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400 PPM: Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Reaches Prehistoric Levels

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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400 PPM: What’s Next for a Warming Planet
Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached this level for the first time in millions of years. What does this portend? »

400-ppmOn May 2, after nightfall shut down photosynthesis for the day in Hawaii, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere touched 400 parts-per-million there for the first time in at least 800,000 years. Near the summit of volcanic Mauna Loa—where a member of the Keeling family has kept watch since 1958—sensors measured this record through sunrise the following day. Levels have continued to dance near that benchmark in recent days, registering above 400 ppm for the first time in eons after midnight on May 7. When the measurements started the daily average could be as low as 315 ppm, already up from a pre-industrial average of around 280 ppm.

This measurement is just the hourly average of CO2 levels high in the Hawaiian sky, but this family’s figures carry more weight than those made at other stations in the world as they have faithfully kept the longest record of atmospheric CO2. Arctic weather stations also hit the hourly 400 ppm mark last spring and this one. Regardless, the hourly levels at Mauna Loa will soon drop as spring kicks in across the northern hemisphere, trees budding forth an army of leaves hungrily sucking CO2 out of the sky.

5-2-5-7-2013-mauna-loa

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

It may be next year before the monthly average level reaches 400 ppm—and yet longer still until the annual average reaches that number.

But there is no question that the world continues to inexorably climb toward higher levels of greenhouse gas concentrations. Barring economic recessions, the world may be lucky to stop at 450, 500 or even beyond. Last year, humanity spewed some 36 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, up from 35 billion the year before.

In the coming year, Scientific American will run an occasional series, “400 ppm,” to examine what this invisible line in the sky means for the global climate, the planet and all the living things on it, including human civilization. Some scientists argue we passed the safe level for greenhouse gas concentrations long ago, pointing to the accelerating impacts, from extreme weather to the meltdown of Arctic sea ice. Others argue that we have yet more room to burn fossil fuels, clear forests and the like—but not much—before catastrophic climate change becomes inescapable. And the international community of nations has agreed that 450 ppm—linked to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in global average temperatures—should not be exceeded. We are not on track to avoid that limit, whether you prefer the economic analysis of experts like the International Energy Agency or the steady monitoring of mechanical sensors.

The last time CO2 levels at Mauna Loa were this high, Homo sapiens did not live there. In fact, the last time CO2 levels are thought to have been this high was more than 2.5 million years ago, an era known as the Pliocene, when the Canadian Arctic boasted forests instead of icy wastes. The land bridge connecting North America and South America had recently formed. The globe’s temperature averaged about 3 degrees C warmer, and sea level lapped coasts 5 meters or more higher.

co2-levels-over-800000-years

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The world will change again due to human activity and associated emissions of CO2, perhaps causing another set of coral reef extinctions like those found during the Pliocene, among other impacts. When Charles D. Keeling first started his measurements, CO2 made up some 317 ppm of the air we breathe and climate change was already a concern thanks to the work of John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and Guy Callendar. Every year since 1958 the sawtoothed line depicting Keeling’s measurements—readings kept up by his son Ralph—has climbed up, capturing the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations as well as the world’s breath.

keeling-curve

Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography

What can be done? In the short term, more potent but shorter-lasting greenhouse gas emissions could be curbed or a concerted effort to develop CO2 capture and storage technology could be undertaken. Whether we do that or not, given CO2′s long lifetime in the atmosphere, the world will continue to warm to some extent; at least as much as the 0.8 degree C of warming to date is likely thanks to the CO2 already in the atmosphere.

At present pace, the world could reach 450 ppm in a few short decades. The record notches up another 2 ppm per year at present pace. Human civilization developed and flourished in a geologic era that never saw CO2 concentrations above 300 ppm. We are in novel territory again and we show no signs of slowing to get our bearings, let alone stopping.

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. profchuck 4:41 pm 05/9/2013

    As the article points out vegetation is voraciously opportunistic when it comes to atmospheric CO2. Most of the carbon in plant cellular structure is extracted from the atmosphere so as a result flora provides a powerful carbon dioxide sequestration function. It is likely that at some point a quasi equilibrium will be reached where plants can keep up with CO2 production from both natural and anthropogenic sources. Two issues should be considered with regard to this eventuality; what will be the metric of that equilibrium and how selective will the absorption process be in terms of different species of flora? It is possible that there will be a substantial growth in rain forests but anomalous growth of noxious plants in the form of toxic marine biota is also possible. It will be interesting to watch.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sault 5:06 pm 05/9/2013

    profchuck,

    You said, “It is likely that at some point a quasi equilibrium will be reached where plants can keep up with CO2 production from both natural and anthropogenic sources.” Where is the proof to back up this statement? With the health and well being of countless generations hanging in the balance, you better have some extraordidnary evidence to back up this guess. And given that we’re releasing CO2 1000′s of times faster than when the planet came out of “Ice Ages”, how are you so certain that plant life can adapt to such quick changes? Please keep your sources to scientific papers as this is purely a scientific question.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sault 5:36 pm 05/9/2013

    David,

    Carbon Capture and Storage is some of the most expensive CO2 mitigation available. Better to spend money insulating buildings, changing out light bulbs, improving appliance efficiency and a whole host of other things that reduce energy waste first.

