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A global warming landmark

Photograph by Jonathan Kingston, National Geographic

So, it has happened and much sooner than many climatologists expected – a landmark level of 400 parts per million of CO2 has been detected in the Earth’s atmosphere on a mountain top in the state of Hawaii.*

This is the first time that this has happened in all human history, and the last time these concentrations were seen was 3-5 million years ago in the Pliocene Period of geological time. At that time, according to ice core samples and a recent international study of an absolutely unique meteor-formed and unglaciated lake and its sediments in Siberia, global average temperatures were 3 or 4C higher than today (8C warmer at the poles) and sea levels were 40 metres higher than they are now. So why aren’t our temperatures at this level yet?

Well, the Earth's climate takes time to adjust to the increased heat being trapped by high greenhouse gas levels and it may even take hundreds of years for the great ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland to melt to the small sizes seen in the Pliocene Period and for sea levels to inundate many of the world's major coastal cities. But the extreme speed at which CO2 in now rising – perhaps 75 times faster than in pre-industrial times – has never been seen in the geological records before and if we continue on our current track, we'll reach the doubled carbon dioxide mark around mid-century – or even sooner when the warming from other human greenhouse gas emissions like methane is included!

On the eve of the industrial revolution CO2 concentrations were 280 ppm, which means that we are currently about 40% of the way toward a doubling of these measures and most scientific studies and projections around the world have been very consistent in estimating that surface temperatures will warm between 2 and 4.5°C in response to an eventual doubling of atmospheric carbondioxide.

These rising CO2 levels if unchecked will, of a certainty, translate into a global mean temperature increase that will alter our planet out of all recognition, and make living on it and off it very difficult indeed.

However, because these levels are unprecedented in human terms, we have no way of knowing exactly how this is all going to pan out in very precise terms, month by month and place by place. By that I mean, we do know in general what a warmed planet will look like and what the consequences will be – dire, in short; particularly if the planet starts to heat up in runaway mode. We do know what the general direction of climate change is now (incontrovertibly so by now) and – unless something dramatic is done on a global scale by the international community acting in concert – we also know what the rate or pace of change is very likely to be as well. But we do not know exactly how this will cash out in regional or local terms - in terms of this year or next - because at that level climate becomes weather and is subject to all kinds of differing considerations.

So some places will become unendurably hot whilst others will be lashed by heavy rains and storms; whilst some places in a generally warming world will – bizarrely – become colder (Just look what’s happening to the UK as the Jet Stream oscillates about more wildly than ever due to changes in the Arctic eco-system).

Now all this is very worrying as things stand, but there are obvious scientific and practical responses to all this and the most obvious one is to speed up the search for cheap, renewable and non-warming/polluting sources of energy – something I recently addressed in a couple of blogs. There are reasons, as I pointed out, to be optimistic here, but time is of the essence and there is still insufficient urgency, globally, in this regard at the moment. But just think what would happen – and within a very short timescale too – if an incredibly cheap and non-polluting source of energy to fuel the billions of motor cars and other vehicles in the world – like hydrogen, say – came along tomorrow. In one fell swoop a great deal of pressure would be taken off the planetary system and the dramatic effects would be seen and measured in terms of human life-times (historical rather than geological time) – and just in time too!

But there is another altogether more radical response to go along with the above, one that is rarely articulated and barely considered in public debate anywhere so far. And that is simply to slow down the relentless, planet-destroying pursuit of growth by the creation of what is becoming known as a ‘steady state’ economy. This is the subject of a very timely and fascinating paperback called ‘Enough is Enough’ by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill. The subtitle says it all really - Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources – and, when I’ve finished reading it, it will no doubt form the basis of a future blog!

Significantly, in my Doctor Kerfuffle trilogy for young minds (and older) the good doctor, in several places, calls for a major overhauling and re-gearing of the free-market economic system to meet the needs of a planet under ecological stress. And in The Return of Dr Kerfuffle, the doctor and his young associate, Joshua Rees, explore several key eco-systems – Arctic seas, deserts, rain forests and coral reefs – to see for themselves the already realised and the future effects of global warming. The third book, The Triumph of Dr Kerfuffle?, then examines more closely the causal factors, social, economic and fantastical (it is a children’s book after all!), behind all these changes – though naturally enough it shies away from offering a solution to it all.

But maybe, just maybe, Dietz and O’Neill’s book has some of the answers the good doctor has been looking for and, maybe, just maybe… but watch this space.

* * *

* The two CO2 monitoring stations high up on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa are run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and they have provided the global benchmark measurement since 1958. The isolated Hawaiian island is a good location for measurements as it is far from the main sources of CO2, meaning it represents a good global average.

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