could take down human civilization as we know it.
“We’re in new territory for human beings—it’s been millions of years since there’s been this much carbon in the atmosphere,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, which campaigns for the world to move the dial on carbon concentrations down to 350 ppm. “The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it.”
Failed rains in Somalia in 2011 left carcasses of dead sheep and goats across the landscape. The failed rains, combined with instability, caused a famine that killed over a quarter of a million people. Research has shown that warming temperatures in the ocean may be increasing the chances of failed rains in East Africa, worsening droughts and food insecurity. Photo by: Oxfam East Africa/Creative Commons 2.0.
(05/08/2013) Weather patterns around the globe are getting weirder and weirder: heat waves and record snow storms in Spring, blasts of Arctic air followed by sudden summer, record deluges and then drought.
(05/06/2013) The Hawaiian silversword (Argyroxyphium sandwicense), a beautiful, spiny plant from the volcanic Hawaiian highlands may not survive the ravages of climate change, according to a new study in Global Change Biology. An unmistakable plant, the silversword has long, sword-shaped leaves covered in silver hair and beautiful flowering stalks that may tower to a height of three meters.
(05/06/2013) A new report estimates that 258,000 people died in 2011 during a famine in Somalia, the worst of such events in 25 years and a number at least double the highest estimations during the crisis. Over half of the victims, around 133,000, were children five and under. The report, by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), argues that the international community reacted too late and too little to stem the mass starvation brought on by government instability, conflict, high food prices, and failed rains, the last of which has been linked to climate change by some scientists.
(05/01/2013) The cities of San Francisco and Seattle have pulled their money out of fossil fuel companies, taking a climate divestment campaign from college campuses to local government. The campaign group 350.org said on Thursday it had won commitments from a total of 10 cities and towns to divest from 200 of leading fossil fuel companies.
(04/30/2013) Tribal groups in Earth’s largest rainforest are already being affected by shifts wrought by climate change, reports a paper published last week in the British journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The paper, which is based on a collection of interviews conducted with indigenous leaders in the Brazilian Amazon, says that native populations are reporting shifts in precipitation patterns, humidity, river levels, temperature, and fire and agricultural cycles. These shifts, measured against celestial timing used by indigenous groups, are affecting traditional ways of life that date back thousands of years.
(04/29/2013) The environment is a public good. We all share and depend on clean water, a stable atmosphere, and abundant biodiversity for survival, not to mention health and societal well-being. But under our current global economy, industries can often destroy and pollute the environment—degrading public health and communities—without paying adequate compensation to the public good. Economists call this process “externalizing costs,” i.e. the cost of environmental degradation in many cases is borne by society, instead of the companies that cause it. A new report from TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), conducted by Trucost, highlights the scale of the problem: unpriced natural capital (i.e. that which is not taken into account by the global market) was worth $7.3 trillion in 2009, equal to 13 percent of that year’s global economic output.
(04/29/2013) In Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, Dr. John J. Berger deconstructs the climate change denialists’ myths in simple, easy-to-read terms. According to the Pew Research Center: “Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) [Americans] say there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, up six points since November 2011 and 12 points since 2009.” Yet implementing national-level climate change mitigation legislation is not occurring in the U.S.
(04/25/2013) Climate change is in part to blame for rising conflict and crime in Nigeria, according to the president’s National Security Advisor, Colonel Sambo Dasuki. Speaking to the House Committee on Climate Change, Dasuki said that the rise of Boko Haram insurgents, a jihadist group in northern Nigeria, and worsening crime was linked to climate change reports All Africa.
(04/24/2013) Some eight billion tonnes of greenhouse gases could be kept out of the atmosphere if China sticks to a deal with the United Nation’s Montreal Protocol to eliminate the production of hydro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs). In return for phasing out HCFC production by 2030, the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol on Substances has promised China of funding up to $385 million.
(04/22/2013) The world could be heading for a major economic crisis as stock markets inflate an investment bubble in fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars, according to leading economists. “The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed,” said Lord (Nicholas) Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. He said the risk was “very big indeed” and that almost all investors and regulators were failing to address it.
(04/22/2013) While the month of March saw colder-than-average temperatures across a wide-swath of the northern hemisphere—including the U.S., southern Canada, Europe, and northern Asia—globally, it was the tenth warmest March on record in the last 134 years, putting it in the top 7 percent.
(04/21/2013) From 1971 to 2000, the world’s land areas were the warmest they have been in at least 1,400 years, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience. The massive new study, involving 80 researchers from around the world with the Past Global Changes (PAGES) group, is the first to look at continental temperature changes over two thousand years, providing insights into regional climatic changes from the Roman Empire to the modern day. According to the data, Earth’s land masses were generally cooling until anthropogenic climate change reversed the long-term pattern in the late-19th Century.
(04/17/2013) Four young explorers including American actor Ezra Miller have planted a flag on the seabed at the north pole and demanded the region is declared a global sanctuary. The expedition, organized by Greenpeace, saw the flag lowered in a time capsule that contained the signatures of nearly 3 million people who are calling for a ban on exploitation in the region.
(04/10/2013) Climate change will lead to bumpier flights caused by increased mid-air turbulence, according to an analysis by scientists of the impact of global warming on weather systems over the next four decades. The increasing air turbulence results from the impact of climate change on the jet streams, the fast, mile-wide winds that whistle round the planet at the same altitude as airliners. The shifting of the jet stream over Europe has also been blamed for the UK’s wash-out summer in 2012 and frozen spring this year.