    At the same time, we should put a price on carbon, even if it is nowhere near the level it should be to incorporate the costs of climate change into the price of fossil fuels. The efficiency measures will reduce the financial sting of the carbon price and the higher price for fossil fuels will kick the market into action in developing and implementing cleaner alternatives. Mandating strict pollution controls will also give the market the regulatory signal it needs to start shifting away from fossil fuels. Since EPA regulations have a 10-to-1 return on compliance costs, this makes good sense both environmentally AND economically:

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/05/08/1981441/1-invested-epa-yields-10-benefits/

    Even during all this, we should be building a few nuclear plants here or there, especially in the Southeastern US where there isn’t as much wind power as the rest of the country and developing Gen IV reactor technology. If it is ready for prime time by the 2030′s or so, then it will make a great tool in eliminating the last 10% or so of our carbon emissions. If the technology doesn’t work as advertized, at least we’ll have all that renewable energy and efficiency in place and the know-how to build a lot more of it as we kick the fossil fuel habit.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Owl905 5:48 pm 05/9/2013

    Quite the opposite of a plant-bloom equilibrium, the overload of CO2 will have a distorting effect on plant nutrition. The fallacy of the CO2-fertilizer camp has always been the incorrect assumption that CO2 was under-supplied. In reality, it’s nitrogen and water that are added to boost production. Only in the carefully controlled and monitored supercharge-mix of a greenhouse does increased CO2 have any beneficial effect.

    In terms of AGW, the only significance of 400 (or any other number) belongs to the digital beholder. The serious news is that the groups with the power to do something about the pollution have decided, through disagreement and denial and malaise and economic myopia, not to do anything about the problem. They’re betting they’ll be finished living off the profits of their pollution before the bills come due.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jbensted 6:04 pm 05/9/2013

    A carbon dioxide monitoring station on Mauna Loa an active volcano …. makes sense to me.

    Link to this
  6. 6. singing flea 6:18 pm 05/9/2013

    Plants are not going to be our salvation from stupidity and greed. Along with the extra CO2, we are dumping huge amounts of much less beneficial pollutants(assuming the excess CO2 is actually beneficial in the long run)like CO, sulphides, methane, and hydrocarbons that are actually poisoning our air, land and water in ways that few people understand and even less care about. We are not yet even taking a close look at the feedback loops that will eventually increase the greenhouse effect by factors of ten.

    At any rate, it is not the rise in CO2 that is alarming, it is the speed with which it is happening. Plant evolution is far too slow to react in a timely manner and many more areas will have negative affects compared to those areas that will benefit.

    Link to this
  7. 7. singing flea 6:26 pm 05/9/2013

    Mauna Loa is up wind from the active vents on Kiluaea and is also much higher in elevation. As a resident of the Big Island I can assure you that the vog is not a factor on Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea. Once you get above 8,000 ft, the air is some of the purest on the planet. The Northeast trades keep the vog from ever getting close to Mauna Loa’s summit.

    Link to this
  8. 8. syzygy 8:03 pm 05/9/2013

    Okay it sure looks like CO2 is on the way up. It seems likely that it will hit 450 ppmv at some point and keep on going. When I have tried to estimate costs to just stay even on CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, I get amounts of money so high that I can’t believe governments can get or will spend the money to make it happen. When I post estimates, I get howls of protest that I’m advocating doing nothing. So, don’t take my word for it, some of you take a stab at a realistic program to bend the curve to get back to say 300 ppmv, estimate how much that will cost, and estimate how long it will take.

    Hey, I’m all for getting back to 300 ppmv. How about some plans to get there rather than howls for someone else to do it? If you don’t know how to fix the problem, who will you get to save you? How will you know if they can?

    Link to this
  9. 9. jbensted 9:14 pm 05/9/2013

    Parts per million. 400 parts per million up from 380 part per million, or expressed another way 0.04% of Earth’s atmosphere up from 0.038%. Now, when I bring this up … this statistically insignificant trace element in the atmosphere … some will say that a trace amount of arsenic will kill you. True, arsenic is poison to human beings. Is carbon dioxide poison to life on Earth? I think the plants will argue against that!
    Until someone can prove a trace amount of CO2 has the ability to retain enough infrared energy to alter a planet’s climate, I will remain a AGW skeptic. Venus is hell because its atmosphere is 90% CO2 … and its closer to the sun. There is a huge difference between 90% and 0.04%.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Owl905 9:27 pm 05/9/2013

    “it looks like CO2 is on the way up … likely it will hit’ … pro-pollution denialism at the slippery edge.

    The only group that sells a one-sided, rationalized, short-term, cost-benefit analysis is the do-nothing pro-pollutionist screaming. The Stern Report came up with a growing hit on GDP that would reach 20% by mid-century. Since then Stern noted that the GHG-pollution totals are running 25% higher than his worst-case scenario.

    Pro-pollutionists sell intransigence so the credit-card bill will paid for by someone else somewhere else sometime else. But the pollution cost is already eating away: extra taxes (disaster relief & foreign aid), higher insurance rates (claims payout), and spiraling food costs (3 global-crop meltdowns in 7 years).

    Claiming a response is cost-prohibitive is just putting the sell in selfish.

    Link to this
  11. 11. m 10:27 pm 05/9/2013

    There is one solution, fast growing trees that are then felled and stored, for a fast response to climate. Some vast underground storage facility should suffice.

    Next you could burn some of the trees for burners to turn some of the carbon into diamonds to sell to people, taken from the forests and engraved with the forests logo, so the diamond represents your interest in carbon capture.

    This money will pay for the whole process which repeats until the CO2 levels are stable and then the additional stored wood can be burned at a later point if we wish to raise the co2 levels.

    How much storage, about the size of america should do it.

    Link to this
  12. 12. syzygyygyzys 10:53 pm 05/9/2013

    I’m building a factory that generates renewable energy. I put my own money at risk. My factory will reduce fossil fuel consumption with virtually no waste streams. So, tell me again how pro-pollution I am.

    Sitting at a computer slamming out invective with the keys isn’t part of the solution. To solve a problem you have to understand its magnitude. I have no interest in name-calling. Taking time to discuss this issue doesn’t make me a single extra dime.

