CO2 Levels Already in Danger Zone

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


toc-cover-310x250.jpg If we want to avert climate disaster we have to reduce atmospheric CO2 below present levels. Like Right Now.

This is a big change in thinking. Until recently many believed we could emit a wee bit more before calling calamity down upon ourselves and everything else. The new paper in Open Atmospheric Science Journal echoes Bill McKibben’s piece in the current Mother Jones: The Most Important Number on Earth.

The number is 350. That’s parts per million. Atmospheric CO2 is currently at 385 ppm and increasing by about 2 ppm a year from the burning of coal, oil, and gas and forests. Many thought we could get to 450 ppm before disaster. But the new research is based on improved data on Earth’s climate history and ongoing observations of change, especially in the polar regions. The researchers combined evidence of Earth’s response to past CO2 changes with recent patterns of climate changes. The results show that atmospheric CO2 has already entered a danger zone.

Coal is the largest source of atmospheric CO2 and the one that would be most practical to eliminate. The authors also suggest that reforesting cut woodlands and improving farm practices to retain soil carbon could lower atmospheric CO2 by as much as 50 ppm. They dismiss the notion of geoengineering solutions, noting the price of artificially removing 50 ppm of CO2 from the air would be about $20 trillion.

The authors conclude that moving beyond fossil fuels will require a Herculean effort. But no worse than what went into winning World War II. The greatest danger, they conclude, is continued ignorance and denial, which will make tragic consequences unavoidable.

Lead author James Hansen of Columbia sees a bright side. “Following a path that leads to a lower CO2 amount, we can alleviate a number of problems that had begun to seem inevitable, such as increased storm intensities, expanded desertification, loss of coral reefs, and loss of mountain glaciers that supply fresh water to hundreds of millions of people.”

Also good to know: We actually elected a new president promising to usher in an Age of Intelligence. Let’s exit the Age of Unequivocal & Dangerous Stupidity as fast as possible.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate