For 2015, CO2 levels will remain above the dangerous 400 parts per million level for almost 2/3 of the year. A perilous new record for a human-warmed world.
The last time global CO2 levels averaged above 400 parts per million was more than 3 million years ago during the Pliocene. A period that was just beginning to see the dawn of humankind (Australopithecus emerged about 2.5 million years ago). It was a world of 25-75 foot higher seas. A world where much of Greenland and West Antarctica was ice free. A world that took hundreds of thousands of years to settle into its climate patterns.
(A bad start of 2015 — CO2 levels on January 1st exceeded 400 PPM. Most of the year will see levels in excess of this dangerously high atmospheric value. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)
But the current human tool-using species that is now warming the Earth so drastically would have to wait for about 2.8 million more years and for far cooler climes to develop. And that species would set conditions for a rapid shift to climate states not seen for 3 million years in just decades through a hellish pace of fossil fuel burning. For in just one century we’ve propelled ourselves back to that deep time. Back to a world climate state that is entirely alien to what we, and so many other animals, are accustomed to.
For this year, human fossil fuel emissions will push 2015 to reach or exceed those 400 ppm levels for around 7-8 months running. By 2016, it’s possible that 300 part per million levels — the ones that dominated our environment for most of the 20th Century — will be little more than a melancholy memory as humans face off against a series of increasingly dangerous geophysical changes.
All set off by the inexorable burning of fossil fuels. A malpractice that simply must stop.
An All Too Steep Ramp-up Toward The Hothouse
Current human fossil fuel burning coupled with a few, still somewhat contained, environmental carbon feedbacks are enough to push an annual atmospheric CO2 increase of 2.2 parts per million each year. It’s a pace of initial greenhouse gas heat forcing never before seen in all of Earth’s geological past — even during the greatest global hothouse extinction events. The fruits of dumping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each and every year.
(Rate of carbon emission at more than 30 billion tons of CO2 each year vs the PETM [Note that WeatherUnderground has erroneously labeled CO2 as Carbon in the graph]– which was the most recent hothouse extinction 55 million years ago. It’s enough to push an atmospheric temperature rise on the scale of a mass extinction over the course of decades rather than millenia. It’s also worth noting that with CO2 emissions at 36 gigatons in 2013 [vs the above graph results from 2010] and CO2e emissions just shy of 50 gigatons this trajectory is even steeper than the graph depicts. Image source: WeatherUnderground.)
As a result, if current rates of burning continue or increase, we will see 450 parts per million levels well exceeded within about two decades. And that threshold will undeniably lock in at least 2 C worth of warming together with a growing carbon feedback from the Earth System itself.
484 PPM CO2e For 2015
But this drastic pace of atmospheric greenhouse gas additions doesn’t tell the whole story. For if you add up all the other gasses humans have dumped into the atmosphere, all the methane and HCFs, all the industrial chemicals, you end up with a CO2 equivalent number (CO2e) far greater than the present CO2 measure. And that CO2e measure is set to hit 484 parts per million this year (With a nearly 50 gigaton annual increase in CO2e gasses each year). A level that, if it correlates with past climates, will push warming by 1.9 C this century and 3.8 C after the entire Earth System responds. A level not seen in at least 13 million years.
A rather terrible situation to say the least. For at these levels, even the great ice sheets of Antarctica proper were much reduced and sea levels were 85-120 feet higher than they are today. And continuing to burn begs the very worst hothouse extinction consequences that come from wrecking the world’s oceans.
Very Hard Work to Get Back to 350 PPM
Near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century Dr. James Hansen, former head of GISS at NASA advised the world community that the likely safe level of global CO2 was below 350 parts per million. This assertion flew in the face of some in the international community who were pushing for an established ‘safe’ level of 450 parts per million and below. A level, of course, which would allow for the burning of quite a bit more of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.
But Hansen wouldn’t compromise. He felt it would be a betrayal to future generations. To his grandchildren. To all our grandchildren. So he set the safe limit at 350 parts per million with the caveat that we may need to reduce it further.
In 2008, during the year Hansen set the 350 parts per million level, CO2 levels peaked at around 386 parts per million. For 2015, just 7 years later, levels will peak at around 404 parts per million. A rampant increase directly in the wrong direction.
In order for rates of CO2 increase to begin to taper off, the world simply must stop burning so much in the way of fossil fuels. And even a full cessation of fossil fuel use would still result in some emissions unless both farming and construction were altered to reduce carbon emissions. Beyond this, atmospheric carbon capture through various methods to include fixing carbon capture and storage facilities to biomass generation and other land use and chemical based techniques are the most likely to be effective.
Such a transition and change is as difficult as it is necessary. For the world as we know it simply cannot continue along its current path. Hansen was right and we should have listened 7 years ago. We should have listened in 1988 at his first major climate hearing. But we didn’t. And so valuable time was wasted.
Let’s not make the same mistake in 2015.
Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ralph Keeling