    I just repeat my suggestion. Please make an attempt to understand the scale of the problem. Until you have some concept of scale, you have no chance of making a contribution. If you can’t do the engineering or math yourself, find someone you trust who can to help you examine the issues. Attacking people who are part of the solution isn’t going to reduce CO2 a single ppmv.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 10:58 pm 05/9/2013

    jbensted,

    99% of the gas in Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to longwave radiation. Look, no matter how much fossil fuel propaganda they spew at the denier sites, the properties of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere have been well-understood for over a century now. Did you bother to even read this article?

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=seven-answers-to-climate-contrarian-nonsense

    Link to this
  14. 14. rkipling 11:01 pm 05/9/2013

    At least m is trying to estimate how much wood a woodchuck could chuck.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 11:01 pm 05/9/2013

    syzygy, or is it syzygyygyzys?

    Why are you changing user names? Forgot your password for a bit?

    Link to this
  16. 16. divergingroads 11:03 pm 05/9/2013

    Can I request that you also track water vapour in the atmosphere? I believe that water vapour is well known to be many times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. I am sure that the any warming must be attributed to increased evaporation due to mankind’s increasing use of lawn sprinklers. (no leap of faith here)

    Link to this
  17. 17. rkipling 11:35 pm 05/9/2013

    I’m new to Scientific American Digital blogs. I’ve gone back on some of these environmental topics and it appears that one guy (I don’t think I have to mention his user name) represents something like half the words in each comment section. To read how he tells it, he knows everything about the environment there is to know.

    Anybody else find it a little odd why such a talent spends all his time commenting on these blogs?

    Link to this
  18. 18. bbwayne 11:47 pm 05/9/2013

    Come on, Mauna Loa farted. Leave her alone.

    Link to this
  19. 19. profchuck 11:48 pm 05/9/2013

    sault: The point I was trying to make is that some sort of equilibrium is likely to be reached but that point may not be to our liking. Much work has gone into an evaluation of the relationship between rising CO2 and stimulation of the vegetation. One interesting article is

    http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/effects-of-rising-atmospheric-concentrations-of-carbon-13254108

    and you can find much more with a search engine.
    My concern is that that none of the processes are well enough understood to make far reaching projections as to the future of the biosphere. As a result I fear that decisions that are driven primarily by political and ideological agendas rather than scientific objectivity will result in far greater harm than good.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Ngwenya 5:52 am 05/10/2013

    Excess CO2 is not good for plants – quite a bit of research has been done on that. For example: “Plant defenses go down as carbon dioxide levels go up, the researchers found. Soybeans grown at elevated CO2 levels attract many more adult Japanese beetles than plants grown at current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.” Science Daily; March 25, 2008

    Link to this
  21. 21. gizmowiz 7:54 am 05/10/2013

    Change is natural. Without it we would never have evolved. Three to five million years ago–when man was dropping down from the trees–the world was awash with up to 1000 ppm CO2. We owe our very existence to higher levels of CO2!

    Link to this
  22. 22. gizmowiz 7:57 am 05/10/2013

    If you think we don’t owe our existence to carbon dioxide levels read this:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323528404578452483656067190.html

    Link to this
  23. 23. Sisko 9:52 am 05/10/2013

    CO2 at 400ppm is important only to those who BELIEVE that something terrible is going to occur when it reaches even higher levels. Let’s be a bit realistic. It has risen from 315 to 400 over 50+ years and we have not witnessed any great harm to humanity have we? The evidence is the growth in the human population over the same period. How can anyone claim the last 50+ years have been bad for humanity?

    Ask some simple questions about CO2 and its impact on the planet.

    What do we currently believe to be more harmful if CO2 levels were at 450ppm vs. 400ppm? Please do not cite a bunch of claims from 2007 0r 2008 when some thought temperatures would be rising at accelerated rates. We now know that is not going to happen. Climate scientists are not trying to decide how much to lower their estimates of climate sensitivity to more CO2.

    Look at the list of fears that are listed by those concerned about CO2.

    Will sea level rise at 3.3 mm per year vs 3.2mm per year? So what?

    Will the PH of the ocean change at a measurably different rate? No? Then so what??

    I sincerely ask those concerned- what specifically will be different in a world at 450ppm and what makes you believe that change will occur??? Is it only your unsubstantiated fears?

    Link to this
  24. 24. Soccerdad 10:15 am 05/10/2013

    The reality is that we are going to 450 and beyond. Governments will not come to the rescue. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

    Link to this
  25. 25. thesafesurfer 10:49 am 05/10/2013

    The author speaks of a period of 800,000 years. The earth is billions of years old.
    The author makes a false inference when he says “the last time CO2 levels at Mauna Loa were this high, Homo sapiens did not live there,” but bipedal, upright walking hominids like Australopithecus africanus we alive millions of years ago.
    The author also mentions that global warming was a concern as far back as 1958, yet in the 1970′s the scientific community hypothesized about a coming Ice Age.

    These are simply comments and food for thought. Take them for what you will.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Rudy Haugeneder, Canada 10:52 am 05/10/2013

    Serious, serious problem this carbon-dioxide stuff — for future generations, that is, probably even my own children and/or grandchildren by the time they reach my age which is not that far from 70.
    However, nature is slowly brewing a solution: several lethal pandemics simultaneously inventing themselves at the same time old killer diseases are also fast genetically mutating to feed off rather than be destroyed by our miracle antibiotics. Seven-plus billion of us may be reduced to Columbus-like 1942 population of around a half billion folks, or less, organized into nations and tribes — an organizational structure that won’t exist after Nature rearranges our numbers.
    Either way, via Climate Change or unsustainable population growth, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for the bad times the future holds.

