Party like it’s 399 (ppm)

By Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Does it matter when nature offers up round numbers? Maybe not, but for the same reasons that we attach special significance to anniversaries and birthdays ending in zero, humans treat big tick marks and bold milestones with gravitas.

For Earth’s climate, a very significant round number milestone was reached last week, when NOAA measured an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 400 ppm at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for the first time in modern history.

PPM – or parts per million – is a measure of concentration. 400 ppm means that for every one million parts dry air in the atmosphere (water is excluded because its concentration is variable), 400 of those parts are CO2. These ‘parts’ are moles: a chemist’s unit of measurement to keep track of molecules.

Think of the atmosphere as a big pot of soup with lots of finely chopped vegetables. Carbon dioxide is the carrots. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, if you filled a ladle with 1,000,000 really finely chopped vegetables, then you’d have found that 280 of those veggies in any given ladle-full of soup that you scooped would be carrots, or carbon dioxide.

Now, today, after we have been dumping extra chopped carrots into the soup (i.e. burning fossil fuels) for a couple hundred years, a ladle-full of 1,000,o00 veggie bits would include 400 carrot chunks (carbon dioxide). For the last few years, we have diluted the soup by about 4-5 carrot bits every year.

There are many places across the globe that measure atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, but the measure of atmospheric COon Mauna Loa (Long Mountain in Hawaiian) is an important and historically significant indicator for two reasons.

First, because of the remote and high altitude location (measurements take place at a height of 2 miles above sea level), measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa generally come very close to representing the global mean concentration of that gas.

Keeling measuring CO2 at Mauna Loa in 1988. Photo: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD

Second, the record of CO2 at Mauna Loa represents the longest, continuous monitoring of carbon dioxide on Earth. In 1958, Charles Keeling, a scientist employed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, began regularly collecting samples of air from the atmosphere and measuring the concentration of CO2.

Within a few years, Keeling not only observed remarkable seasonal variability in CO(from large swaths of northern hemisphere plants breathing CO2 in and out, summer to winter), he also clearly showed – for the first time – that atmospheric CO2 was steadily increasing each year.

The canonical time history of Mauna Loa atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which scientists have relied on for 50 years, is, as a result, called the Keeling Curve.

Now. How big of an impact does a change from 280 ppm to 400 ppm have on the Earth’s climate?

To answer this question, it is best to peer back into Earth history to see what the world looked like the last time the atmosphere had 400 little carrots pieces for every million-chopped-veggie ladle full. Scientists have tried to do just that by looking at various types of ancient rocks and sediments, and even bubbles in ancient ice.

One good estimate of when atmospheric CO2 was last 400 ppm was produced by Yale researcher Mark Pagani and fellow scientists, who looked at the chemical properties of ancient ocean sediment.

What these scientists found is that the last time atmospheric CO2 reached 400 ppm was likely somewhere around 4.5 million years ago.

At that time, temperatures on the planet were an average of 4° Celsius (7.2° Fahrenheit) higher than today and sea level was about 22 meters (72 feet) higher. Because of a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification, northern climes were even warmer – likely 19° Celsius (34.2° Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Since the Earth’s climate system takes a little bit of time to adjust to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, perhaps these are changes we might expect to see coming down the climate pipeline.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Bill McKibben’s lights-out plan for big oil & gas

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Bill McKibben is a big name in the climate movement, and he’s got a game changing idea.

McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a grassroots organization aimed at stopping fossil fuel extraction (350 is the atmospheric concentration of CO2, in parts per million, above which leading scientists predict global warming may seriously threaten civilization).

 Since 2007, 350.org activists have been going big with their campaigns on behalf of the environment, from forming human chains around the White House, to promoting a global solar panel installation day (for the record, “PutSolarOnIt” predated “put a bird on it”).

Despite the aggressive work of 350 and other organizations, 230 billion more tons of CO2 have been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 6 years, putting us at  397 ppm today.

 McKibben recently teamed up with Naomi Klein to draft a new focus for 350: a campaign for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. So far, four colleges, one public university, one major city, and potentially one mega church have committed to freezing and ultimately withdrawing investments. The narrative driving this campaign is that investing in the fossil fuel industry promotes global warming.

 McKibben’s rhetoric – including a Rolling Stone piece he wrote last year – suggests he may be attempting to reframe global warming entirely, as a “good vs evil” fight against the fossil fuel industry.

 …[T]he planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

I got to hear the new McKibben pitch on his “Do The Math” tour in December. He painted a picture of a global society that wants electricity to come out of wall sockets, but doesn’t want to destroy the planet in the process. Standing in the way, to use McKibben’s rhetoric, are fossil fuel industry execs more interested in profit and far less concerned with the environment.

Also on tour were Ira Glass and Josh Fox (the banjo-wielding creator of Gasland), and an elaborate demonstration involving multiple cases of beer and Winona LaDuke drinking them: a witty metaphor for… wait… what was the point of that again? Largely, it seemed, to attract the college-aged demographic.

 But, back to McKibben. By his calculus, framing this global issue as an actionable fight against an antagonistic tyrant may mobilize people – especially young people, who will be most affected by climate change – to demand change from their universities, colleges, churches, and local governments.

 The question of whether the divestment campaign will succeed as a purely economic tool might be secondary to McKibben’s ability to rouse a new generation to take positions – and take action – in the climate debate.

In an interview with Gothamist last summer, McKibben frequently cited the economic success of divestment in ending South Africa’s system of Apartheid. That point is spelled out at gofossilfree.org – a base for McKibben’s investment freeze campaign.

There have been a handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur, Tobacco and others, but the largest and most impactful one came to a head around the issue of South African Apartheid. By the mid-1980s, 155 campuses — including some of the most famous in the country — had divested from companies doing business in South Africa. 26 state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities, including some of the nation’s biggest, took their money from multinationals that did business in the country. The South African divestment campaign helped break the back of the Apartheid government, and usher in an era of democracy and equality.

Economists point out that it wasn’t the direct economic instrument of divestment that ended Apartheid, but the combined social and economic pressures that mounted and prevailed, as the global community identified and rejected a moral wrong.

If the rabble gets roused, then we may find that McKibben is indeed onto something.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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