Dangerously Beyond 350: CO2 to Remain Above 400 PPM For Most of 2015

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.

2014 Begins at 400 ppm +

(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.


The Keeling Curve

2015 Begins With CO2 Above the 400 PPM Mark


2013 CO2 Emissions Will Set Record High

A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 PPM CO2e

Scientific Hat Tip to Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ralph Keeling


World CO2 Levels Dangerously High: January Sees 399.5 ppm in First Week, Could Crack 400 Before Month-End

In speeding toward a climate cliff unlike anything seen in geological history, we continue to slam the accelerator through the floor-boards of our metaphorical ‘world civilization’ automobile… One hopes we should apply the breaks, but, in the same thought, wonders if they have already started to give out…

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From 2012 to 2013 worldwide annual CO2 levels, as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory, raced ahead by nearly 3 ppm. This break-neck pace was more than seven times faster than at any period in the observed geological record spanning hundreds of millions of years. As 2013 transitioned to 2014, the unprecedented pace of increase showed little sign of slackening with hourly average CO2 levels reaching 399.5 PPM on January 7th of this year.

Mauna Loa Early January

(Daily and hourly CO2 average readings as recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory from January 1 to January 7. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

These levels are similar to those seen last year during late April, near the peak of the annual atmospheric CO2 cycle that typically occurs during late May to early June. If this year’s pace of atmospheric CO2 increase continues, it is entirely possible that hourly, daily, or even weakly averages will exceed 403 ppm CO2 come late spring. Meanwhile, it appears possible that hourly CO2 averages will exceed 400 ppm before the end of this month.

Increasing Environmental Feedbacks Driving Higher Rate of CO2 Increase?

Though it is too early to conclude that the rate of CO2 increase has quickened, observations show rising contributions of both CO2 and methane from Earth Systems in addition to the inexorably increasing human emission. Thawing Arctic tundra, increasingly wide-spread forest fires, expanding drought zones, and ocean zones that appear to be reaching CO2 saturation points all hint at an Earth System that is both less able to absorb human CO2 emissions and more likely to release carbon (CO2 and methane) on its own.

The Arctic alone, in recent years, has been placed on the map as a major emitter of both CO2 and methane contributing enough volumes of these gasses to make it one of the world’s largest emission sources. If the Arctic were a country, it would probably rank around 4th in total global carbon emissions when compared to the world’s industrialized nations. And, unfortunately, the Arctic is likely just starting to ramp up as a carbon source (see Amplifying Feedbacks and Arctic Methane Monster Stirs).

With the human forcing so strong and the pace of Arctic warming so great, it is only a matter of time before the emissions signal coming from the Arctic becomes irrefutable to the rational observer. The question, at this point, is: has it already started to happen?

Racing Toward a Very Dangerous World

Both the quickening pace of global average CO2 increase and the observed increasing emission from the Arctic are cause for serious concern. A world that remains stable at 400 ppm is a world about 2-3 C hotter than today. Its seas are 15 to 75 feet higher. And its ability to support the kind of environments that humans are used to is radically reduced. But world CO2 levels are not stable at 400 ppm. They are racing higher at between 2.2 and, in recent years, close to 3 ppm (official average increase of 2.65 ppm for 2013) — six to seven times faster than ever before.

The Earth System has yet to fully respond to this rapid and very powerful insult.

Which brings me to this final thought as was so creatively illustrated over at the Arctic News blog:


(Image source: Arctic News)


The Keeling Curve

Arctic News


CO2 Breaks 400 PPM Daily Average on May 13, Exceeding An Extraordinarily Dangerous Level

Mauna Loa 400 ppm Daily

(Image source: Keeling Curve)

Back in early March we began to warn that CO2 levels could break 400 PPM in 2013. In April, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded hourly CO2 levels above 400 PPM for the first time in more than 4 million years. Then, two days ago, daily averages for 400 PPM CO2 were breached.