    Link to this
  27. 27. David Biello in reply to David Biello 1:11 pm 05/10/2013

    How is that a false inference? Homo sapiens didn’t live there. Period. There is only one indisputable fact in your comments. Guess which one! (Hint: it’s the one that many other contrarians would disagree with.)

    Link to this
  28. 28. rkipling 2:27 pm 05/10/2013

    Canada,

    The author knows what he is talking about on this one. Now if you said trilobites?

    Link to this
  29. 29. jonathanseer 3:37 pm 05/10/2013

    OMG Clearly the FIRST thing that must be done is funding 100s more researchers so that they can spend several years confirming the dangers at various, exotic tropical reef local throughout the world BEFORE the sea level rise swallows these vacation gems forever.

    For those who have had their fill of confirming the dangers at places like Hawaii or the Great Barrier reef or a dozen locations in the Caribbean, they can continue to serve humanity by taking their long anticipated adventure vacat…… er multi-year research expedition to remote locations few humans have ever seen.

    The reason is the more pristine the site, the better its record and more irrefutable the proof it will provide the researchers to re-re-re-re confirm the theory of global warming.

    So as the uniqueness of doing research at this now well visited location wears off, places on the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia Etc. await the army of climate researchers who MUST visit these locations in person over a period of several years.

    Y’know I have no doubt that we are responsible for the rapidly warming climate, but I also can see there is a legion of researchers using it as an excuse to spend long periods of time at exotic locations that few people know about and even fewer will visit, but if it were well known they’d be considered dream vacations of a lifetime.

    If anything drives the skepticism it is this.

    Link to this
  30. 30. mihrant 3:39 pm 05/10/2013

    The increase of C02 from from its 1950 level of 283 to over 400 ppm today is roughly the same percentage as the range of CO2 during the previous 90,000 year Ice Age, namely 183 to 283 ppm. This historical 50% range of CO2 was accompanied by a a 6-10 C degree range in temperature. In light of the same percentage rise of CO2 since 1950, why have we not had another 6-10 C degree change today if CO2 indeed is the cause of warming? One answer: The historic rise of CO2 was the RESULT of warming, not its CAUSE. Another answer could be that the effect of CO2 is very non-linear and has saturated. This seems highly unlikely. Either explanation indicates that we do not have to worry about the level of CO2. It is true today that CO2 has risen 50% due to human activity, but this rise is not meaningful since CO2 is not causal.

    Link to this
  31. 31. maxwellobarnett 3:58 pm 05/10/2013

    How can there be any debate about this?

    Obviously we cannot prove what will happen once we exceed the 450 ppm limit.

    We can’t even determine at the present moment what the totality of our impact is thus far.

    What is clear, however, is that our way of life is just not sustainable. That should be a no-brainer at this point.

    We can continue to burn fossil fuels, cut down forests, fish the seas dry, ect ect, and of course, life will go on. Picture the Earth a million years from now… I imagine it will be teaming with life like it always has.

    The question is whether or not conditions will be suitable for humanity as we know it. I mean, the global economy is completely dependent on the stability of the environment, and look how fragile it already is.

    Do we keep bickering about whether or not 450 ppm is going to result in severe climate change, or do we just grow up, face facts and make a change. I don’t see any point in waiting around for some 100% undeniable evidence.

    Link to this
  32. 32. rkipling 4:04 pm 05/10/2013

    jonathanseer,

    For arguments sake, let’s say you are correct. Now give us a plan to stabilize/reduce carbon dioxide concentrations with an estimate of how much it will cost and how long it will take.

    Link to this
  33. 33. rkipling 4:06 pm 05/10/2013

    maxwellobarnett,

    Same question to you. Let’s say you are correct. No more bickering. Now what?

    Link to this
  34. 34. firestarter80 5:35 pm 05/10/2013

    I’m a volunteer with an organization called the National Algae Association and some of you may think this is too optimistic, but I think algae is the answer.

    Algae captures twice as much CO2 per 1 part oxygen and can be used as a drop-in fuel to eventually substitute all fossil fuels (yes, I’m a dreamer). Additionally, algae research should be a top priority given it’s key factor in the oceanic ecosystems.

    I can’t say enough about algae to be honest. I’ll let those of you who are brilliant to consider it, but I firmly believe this is THE ANSWER to CO2 sequestration.

    We have to build very fast though. I only hope we can pull this off.

    Link to this
  35. 35. rkipling 5:46 pm 05/10/2013

    Good luck with the algae projects. I’ll look for the website for project info.

    Link to this
  36. 36. firestarter80 6:35 pm 05/10/2013

    Thanks rkipling. Anyone is welcome to visit us during the workshops we hold quarterly.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doox-OFmQcs

    http://www.nationalalgaeassociation.com/

    Link to this
  37. 37. convictstreak 11:27 am 05/11/2013

    Nice article. I think the time is well and truly past giving any credence to self proclaimed “skeptics”. We need solutions, because the likelihood that all of the problems caused by warming are manageable, is small.

    Link to this
  38. 38. dubay.denis 10:33 pm 05/11/2013

    David, nice story. Thanks. Looking forward to the series. If I’m smart I’ll avoid looking at the comments section and keep my blood pressure down!

    Link to this
  39. 39. sault 2:32 am 05/12/2013

    All the climate deniers around here could stand to have all their nonsense debunked here:

    http://skepticalscience.com/argument.php

    There are pages and pages of myths that are taken down with the force of hundreds of scientific papers. All the grasping at straws that goes on in the propaganda departments of Exxon et al. and all their think tanks / front-groups is plain to see once you actually look at what the science on climate change is telling us. Consequently, 98% of climate scientists, every major scientific body in the world and increasingly the general public agree that human greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate.

