Really? Where did we go? What amazing feat did humanity accomplish this time? Did we make it to Mars finally? Did we send a satellite through a wormhole to another dimension? Did we receive a message from aliens on how to travel faster than the speed of light?
Sorry. We haven’t accomplished any of that yet. So where did humanity go that we’ve never been before?
The answer is Planet Earth. A different Earth. One that humanity has never seen before. I’m talking about an earth which now has 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in its atmosphere. We are now living on an earth that no man, woman or child has ever witnessed before.
Measurements of CO2 levels in the atmosphere over the past decade, taken at different times, in different locations have peaked at 400ppm before. But what’s different now is that ALL measurements from around the globe are ALL averaging 400ppm. (Click here for report from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)
Since the beginning of earth our atmosphere has fluctuated and in turn, the climate has fluctuated. This we know. The earth did have carbon levels this high before at one point, estimated at about 5 to 10 million years ago. This was millions of years before the first prehistoric-man (homo habilis) walked in the Pliocene Era, which was about 1.8 million years ago. For the past 800,000 years carbon levels in the atmosphere have fluctuated between 180 and 300ppm. (They know this by measuring air bubbles trapped in ice cores from Antarctica; read more here) It was only 12,000 years ago when modern humans arrived (homo sapiens) during the Holocene Epoch. Yet somehow, just over the last 100 years we have managed to raise carbon levels at an unprecedented rate, to an unprecedented number. I say “somehow”, but we know how that extra carbon got there. It’s no mystery. Our atmosphere has gone from 280pmm to 400ppm in the last 100 years because of burning fossil fuels; oil, coal and gas. Period! (Yes there are other sources of greenhouse gases but fossil fuel extraction and use, is by far the largest contributor to man-made greenhouse emissions)
Some people search for other improbable explanations like volcanoes. Volcanoes can have short-term climate effects due to sulfates released, but these don’t stay in the atmosphere for long and have no long-term effect on climate. While they do emit some carbon, it is very little compared to human actives. (You can read more about volcanic effects on climate and carbon emissions here from the USGS).
So we are now in unchartered territory with more CO2 in our atmosphere than we’ve ever experienced. What does this mean for us as a civilization? Nobody knows or can predict 100% into the future, but we can make pretty good educated guesses. Instead of getting tied up in politically motivated arguments let me list some undisputed scientific facts and I’ll let you put the dots together. (Each point I list includes a link if you wish to read further on each topic.)
-CO2 traps solar radiation in the form of heat. (Article from Scientific American originally published in 1959)
-The earth’s average air and ocean temperatures have risen dramatically over the past few decades. (report and figures from NASA)
-Warmer air holds more water vapor, making for heavier rain events (Science 101)
-Warmer oceans give storms more energy and more moisture (More about this here)
-Since warmer air holds more water vapor, it takes longer for the air to saturate. So the periods between rains gets longer, intensifying droughts.
-Warmer temperatures also mean less snow. (Mountain snowpack is responsible for about 1/3 the worlds fresh water) (more about the importance of mountain snow)
-Warmer air, with longer periods between rain and less snow leads to worsening droughts.
-Droughts impact our water supply and our FOOD SUPPLY (Bloomberg article on drought impacts)
-Warmer temperatures melt ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. The increasing speed of ice melt adds water to the oceans causing the sea levels to rise. (Sea level rise is also caused by warmer ocean temperatures. As the water heats up it expands.) It is also predicted that 10 million years ago, when there was this much carbon in the atmosphere that sea levels were about 100 feet higher than they are today. (National Geographic report on impacts of sea level rise)
-Melting Arctic ice also releases methane gas that has been trapped below the ice. Methane gas also traps solar radiation and heat, 25 times as much as CO2. (More on methane release from permafrost melting)
We are already starting to see these things happening around the world with our current state. We have severe droughts in California and the entire Southwest. It is also happening in other parts of the world such as Southern Brazil, India and China which are all seeing the worst droughts in their histories. We are also seeing more severe storms and floods effecting millions. Just last month the city of Sydney, Australia had the worst flooding in over a century.
Today costal areas around the world are constantly being flooded on a daily basis. (Read here about Miami’s new-normal flooding) Many island nations have already begun plans to evacuate their entire populations to other countries because of rising ocean levels. If these things are already occurring, now lets take into account some other factors we have to look forward to.
-Global population was 3.6 billion in 1970 and doubled 45 years later to 7.3 billion people today. It is predicted our population will be 9 billion in 2040 and could reach 11 billion by the end of the century. (more about population growth)
-Global demand for water and food will increase. Yet today we are currently seeing our water and food systems being disrupted by floods and droughts.
-Global energy demand is expected to increase about 50% over the next 20 years alone. (Energy Information Administration projections)
We are already seeing the negative effects of these severe weather events with 400ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere and we are continuing to add about 36 gigatonnes of CO2 per year. Now, I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but none of these facts paint a pretty picture for the future of humanity.
Some people have suggested, “If the climate is changing, we will adapt”. And this is true. But keep in mind that adaptation through evolution occurs slowly over thousands of years. How are we supposed to adapt to sudden changes that occur over a period of a few decades? Others would like to assume a passive role, saying that the global climate will change on it’s own regardless of what humans do. This too is true, but the earth has never changed as rapidly as this and life has been able to adapt to natural gradual changes. The last sudden change in climate was what killed off the dinosaurs. (Scientists aren’t 100% sure if it was a meteor crash or intense volcanic activity or a combination of both. But it was a rapid change in climate that was responsible for the mass extinction of ¾ of life on earth)
To add to this, if the rate of carbon emissions has increased and we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere as we are doing today, these effects will continue to increase exponentially. Cause carbon is additive. Even if we stop all fossil fuel use today, we will still feel the effects for years to come, since carbon stays in the atmosphere and ocean cycles for hundreds of years. (more on the Carbon Cycle from Yale University)
While we will have to adapt our society to what is already a new normal, we can still stop the problem from getting incrementally worse. We NEED to change.
- We need to change how we use energy
- We need to change how we view our relationship with the planet.
For centuries mankind has looked at the planet as a place to conquer, as a never-ending resource that will keep giving whatever we take. But the truth is that it is only one small planet, the only one we have. As the population grows the planet will only get smaller.
We have to focus globally (macro) and locally (micro). On a micro scale we have to consider how we each individually are impacting our earth. It is easy to think, “I’m just one person. How can what I do make a difference?” We each make up a part of the whole. It takes individual effort to change the collective consciousness of society. We also have to act on a macro scale, by globally using the collective power of our governments to assist in needed changes. It takes governmental policies to help change national infrastructures. Our politicians have the power to help people change the way we use energy and water.
There are lots of things we can be doing to ensure the continued prosperity for all humanity… or we can decide not to.
“There is no point to intellectual and political work if one were a pessimist. Intellectual and political work require, nay, demand optimism” (Edward Said)
I’m an optimist! Are you?