Whether May averages just below or slightly above 400 PPM CO2 remains to be seen. But it is certainly possible that weekly and even monthly averages of CO2 break this severely high threshold this year. Almost certainly, a month or two of 2014 will see CO2 averages over 400 PPM. By 2015 or 2016, yearly averages for CO2 will exceed that extraordinarily dangerous level.

This massive jump to 400 PPM CO2 from pre-industrial averages is disturbing and alarming for many reasons. The first of which is the heating impact CO2 has on the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Paleoclimate data, a world at 400 PPM CO2 is, on average, between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius hotter. Even worse, temperatures in the Arctic average about 14 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. This increase in temperatures results in radical alterations to the world’s climate, pushes major sea level rises, and results in massive volumes of ice melted. It is doubtful that most of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets could survive such a long-term assault of extreme high temperatures. And it is worth noting that human beings as we know them have never occupied a world without ice.

But even as bad as maintaining CO2 levels at 400 parts per million may sound, worse are the potential feedbacks such a high initial spike of atmospheric carbon may kick off. Vast stores of methane lay locked in the world’s tundra and oceans. Even a small fraction of these gasses liberated by human-caused warming would serve to add more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, further increasing the warming already in store. In addition, as the ice sheets recede, more dark ocean and land features are exposed to sunlight. This loss of albedo results in increased solar heat absorption, further increasing global temperatures. So past climate may not be a perfect analogue to what we may be setting in place. Instead, it may be the launching point for even worse changes.

At 400 parts per million there is the danger that such terrible consequences may well become permanent features of the world in the coming decades and centuries. The current danger is somewhat low due to the fact that, if we were to rapidly reduce emissions now, we might be able to secure a livable climate and let the Earth’s natural processes reduce CO2 levels to 350 PPM or lower over the course of about a century. However, there is risk that the current human forcing is enough, even now, to generate a powerful response from the Earth’s climate and environment. One strong enough to result in CO2 levels stabilizing at the current level or even increasing somewhat due to these natural feedbacks. In order for this to happen, global climate would have to be much more sensitive than scientists currently estimate. But the fact is that, at current CO2 levels, such a dangerous feedback is possible, if not likely.

What is even more maddening, though, is the fact that human CO2 emissions and global CO2 levels are rising at a break-neck pace. Just last year, May CO2 levels peaked at an average of 396.8 PPM. This year’s levels are likely to be 3 PPM+ higher than last year. Global averages have been rising at a rate of 2.2 PPM per year or more. So at the current rate of CO2 rise and factoring in the rate of increased CO2 emissions, it is likely that 450 PPM could be breached in about 20 years. This pace of increase is faster than at any time visible in the geological past by at least a factor of 5. In short, it is likely that Earth has never undergone such a radically rapid increase of CO2.

At 450 PPM CO2, the world is far more likely to experience the kind of powerful global feedbacks noted above. And with world CO2 emissions continuing to increase, it is fair to say that we are in the era of this dangerous climate change now. Which it is why it is very important to recognize that with each passing year of CO2 emission increases and failure to reduce overall world carbon emissions, we pass deeper and deeper into an extraordinarily dangerous territory. Pushes to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to the ‘safe range’ of 350 PPM must be pursued with great speed and effort if we are to preserve hope of a livable climate for human beings beyond the first half of this century.


Keeling Curve

What Does a World at 400 Parts Per Million CO2 Look Like Long-Term?

In the give and take of the current global warming debate, it’s easy to lose track of context. Thankfully, we have a geological history to use as a window to our past. And by using that window we can see what the world will look like if CO2 levels stay where they are for long periods of time. In this first exploration, we’ll look at current CO2 levels — around 400 parts per million to give a decent idea of how the world will change if we don’t undertake the challenge of reducing these high levels of greenhouse gasses.

When Was the Last Time CO2 Levels Were This High?