    Continuing to push the concentration of CO2 higher and higher like we are doing is a very risky path to follow. Increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy supply is the best way to lower the risks of ever-worsening climate disruption.

    Link to this
  40. 40. kienhua68 3:26 am 05/12/2013

    How can one predict vegetation will be at all able to keep CO2 in check when our ability to produce it far outstrips natures rate of absorption? If any of that were possible we should be seeing less rapid increase, which is not the case. Immense areas of forest are gone already. I have not found any expanding forests to date. Though more CO2 might help, the resulting increase in world average temperature would likely cancel out that advantage.

    Link to this
  41. 41. David Marjanović 6:32 am 05/12/2013

    A carbon dioxide monitoring station on Mauna Loa an active volcano …. makes sense to me.

    Apart from comment 7, that station is very far from the only one in the world. It’s just the oldest one, so it has the longest continuous record. All stations show the same sawtoothed line, the one from Mauna Loa is just the longest.

    Is carbon dioxide poison to life on Earth?

    What? Has anybody claimed that it is?

    Until someone can prove a trace amount of CO2 has the ability to retain enough infrared energy to alter a planet’s climate

    …That was done decades ago. Google is right there. Use it at last.

    Where have you been? On the moon, where there’s really no CO2?

    Can I request that you also track water vapour in the atmosphere? I believe that water vapour is well known to be many times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

    Of course it is. But it is itself so sensitive to temperature that it’s a feedback, not a cause. If you put more water vapour in the air without raising the temperature, it’ll just precipitate out very quickly.

    Change is natural. Without it we would never have evolved.

    And therefore any change ever is automatically a good thing? Or what is your “logic” here?

    Three to five million years ago–when man was dropping down from the trees–the world was awash with up to 1000 ppm CO2.

    Not true. Here are links to papers.

    It has risen from 315 to 400 over 50+ years and we have not witnessed any great harm to humanity have we?

    The climate can’t react at arbitrary speed, Greenland can’t thaw overnight.

    But please define “great”. We have definitely witnessed harm: heat waves that have killed tens of thousands of people, droughts that threatened the food supply, extra wildfires, stronger hurricanes (more heat = more energy in the system). The sea is rising; if this goes on, and nothing suggests it won’t, we’ll have to evacuate Bangladesh somehow.

    What do we currently believe to be more harmful if CO2 levels were at 450ppm vs. 400ppm?

    Why don’t you just look it up?

    Will sea level rise at 3.3 mm per year vs 3.2mm per year? So what?

    It’s speeding up, it’s been speeding up for a century. Greenland and West Antarctica are thawing. If this goes on, they’ll be ice-free next century, and the sea level will be 7 meters higher. No more Bangladesh, no more Florida…

    Will the PH of the ocean change at a measurably different rate? No? Then so what??

    Uh, excuse me, it’s already going down, and the effects on corals are already measurable. Just look it up!

    I sincerely ask those concerned- what specifically will be different in a world at 450ppm and what makes you believe that change will occur??? Is it only your unsubstantiated fears?

    No. Here goes:
    1) Climate models successfully replicate the past and the present. There’s no reason to think they’re wrong when they predict the future.
    2) The science of paleoclimatology wasn’t invented yesterday, you know. We have a pretty good idea of what the world was like last time we had 400 or 450 ppm CO2 in the air; and going to that kind of world in just a few decades will be a catastrophe.

    in the 1970′s the scientific community hypothesized about a coming Ice Age.

    Not true. Very few scientists thought that, and that was mostly in the 1960s; just the public perception was different. Go look it up.

    Y’know I have no doubt that we are responsible for the rapidly warming climate, but I also can see there is a legion of researchers using it as an excuse to spend long periods of time at exotic locations that few people know about and even fewer will visit, but if it were well known they’d be considered dream vacations of a lifetime.

    “A legion”? “re-re-re-re confirm the theory”? What?

    Scientists get famous, and employed, by disproving ideas, not by saying what everybody already knows; indeed, results that aren’t “interesting enough” are very difficult to publish!

    I wouldn’t count Greenland and Antarctica, or the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia which are right next to Antarctica, or the open sea as great vacation destinations; but most climatologists don’t gather data, they process data others have gathered.

    Seriously… *facepalm*

    In light of the same percentage rise of CO2 since 1950, why have we not had another 6-10 C degree change today if CO2 indeed is the cause of warming?

    Just you wait. It’s only begun.

    One answer: The historic rise of CO2 was the RESULT of warming, not its CAUSE.

    LOL. CO2 is a feedback: like all gases it dissolves better in cold water than in warm water, so when temperatures rise for an external reason (more heat from the sun, say), CO2 comes out of the oceans and then contributes to the warming. When temperatures fall for some external reason, CO2 goes into the oceans, and this contributes to the cooling.

    Now, two things.

    1) There is no external cause for warming today. The heat is off. And yet, temperatures rise. Hmmm.
    2) On the other hand, we are putting huge amounts of CO2 into the air, and we’re not somehow caused by the temperature to do this.
    3) The extra CO2 that is oh-so-mysteriously showing up in the air doesn’t come from the oceans. We can tell, because its C-14 content keeps decreasing. Somewhere there’s a huge source of C-14-free carbon. Hmmm. That could be volcanoes, or it could be fossil fuels. Volcanic activity hasn’t increased. We’re burning exactly the amounts of fossil fuels that the increase predicts, though…
    4) CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is simply an observed fact, and it’s been known for 120 years now. It’s not going away if you stop believing in it. I honestly feel like I’m talking to a creationist who has no idea I’ve seen evolution with my own eyes in a petri dish in a compulsory lab course for first-year students of molecular biology.

    For arguments sake, let’s say you are correct. Now give us a plan to stabilize/reduce carbon dioxide concentrations with an estimate of how much it will cost and how long it will take.

