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


CO2 Continues Dangerous Rise, Hits 400.2 Parts Per Million in Late February


(Daily and hourly CO2 readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory from February 20 to 26. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

More than two months before typical annual maximum in late May or early June, global average CO2 levels have again breached the dangerous 400 part per million threshold.

On February 26th, Mauna Loa’s CO2 observatory recorded three hourly readings at or above 400 parts per million with a peak value of 400.2 ppm. The reading comes just ten months after weekly CO2 values exceeded 400 parts per million during May of 2013, the first time in more than 3 million years that atmospheric levels have been so high.

At the current annual rate of increase, we can expect CO2 levels to peak around 401.5 to 403 parts per million sometime in late May of this year. Last year’s average annual rate of increase was 2.6 parts per million over 2012. If 2014 were to match this, abnormally rapid, pace, daily and hourly measures could exceed peak values of 403 parts per million over the next two months.

A Steepening Rise of Concentration

From the early 1960s the pace of atmospheric CO2 increase was about 1 part per million each year. As human population, fossil fuel consumption, and industrialized agriculture expanded, annual rates of CO2 increase up-ticked to about 1.5 parts per million from 1980 to 2000 and again to slightly above 2 parts per million each year from 2000 to the present. Due to a number of factors including an expected continued increase in fossil fuel burning, the exhaustion of various carbon sinks around the globe, expected changes to ocean and land based photosynthetic life, and the release of various global carbon stores due to amplifying feedbacks related to human-caused warming, rates of CO2 increase are expected to be as much as 7 parts per million or more each year by the middle of this century.


(An ever-steepening curve. CO2 levels from 1700 to the present. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Current Pace of Emission Without Precedent

The current pace of emission has no corollary in the geological record. Based on best observations, the fastest CO2 increases in the past were during either the PETM extinction event of 55 million years ago or the Permian Extinction, or Great Dying, of 250 million years ago. During these periods, rapid rates of CO2 increase were observed at about .35 parts per million each year. The current pace is now six or seven times that seen during these dangerous geological epochs and expected rates of CO2 increase during this century could exceed 20 times that seen in the record.

It is worth noting that more than 32 billion tons of CO2 now go into the atmosphere each year and that this rate of emission alone is about 160 times that of volcanic emissions the world over. Total human carbon emissions in CO2 equivalence for all greenhouse gasses is now over 50 billion tons, or more than 200 times global volcanic emissions. Even an epic flood basalt on the order of that which appeared during the Permian Extinction couldn’t match the current pace of human emission.

CO2 emissions sks

(CO2 emissions through 2012 with related IPCC scenarios overlaid. Image source: The Conversation.)

The very rapid pace of increase also drives an exceedingly rapid pace of climate and geophysical change. Among the impacts include very rapidly rising temperatures, potentially very rapid ice melt and global sea level rise, potentially very rapid pace of ocean stratification and anoxia, rapid and chaotic reordering of climate and ecological zones, and a pace of ocean acidification that has no corollary during any past geological age. This combination of rapid-fire impacts presents very severe hazards to all life and ecological systems that are likely to result in stresses never before seen on Earth over the next century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions.

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

Considering that we are already passing the dangerous 400 ppm CO2 threshold, it is important to think about what a world with a near constant level of CO2 in this range looks like over the long haul. This is important because, in the current political climate, it appears highly unlikely that fossil fuel emissions will ever be brought into a range that results in a potential for atmospheric CO2 decline (approaching zero fossil fuel emissions). In addition, a number of heat-driven amplifying feedbacks are already in place that are pushing some of Earth’s large carbon stores to release. These include, but are not limited to, major Arctic carbon store releases and major tropical forest carbon store releases that are now likely on the order of human CO2 emissions during the middle of the 20th Century.

In addition, the human and feedback methane release, human nitrous oxide release, and other human greenhouse gas release counters all the global cooling resulting from human aerosol release (sulfur dioxide etc). And while the human aerosol release will eventually draw down with the cessation of coal use (either through laissez faire depletion or through an attempt at rational political action), these other greenhouse gasses will remain in the atmosphere for years, decades and centuries.

The result of these combined factors is that the world is likely to remain in the range of 390-405 parts per million CO2 even if rapid mitigation were to begin today. And so it is worthwhile to think about what such a world looks like, considering that to be our rational, best case scenario, and not to put too much faith in the entirely too conservative equilibrium-based scenarios posed by the IPCC.

For a corollary to our absolute best case, we should therefore look to the Pliocene climate of 3.0 to 3.3 million years ago when CO2 levels stabilized at around the current range of 390 to 405 ppm CO2. And Pliocene during this time was 2 to 3 degrees warmer than the 1880s average. It was a climate in which sea levels were at least 15 to 75 feet higher than today (some studies show up to 110 feet higher). And it was a climate in which the Greenland and West Antarctica were entirely bereft of glaciers.

This climate vision of the past if probably the absolute best we can hope for under current systems and a very rapid mitigation. Wait just a few more years and we push above the 405 parts per million threshold as we begin entering a rough corollary to the Miocene climate of 15 million years ago. Wait another few decades and we get to the 500-600 part per million threshold that puts all ice on Earth at risk of melt and sets in place conditions, according to paleoclimate, where a 4-6 C temperature increase is locked in.

Rapidly Moving Into an Ever More Dangerous Future


(Alberta Tar Sands. Just one major unconventional fuels project rapidly pushing the world toward climate change game over. Image source: Water Defense.)

That the current pace of change in unprecedented is probably an understatement. Human beings and governments need to come to grips with the ever-more-dangerous world they are creating for themselves, their children and grandchildren. Focus should now be put on preventing as much harm as possible. And all government action should be aimed at that result.

There is no greater threat presented by another nation or set of circumstances that supersedes what we are now brazenly doing to our environment and the Earth System as a whole. And the rate at which we are causing the end level of damage to increase is practically unthinkable. Each further year of inaction pushes us deeper into that dangerous future.


The Keeling Curve

Tropics Found to Release Two Gigatons of Carbon Each Year

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks to Human Caused Climate Change

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

The Emissions Gap Report

The Conversation

Water Defense

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