It is important to note that relatively small changes in CO2 can lead to ample warming. During the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago, CO2 levels were stable in a range between 180 and 210 parts per million. At the ice age’s cessation, CO2 levels rose to 280 parts per million. This relatively small rise of about 70 parts per million had dramatic consequences. Temperatures rose by about 5.5 degrees Celcius (10 degrees Fahrenheit).

Today, industrial activity and fossil fuel consumption has resulted in nearly 120 parts per million of additional CO2 added to the atmosphere. This addition has occurred over a very short time-scale when compared to past changes in CO2 levels and additions of 2-3 parts per million continue each year.

However, assuming CO2 were to stabilize. Assuming that, somehow, the world is able to reign in emissions enough to keep CO2 levels steady at 400 parts per million, what would happen?

As mentioned above, geological history gives us a basic notion. Long ago, about 3 million years ago, CO2 levels were steady in a range of 365-410 parts per million. This geological era was called the Pliocene.

What Did the Pliocene Look Like?

What would seem like a rather small difference in CO2 levels had dramatic effects. The first was that sea levels were 75 feet higher than they are currently today. The second was that average temperatures around the world were 3-4 degrees Celsius warmer (5.4-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were ice free at CO2 levels of 400 parts per million and temperatures 3 degrees Celsius warmer than today. Arctic temperatures were much warmer — 8-16 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

This is the kind of world we can expect if CO2 levels are sustained at 400 parts per million.

Why Do Climate Models Under-predict Sea Level and Temperature Rise?

These historic temperature increases are much greater than those predicted by current climate models. The reason is that these models have not been able to take into account all the feedbacks to CO2 forcing that are intrinsic to the climate system. Models, by their nature, are simplifications and are only as good as the data that goes into them. But looking at geological history, it is quite clear that current climate models underestimate temperature and sea level rise given current levels of CO2.

How Fast Will Climate Change at a Constant 400 Parts Per Million CO2?

If, somehow, the world were able to stabilize CO2 at 400 parts per million, how fast would the world see 75 foot sea levels and 3-4 degree Celsius temperature increases? In short, this is the one million dollar question. Fossil fuel special interests would like us to believe that these changes would be gradual and slow to happen. In fact, many fossil fuel interests would have us believe that climate change isn’t happening at all, or, if it is, that its impacts will be far milder than the geological record would indicate. Sadly, the fossil fuel companies are misguiding themselves and the rest of us for their own short-term economic gain.

Paleoclimate data points to rapid, non-linear, responses to increases in CO2 levels. In some cases, temperatures have rebalanced over the course of decades and normally during periods of centuries or less. In some of the most radical cases, the changes have occurred on time scales measuring as few as ten years. Given the rapid rise of CO2 to its current state and likely feedbacks to result, we could expect to see a majority of that 75 feet in 300-600 years. That means severe consequences could ramp up before the end of this century pushing sea levels by ten to fifteen feet or more. You won’t see the IPCC posting a report that makes this kind of a statement, but it certainly is a potential, even if CO2 levels stabilize at ‘only’ 400 parts per million.

Most likely, current predictions of 1-2 meters of sea level rise by the end of this century is still a conservative forecast even for what would happen in a world where CO2 levels remain stable at 400 ppm. Even at constant CO2 levels of 400 ppm, we are looking at sea level rises in the range of 1.5-4.6 meters per century or more.

Business As Usual Estimates Place CO2 at Around 1000 Parts Per Million By the End of This Century; What Would That World Look Like?

Unfortunately, the world has yet to adopt serious policies that curtail greenhouse gas emission or reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. And, even more concerning, world carbon sinks are beginning to contribute their own greenhouse gasses to the world climate system. Unless very rapid emissions reduction regimes are put into place, the world of the Pliocene, as strange and radically different as it may seem, will look like paradise compared to a world that reaches 600, 800, 0r 1000 parts per million CO2. And it is this increasing likelihood that we will explore in another blog.

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