    …Why don’t you just start reducing CO2 emissions? Insulate your house, buy a less wasteful freezer, and put some pressure on your politicians.

    Whatever you do, evacuating Bangladesh would cost more. And Bangladesh is just the shiniest example.

    Link to this
  42. 42. rkipling 9:58 am 05/12/2013

    David Marjanović,

    You say, “Why don’t you just start reducing CO2 emissions? Insulate your house, buy a less wasteful freezer, and put some pressure on your politicians.”

    I’m building a factory which primarily fueled by renewable energy and which will generate excess energy. For every metric ton of product we sell, which will displace products made with fossil fuels; over 4 metric tons less CO2 will enter the atmosphere.

    Your turn.

    Link to this
  43. 43. sault 1:12 pm 05/12/2013

    David,

    Thanks for helping to clarify things. However, the trolls / climate deniers out there are never swayed by evidence no matter how many scientific papers you show them. The best we can do is keep them from fooling all the people that look at these comments.

    By the way, how do you get portions of your comments to show up bold? That would be a useful tool in these discussions.

    Link to this
  44. 44. Quinn the Eskimo 11:25 pm 05/12/2013

    It is soooooo good to see David get this excited! The end is near. The End is Near! THE END IS HERE.

    Everybody go die, now.

    Link to this
  45. 45. Crasher 11:33 pm 05/12/2013

    David, Thanks for trying to explain science. I used to try and explain and put links for proof to reputible scientific institions. However I feel you are wasting your time as these deniers are rejecting science, unless it suits their “opinion’. And a very uneducated ignorant opinion it is. I just have a little giggle when I read their dribble and move on to read science and the thoughts of intelligent people.

    Link to this
  46. 46. rkipling 4:52 am 05/13/2013

    For those of you who may be new to these blog posts, allow me to offer you some commenting tips on how to really impress readers and other commenters.

    1. Be sure to tell us or imply how intelligent people who agree with you are, and how intelligent you are by association. This is always an effective strategy.

    2. A corollary to (1) is that those who disagree with you are, of course, uneducated, ignorant, stupid, and quite possibly clinically insane. This is always a (your) crowd pleaser.

    3. State that only you and your ilk actually know/understand science.

    4. Oh, and this is very important, mention all the published authors who agree with you. Provide links to them when possible, the more links the better.

    5. And last but not least, as you have time write really long comments; the longer the better. This will wear down your opponents with sheer volume.

    Follow these basic tenets and you are sure to feel superior to all those dolts on the other side of whatever issue is being discussed.

    THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE MESSAGE.

    Link to this
  47. 47. David Marjanović 6:38 am 05/13/2013

    how do you get portions of your comments to show up bold?

    By using HTML: <b>this</b> automatically turns into this. <i> and <a> also work.

    However I feel you are wasting your time

    1) I have SIWOTI syndrome.
    2) This is public. Not only the participants in this discussion read it. I seem to have done you a favor, for example; if so, great.

    4. Oh, and this is very important, mention all the published authors who agree with you. Provide links to them when possible, the more links the better.

    …Uh… I’m a scientist. I’m used to citing all the evidence I can find; reviewers are sure to point out I’ve overlooked important papers. Actually, in my comment above, I was very lazy, hence just one link.

    And last but not least, as you have time write really long comments; the longer the better. This will wear down your opponents with sheer volume.

    Did you seriously believe I even thought that far? As you may have noticed, I don’t do psychology that well. I simply find something that I think needs to be commented on, scroll down, comment on it, scroll up again, read on, and repeat till I’ve reached the end of the thread. :-|

    I’m also extremely bad at estimating how long anything will take. I think in numbers of steps, not amounts of time, so I pretty often begin what turns out to be a long project that takes me hours. Time isn’t something I have, it’s something I steal.

    and you are sure to feel superior

    *headshake* I don’t feel superior. I feel simply exhausted. So many people have been bringing up the same PRATTs for easily 20 years now, with no end in sight, and in the US it’s even become an issue of political identity. No wonder I lose my patience, don’t hold back, and behave like I’m used to from Pharyngula.

    All the best to you and your company. I mean it, I’m not being sarcastic. All I do is use as little electricity as possible – sure I don’t have a car, but having a car would be rather ridiculous where I live.

    And I genuinely can’t even guess what “other shortcomings” you might mean. I’m honestly curious; feel free to send me an e-mail (Google Scholar knows the address).

    Link to this
  48. 48. David Marjanović 9:16 am 05/13/2013

    Let me give a better answer to this:

    For arguments sake, let’s say you are correct. Now give us a plan to stabilize/reduce carbon dioxide concentrations with an estimate of how much it will cost and how long it will take.

    (Unfortunately, <blockquote> does not work on SciAm blogs. It looks like the SciAm overlords never expected us to have discussions.)

    I was wondering why you asked for a plan, and making assumptions based on why other people have done so. Often the arguments of cost and (sometimes) time are brought up by people who expect that dealing with the consequences of climate change will be cheaper than trying to stop it. They don’t, of course, have a plan for (say) building dams or moving people from regions that will be disadvantaged by climate change to areas that will be advantaged*. Some of them are certain that any meaningful reduction of CO2 emissions could only be accomplished by a global totalitarian state, and of course think that wouldn’t be worth it; some of them even fear that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by people who want to impose just such a totalitarian state over them.

    So, with all this in mind, I tried to ask why you wanted such a plan. There is, after all, so much that private citizens can do at little cost – often even savings, at least in the longer term – to themselves that if enough people did such things, we’d get pretty far; I therefore find it difficult to imagine that reducing CO2 emissions would wreck the global economy or require totalitarian measures or be just plain more expensive than dealing with hundreds of millions of refugees from droughts, floods, storms and the sea.

