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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

400 Again

By Phil Plait

In May 2013, humans reached a new dark record: The daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, reached a value of 400 parts per million. That was the highest value recorded in human history.

Of course, you might say, perhaps that was a spike, a fluke, just a fluctuation for that one day. So what?

In April 2015, humans reached a new dark record: The monthly level of CO2 reached the 400 ppm mark. That’s no fluke, no brief spike. Its actually part of a very obvious long trend of an increase in the greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.

This graph shows the carbon dioxide levels over the past few years. The red dots show the actual monthly average measured at Mauna Loa. Note the rise and fall; that’s a seasonal variation. If you correct for that, removing the ups and downs due to the seasons, you get the black line, which more clearly shows what’s going on. That last black dot is April 2015, and it is above 400 ppm.

As you can see, the trend is up over time; we’re dumping more CO2 in the air. But that goes back only five years. Maybe we’re in an unusual time, and this is a spike, a fluke, just a fluctuation. So what?

Here’s what:

That’s the same graph going back to 1958. This is no fluke. This is inevitability.

Of course there’s also natural variation, and we’ve seen fluctuations in the past from various factors. Even if we admit this is human caused, what’s the big deal?

Here’s the big deal:

This is the same graph going back 800,000 years, and if you don’t see a problem there, then congrats: The Heartland Institute might hire you for its PR.

There are people out there who still will pooh-pooh this, saying carbon dioxide is good for us, and plants love it. Let me be clear: This is the single dumbest thing climate change deniers have ever said, and that’s a deep, deep well of dumbosity.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the science on this is very basic, as basic as knowing a rock will fall when you drop it from your hand. At first blush 400 ppm may not sound like much, but it means we're significantly accelerating planetary heating. And warming the Earth doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to grow pineapples in Canada. It means huge changes to global weather patterns, changes we’re already seeing.

Still don’t think this is a big deal? The problem isn’t so much the change, as it is the speed. We’re increasing CO2 so fast that we’re seeing an unprecedented rise in the rate the temperature is increasing. Long ago the Earth saw higher CO2 levels and higher temperatures, but those took tens of thousands of years to occur. The change happening now is a hundred times faster.

There’s simply not enough time for the climate to adapt easily, and that means species of plants and animals can’t adapt either. That’s why this is so important, and so scary.

When you’re scared, it might be tempting to stick your head in the sand. Certainly the GOP politicians in Congress want to do exactly that. But when you bury your head your butt sticks up in the air, and that will be what people see. Pull your head out of the ground and you can look around, assess the problem, and be mobile enough to deal with.

Step one: In November 2016, vote. I am not a single issue voter, but I’m willing to bet this single issue is far more important than whatever distraction the GOP will clamor about over the next 17 months.

And, over that same time period we will dump 60 billion more tons of CO2 into our air, and the temperature will go up that much more while nothing gets done.

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