search slide
search slide
pages bottom

400 ppm of CO2 was just another line in the sand, and we’re not stopping there

We’ve blown past another unpleasant climate milestone on behalf of our planet. At the end of September, the planet is supposed to be at a yearly low point in atmospheric CO2 concentrations after a summer of green leafy things sucking up the CO2 and breathing out oxygen. (Most of the people and most of the plants are in the Northern Hemisphere, which means our summer is basically the one that matters. Sorry, everyone else.) But this year, the entire planet has hovered above 400 ppm of CO2 with no indication that we’ll for some reason experience a precipitous drop. It’s not because we’re running out of trees. It’s because we’re putting more and more carbon dioxide in the air.


No, there’s no huge tipping point where 399 ppm would have been A-OK but now 400 is climate apocalypse. It’s not like that. Four hundred is just another number we really didn’t want to reach. Four hundred was a place that some optimistic folks thought, if we all really pulled together, we could get our carbon emissions to level off. The models where everyone immediately quit dumping any carbon into the atmosphere would have meant a net global temperature increase of “only” a couple degrees Celsius.

But it’s about more than absolute CO2 levels. It’s about area under the curve. Carbon emitted today stays in the atmosphere for decades. New research accounting for this year’s El Niño and its impact on CO2 concentrations just came out, and it predicts that humans will probably not see an atmosphere that has less than 400 ppm of CO2 again, at least within our lifetimes. Ralph Keeling of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography thinks the change is permanent: that we’ll never see atmospheric CO2 again, ever.

We’ve been getting readings of 400 ppm or higher since 2013, and the last holdout climate observatory at the South Pole finally reported that its atmospheric CO2 readings had risen to 400 ppm in May of this year. Now it’s looking more like we’re going to end up at 500 within a few decades, because we keep on emitting more and more CO2.

I’m not here to argue about the science. The science is settled. But because it’s a pretty swirly rainbow picture, please observe the granularity we had for CO2 monitoring back in 2006:

We have no well-articulated precedent for dealing with the attendant warming. Even if we as a species quit driving our cars and heating our homes today, the temperature would still continue to rise by a degree or so until it leveled off several generations hence. The models have become less and less optimistic as the scientific community is disabused of the notion that anyone else gives a damn about this. Now we’re staring down the barrel of three, four, five degrees Celsius warmer: terra incognita for mankind. We talk about climate change as if it’s in the future, but we’re seeing rising seas, weather extremes and climate drift now. Clearly it’ll be business as usual until something tangible forces our hand.

For a while Silicon Valley went gaga about the notion of “disrupting” the status quo. But that bubbly techno-optimism seems to have fizzled out, and not least where it concerns green tech, a term with problems all its own. Why? It’s because so far nobody’s shiny carbon-capture widgets can actually deal with the scope of the problems we face. You can’t just throw gadgetry at human bureaucracy. (Well, you could, but you might get arrested.) Iron filings in the ocean won’t make petroleum any less attractive.

That’s actually part of the problem. The onus for climate change absolutely cannot be on the consumer. The consumer has so little power as an individual, and they certainly won’t unite as a whole to voice a single, principled argument against the companies that fuel their cars and keep their lights on. Changing our light bulbs to spiral ones is supposed to suck protons out of the acidifying oceans? Take your canvas bags to the supermarket? What price domestic lifestyle changes on the short term when the petroleum industry doesn’t have to mind its CO2 emissions?

Consumers won’t sacrifice their standard of living for the idea of some displaced Third World person somewhere. That’s where all our consumer goods are manufactured, and those nations are the ones that stand to be hardest hit by climate change: the island countries like Indonesia, the low-lying river deltas in Vietnam and Bangladesh. Toothless laws will do no good, but so far there’s been no good way to decrease carbon emissions without cheating someone. We blew off Paris and Kyoto. Nobody will consent to cap and trade. We’re running out of options.

Carbon assets still in the ground were worth some $27 trillion in 2012. To follow scientific warnings and quit piping them out would mean sacrificing the profit of whatever we left down there. Corporations have one purpose: to enrich shareholders (some rare 501(c)3s excluded). No company is going to act against its self-interest and quit extracting that resource.

Scientists and politicians are being timid because they rightly don’t think there’s any chance that calling out industry will actually lead to any change. It’s learned helplessness, because since we ceded personhood to corporations, they’ve risen to relative dominance in politics and the ecosystem alike. Nothing else changes its environment on the scale we humans do. And we need cheap energy to sustain our societies.

The combined impact of the natural gas, electricity, and HVAC sectors is between a quarter and a third of global carbon emissions, depending on who you ask. Think about this. We could go all-renewable in our residential electric and HVAC infrastructure, change nothing else — no changes to agriculture, manufacturing, the service industry, nothing — and still lop off almost a quarter of our global carbon emissions. But the sheer magnitude of the changes we’d have to make is itself discouraging. Face it: the threat of a hundred million climate refugees isn’t enough to shake us out of our carbon rut, so why would polar bears make the difference? Between lobbyists, NIMBYism, and the financial cost of changing infrastructure, environmentalism is dead in the water.

Maybe it’s time to accept the sunk cost of putting the rest of our carbon budget into the atmosphere and start thinking about ways to actively scrub it out at scale, and what we’d do with the resulting mess of CO2. Maybe it’s not techno-optimism we need. Maybe we need a healthy dose of techno-cynicism. Or maybe we should just plan to send it all to Mars on Elon Musk’s new BFR and use it there to prop up the atmosphere so plants can grow, so we can terraform it into Earth 2.0.

At a certain point you start wondering whether anyone’s listening at all. Climate change denialists, you are the reason we can’t have nice things. Now: Let’s everyone start running around in a circle like our hair is on fire, shall we?


Leave a Reply

Captcha image