    I also live in Germany now, where solar and wind are taking off and where the EU now subsidizes the insulation of buildings.

    Thus, I ask again: what is your point?

    * A bit more warming, and the Sahara will turn green – if there’s enough rainforest left in west Africa to generate the required evaporation. There probably isn’t.

    Link to this
  49. 49. rkipling 11:22 am 05/13/2013

    Dr. Marjanović,

    You have given a serious answer. I appreciate your measured response. Unlike some, I have no problem with people, who genuinely anticipate catastrophic climate change, advocating that something be done to avoid catastrophe.

    My point is not whether it is better to spend massive amounts of money later after the catastrophe has happened as opposed to massive (and probably incalculable at this point) amounts of money now. My observations of how governments work over the last 60 years do not give me any expectation that meaningful changes will be enacted regardless of the evidence presented. (By the way, I don’t consider that age necessarily imparts wisdom.)

    So, since I don’t believe sufficient resources actually will be diverted to this problem, alternative solutions must be found. I’m an engineer. To better understand the scale of the problem, I have attempted to calculate the time and capital required to maintain current world consumption of energy using alternative means which reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations. I have also researched similar efforts by those with a far better grasp of the problem. My conclusion was that the time and money required is in fact monumental compared to any previous project attempted by mankind. There is no point in arguing the specific number. It’s huge.

    My point isn’t to say that since it is so expensive let’s not bother to solve it. The point is that there is virtually no hope that those resources can or will be applied. The immediate negative impact on world economies would have governments either voted out of office or overthrown. It is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of the world’s population to be sufficiently forward thinking to make the sacrifices.

    I think it’s great that alternative energy projects are underway. Take a look at the magnitude of impact they will have on atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Those projects will hardly be noticeable. Increase them by a factor of 10, same answer.

    So, where does that leave us? Our only hope isn’t Obi-wan Kenobi. It is as yet unknown technology for energy generation, CO2 sequestration, both? My thought, Dr. Marjanović, is that rather than spending time preaching to the converted or apostates, you apply your significant talents and education to helping us find new solutions. (I’m absolutely serious. This is not sarcasm.)

    If there is a way to avoid the catastrophe you expect, game changing technology at a price acceptable to the average world inhabitant is likely the only thing that has a chance.

    Now having said that, I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to predict what will actually happen because of increasing CO2 concentrations. One thing that I’m pretty confident of is that it won’t be solved with comments on these blogs.

    Dr. Marjanović, I ask with respect that you consider redirecting some of your talents to invention of new technologies or advocating other capable individuals to innovate. If those with your capabilities don’t find answers, who among us will?

    Link to this
  50. 50. rkipling 11:30 am 05/13/2013

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen

    Link to this
  51. 51. rkipling 12:01 pm 05/13/2013

    I forgot to address the issue of dealing with hundreds of millions of refugees from droughts, floods, storms and the sea. I don’t think we can assume they will be helped. I suspect most will be left to die. Is anything meaningful being done in Darfur for example?

    Link to this
  52. 52. rkipling 12:11 pm 05/13/2013

    If you don’t believe the magnitude of costs, take a little time to do an estimate yourself. Look up the world electrical power consumption. Calculate the number of windmills needed to provide that much power. Efficiency factors must be applied. Apply the lowest wind power capital cost to that and see what number you get. That doesn’t take a host of other factors into account, but it gives you one order of magnitude number.

    Link to this
  53. 53. Neuronhead 9:51 pm 05/13/2013

    Overpopulation is the root cause of the problem

    Link to this
  54. 54. evartsb 10:54 pm 05/13/2013

    Has anyone looked into Algal fuels ? They have been around since the 70′s or 80′s. Near Zero carbon footprint (algea eats CO2 and excretes O2) There are many studies being done on it now. Several large oil companies are looking into this now. It is a disruptive technology. Once process improvements and economies of scale kick in, price will come down from the current roughly 8$ per gallon to process…. and it can be refined in the same refineries we use for fossile crude. It is not a silver bullet, but may be a valid stop-gap.

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  55. 55. evartsb 11:04 pm 05/13/2013

    Also – Donella Meadows et al have some interesting things to say in “The Limits to Growth” as far as population, industrialization, food production, resource depletion, and polution. Very compelling model utilizaing System Dynamics that captures nicely the structure, behavior and dynamics of the civilization. SD techniques are also used to model Climate Change.

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  56. 56. Jagdish 5:42 am 05/14/2013

    Increase of temperatures has been confirmed by observations. Denial will not help matters.
    What needs consideration is the effects and the rate at which they will effect. Perhaps some good can be found and made use of.
    Greenhouse farming may become more beneficial at lower cost/effort. North Canada and Siberia could become more productive.
    Sea level changes may be slower and less significant. Sea level changes cyclically by a meter or more every day. Other poisons like the particulate matter may be more serious and we should reduce fossil fuel use. Nuclear power is a good alternative for energy. They produce much less volume of waste and skills like fast MSR could burn the spent fuel of existing reactors to slow down the increase of spent fuel stocks.
    All life including human have been adjusting to changes and humans best of all.

    Link to this
  57. 57. bonnaroo 12:39 am 05/15/2013

    As with everything, there is always a happy medium.

    Link to this
  58. 58. ThuyDam 2:54 am 05/15/2013

    Now we know why more children and adults have to take allergy pills in order to be able to breath and function. So very sad!

    “SAVE WILDLIFE AND OUR FORESTS TO CURB CLIMATE CHANGE, SUSTAIN MOTHER EARTH, AND THEREFORE SAVE OURSELVES.”

    Link to this
  59. 59. northernguy 4:36 pm 05/19/2013

    The seas are rising at the rate of about three millimeters per year as they have for the last couple of hundred years.

