Too Late for Global Warming – 450 Parts Per Million is History – Now What?

hurricane-2.jpgI don’t usually like to sulk in the doom and gloom of impending or imagined global catastrophe, but this landmark Christian Science Monitor article deserves a lot more attention that it’s getting.
In brief – a UN report is soon due out that shows greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is now in excess of 450ppm – the threshold which may provoke an irreversible warming trend. The worst thing about it is we reached that number faster than we thought was possible and are not even close to turning it around. As recently as last month, publications were still reporting the 450ppm number as a relatively distant fate we had a chance to avoid.
So now what?

Do we come up with a new goal? Abandon all hope? Get realistic about what we can and can’t avoid? Start investing in sea-wall construction companies? Move all operations inland?
Although many people and businesses will do nothing unless faced with the raging fires of calamity, the business case for taking a proactive stance on climate change couldn’t be clearer. Businesses that start tackling issues of pollution and inefficiency will do well regardless of whether or not climactic catastrophe is at our doorstep. With the evidence mounting that action may be more urgent than ever before, it’s really a no-brainer in my book.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

12 responses

  1. Be sure you’re making a distinction between ppm CO2 and ppm CO2E — CO2 plus the various other greenhouse gases translated into CO2 equivalence (e.g., methane x23). The CSM article talks CO2E, not base CO2 — which is up to 380-385ppm.

  2. The original fear, as discussed by Hansen, et al, is about CO2 (not CO2e) reaching 450ppm, in the context of other greenhouse gases also peaking (the other ghgs have faster atmospheric cycling time, so they aren’t as hard to deal with as CO2). The overall CO2e concentrations in that scenario would be over 500, closer to 550ppm.
    We’re seeing atmospheric CO2 rising faster than modeled, and this is a huge problem, but we’re not yet at the 450ppm CO2 tipping point.
    This is not a “semantic” debate, btw. It’s a question of getting the science right in our public discussions of this problem.

  3. For scenario planning and climate stabilization purposes, the distinction of GHG type is key. The effects CO2 emitted today are suspended by up to 30 years and last much longer, while other GHGs, although more potent in their short terms heat trapping, have more immediate and less enduring effects. Ludicrous as it may be to look for hope in this distinction, it does offer some solace with regards to long terms reductions.
    At the same time, I do understand the impatience expressed by Joe as it pertains to semantics: real change is imperative, and that’s something semantics can retard like quicksand.

  4. “We thought we’d be at that threshold within about a decade…. We thought we had that much time. But the new data indicates that in about mid-2005 we crossed that threshold…. What the report establishes is that the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that could potentially cause dangerous climate change.”
    “[A]lso we have really seen an unexpected acceleration in the rate of accumulation of CO2 itself [not just CO2e] , and that’s been beyond the limits of projection … beyond the worst-case scenario. We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change – that’s what the new figures say…. It’s not next year, or next decade; it’s now.”
    Semantics or long term strategic planning aside, the two above quotes represent the take-home message from this announcement in my eyes. We’ve seriously underestimated the extent and time frame of the problem.

  5. One article we’ve seen this week helps to explain this – the oceans are absorbing less CO2. So climate models will have to be revised to account for this unfortunate development.
    Then you also have the rapid rise of China and India’s emissions, rampant tropical deforestation reducing those sinks, and the utter failure of world leaders to take key efficiency increases at the policy level – such as boost fuel efficiency standards and make cars such as those unpatriotically gargantuan Hummers, Dodges and Ford 350+’s illegal (of course, the latter would also help stave off Peak Oil, which, according to the folks at seems to be growing closer on an eerie parallel journey with climate change).
    The good news, which we here know well, is that the solutions to these dilemmas – rapid transition to cleaner, more efficient technologies – will benefit our environment, economies, health, security, and quality of life alike!
    Here is a piece that I penned a couple of weeks ago about David Orr and others’ take on Climate Change and the next American President:

  6. As another note, there is the element of “who knows” what feedbacks are kicking in at the moment.
    With the collapse of the Arctic ice sheet this summer, there will undoubtedly be a tremendous increase in the Earth’s albedo at high altitudes, compared to when the ice sheet is intact. There is the release of CO2 from warming permafrost, release of methane from warming oceans, and, frankly, who knows what else…
    The key word is that we are “destabilizing” the global climate system. Increasing the probability of “Climate Surprises”.

  7. With the collapse of the Arctic ice sheet this summer, there will undoubtedly be a tremendous increase in the Earth’s albedo at high altitudes…
    High LATITUDES, that is… :-) (that’s what happens to language when trying to do 27 things at once!)

Leave a Reply