By George Harvey
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere set a historic record in 2016. The same levels had been reached 800,000 years ago, but since then, things have changed quite a lot.
The first thing to understand about the significance of the current levels of CO2 is that they have been increasing many times faster than they ever had in the past. The difference is rather like getting hit by a car. You can adapt to a car going one mile per hour, just as the Earth did to changes in CO2 levels 800,000 years ago. But today, CO2 levels are going up a hundred times as fast as they did then. You cannot adapt to being hit by a car going a hundred miles per hour.
The second thing to understand is that we are really only beginning to see the damage coming. 800,000 years ago, when the CO2 levels were the same, sea levels were about 35 to 70 feet higher than they are today. The difference is in the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. As today’s CO2 levels create temperatures that melt our ice, our coastal areas will have sea levels much higher than they are today. Assuming we stop CO2 emissions now, many of our cities will be worthless underwater real estate.
There is an aspect of the WMO observations that is frightening. It is that the levels of CO2 and methane have been increasing much faster than expected. Based on figures from the countries that subscribe to the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 (i.e., all of them, apart from the United States), we would have expected CO2 levels to have remained steady, or close to it.
There are natural reasons why CO2 levels would have been higher in 2015 and 2016. They relate to droughts that resulted from the El Niño of the period, which caused less CO2 to have been taken out of the atmosphere by plants. But science suggests that is not the major cause.
Another frightening aspect of the time is an increase in the levels of methane in the atmosphere that is unexpected and unexplained. The increase happened in tropical and semi-tropical areas, and scientists are at a loss to say what has caused it.
One more thing is that new modeling suggests that the goals of the Paris Climate Accord are entirely insufficient to address global warming. One recent paper published in the journal, Nature, stated researchers had concluded that the Paris Accord goals had a 93% chance of producing temperature increases of 4° C, if they are left unchanged. The Paris Accord attempted to keep changes to 2° C.
There is good news. It is that we can save a lot of money and live more comfortably if we use the sustainable technologies that will stop climate change. Economics may produce changes for which honor, decency, morality, ethics, patriotism, and love of our children and grandchildren are insufficient.