    I know climatology models say that they must be rising faster than that and therefore climatologists say that they are rising at catastrophic levels but it simply is not true.

    I live by the sea. I can see it out my window. I walk along the shoreline every day. For several years I made my living on the local ocean waters. The shoreline is rocky and thus is little influenced by shifting sandbars and bottom effects. We are sheilded by a very large offshore island which protects us from confounding storm surges.

    My job required that I pay very close attention to depth to bottom while on the water, tidal flows and the conditions exhibited by the more than century old fixed docking facilities.

    I can assure you that the seas are not rising here any more than the approx. three millimeters per year. There seems to have been some statistical increase in rate of rise of about one or two tenths of a millimeter per year over the last few decades. However that rate of increase is not visible to the human eye over a fifty year period.

    This true for about five hundred miles of the west coast of North America.

    Link to this
  60. 60. David Marjanović 2:52 pm 05/20/2013

    My thought, Dr. Marjanović, is that rather than spending time preaching to the converted or apostates, you apply your significant talents and education to helping us find new solutions.

    I am sorry I misunderstood your point so profoundly, and I’m sorry I didn’t return to this thread for so long.

    The practical problem with your suggestion is that I’m a paleobiologist – not even a paleoclimatologist or a biochemist. The chances of me ever doing research in a discipline a solution could come from are negligible, no matter if I’d try to join a lab at a public university, if I’d try to start a company, or anything in between. All I can do is lobbying of a sort: I can contribute to the public opinion, or at least the published opinion. The “converted” and the “apostates” are voters and consumers. Their opinions count. It depends on them, to a large extent, what the politicians and the CEOs are going to do and when they’re going to do it. There are still people who believe the Internet is somehow not real, or that what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet; that is not so.

    It is public pressure that led to the EU-wide ban on lightbulbs in favor of fluorescent ones*: the politicians wanted to look good to their voters.

    * It’s of course debatable how smart that move really was, and whether it should perhaps have been taken a few years later. Fluorescent bulbs come with their own problems. But, in the meantime, light-emitting diodes have hit the free market for ceiling lamps and many other applications, and they are even (a bit) more efficient…

    To better understand the scale of the problem, I have attempted to calculate the time and capital required to maintain current world consumption of energy using alternative means which reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

    Then we’ll have to reduce the current world consumption of energy. Thermal insulation of existing buildings, using materials and techniques currently in commercial use, would take a huge chunk out of it. The costs of insulating a building once it stands are fairly high, and at current energy prices (which are of course increasing) it takes a while to pay off; that’s why it isn’t being done more. The motivation will have to come from politics, probably in the form of subsidies.

    On the generation side, of course, there is the really ambitious idea of DESERTEC, which would require massive international cooperation between governments. (However, the German version of that article has a section saying that photovoltaics for private roofs and the like are becoming so cheap that the whole project may be unnecessary.)

    On the third hand, advances in the storage of electricity might occur. I wonder why the super-iron battery still isn’t commercially available – or is it? Not that it’s some kind of miracle, but 50 % more capacity than zinc (it goes from Fe(VI) to Fe(III), so each ion accepts 3 electrons instead of the 2 that turn Zn(II) into Zn(0)) isn’t exactly bad.

    If there is a way to avoid the catastrophe you expect, game changing technology at a price acceptable to the average world inhabitant is likely the only thing that has a chance.

    On this I agree.

    I forgot to address the issue of dealing with hundreds of millions of refugees from droughts, floods, storms and the sea. I don’t think we can assume they will be helped. I suspect most will be left to die. Is anything meaningful being done in Darfur for example?

    Good point. But then, Sudan is governed in a rather unpleasant way, so it isn’t easy to even get into the country; there’s more violence in Darfur than most relief organizations can handle; and Darfur is of little consequence to the global economy. Bangladesh is (so far) at peace, and it makes all the clothes that aren’t made in China.

    And of course Bangladesh is just the most glaring example. Places like the Netherlands, northern Germany or New York will, if nothing else, have to invest huge amounts of money in dams or whatever; the people there will feel the impact, even if they won’t lose life or limb.

    If you don’t believe the magnitude of costs

    I do. Saving energy is necessary (if not for the climate, then Peak Oil still looms), and building nothing but windmills won’t work.

    Link to this
  61. 61. David Marjanović 3:08 pm 05/20/2013

    Sea level changes may be slower and less significant. Sea level changes cyclically by a meter or more every day.

    …And yet, everybody relies on the sea not rising more than that.

    Nuclear power is a good alternative for energy. They produce much less volume of waste and skills like fast MSR could burn the spent fuel of existing reactors to slow down the increase of spent fuel stocks.

    Making nuclear power plants safe is incredibly expensive; the spent fuel (breeders or whatever delay the point when it’s spent, but still) has to be stored safely for something like 30,000 years; and at the current rate of consumption, which is already increasing, there’s only uranium for a few more decades left. There are ideas for thorium-based reactors, but they’ll take a long time to become useful if that’s possible at all.

    The seas are rising at the rate of about three millimeters per year as they have for the last couple of hundred years.

    Not true; almost all of the increase of the last 2,000 years has happened within the last 100. I can’t look up the paper right now; tell me if you want me to.

    As Greenland and West Antarctica thaw, the sea level can only rise faster and faster.

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  62. 62. kienhua68 5:42 pm 06/10/2013

    Either we plant millions more trees or give up thinking it will curb CO2 levels. We have dug up and burned buried carbon from up to a billion or more years ago. I have doubts we could store enough CO2 to produce any noticeable effect. The majority of the worlds human population has no idea or motivation, yet, to respond appropriately. Hence the suffering must commence before change comes about.

    Link to this

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