In late September, a report was published, revealing that for the first time in the modern era, atmospheric carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm). The news was trending on Facebook for a few days, but no major news outlets mentioned anything about the report other than USA Today. Many people reacted to the news with an appropriate amount of dismay, but perhaps missed the most important part—this is, by all present means, the beginning of the end.
Crossing the carbon threshold is wildly, monumentally, and unprecedentedly terrible. Dissenting arguments are deeply mired in socio-economic privileges and regressive political rhetoric that deliberately misinterpret, misconstrue, and blatantly reject universally accepted, peer-reviewed, decades-long studied climate science.
So what exactly is the “carbon threshold,” what impacts will crossing it have, and what factors caused such a rapid acceleration of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration?
Carbon is the sixth-most abundant element in the Universe, and due to its atomic structure it’s easily capable of bonding with other atoms to form very strongly bonded molecules. Its ability to easily bond with other atoms is a very important fact to take note of. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a vital molecule in the composition of air, although it only constitutes about .04% of the combination of molecules that comprise air. CO2 is certainly the most widely known culprit of a massive number of factors that have contributed to climate change since the Industrial Revolution – and for good reason.
Carbon dioxide has played a vital role as a greenhouse gas in regulating Earth’s temperature for billions of years. Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has fluctuated a great deal over Earth’s 4.5 billion year lifetime – but natural systems and carbon sinks (trees, soils, savanna, and the oceans) kept its concentration at a relatively stable, relatively safe level.
For tens of thousands of years, humans lived on the Earth as a part of its systems, working within the natural order of things. Then the Industrial Revolution happened, free-market capitalism rose in prevalence, and everything changed.
The “Snowball” Effect”
As industrialization swept across the world and carbon-based fuel combustion became the primary source of energy production, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels began to steadily rise, and Earth’s natural systems for carbon sequestration couldn’t keep up. Once that process began, a feedback loop took hold, and the earliest stages of climate catastrophe began.
The issue with addressing climate change is that no single factor is to blame, rather, a combination of factors individually contributing negative externalities as a result of modern industrial and agricultural practices feeds into a leviathan feedback loop.
One such feedback loop happens like this:
Sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and much of its heat energy is reflected off of high albedo (highly reflective) surfaces back out into space. The “greenhouse” effect traps some of that heat energy within the atmosphere, which allows the planet to be a livable place. However, two factors have negatively affected the greenhouse effect – ozone depletion and higher gaseous concentrations. As the ozone layer depletes, it allows more solar radiation in, and higher greenhouse gas concentration keeps heat energy from escaping the atmosphere.
This causes the atmosphere to warm, and snow and ice to melt. That snow/ice melt is incredibly detrimental to the Earth’s natural climate control. Snow and ice have a very high albedo – they reflect nearly all of the light that hits their surface. The ocean has a very low albedo – it absorbs most of the light that hits its surface. As snow and ice melt, and sea-level rise occurs, there’s more surface area for light to be absorbed.
Water begins to release some of its gaseous compounds as it’s heated – primarily oxygen. So the oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of CO2, and releasing increasing amounts of oxygen – while that may sound like a good thing, it’s actually quite terrible. Due to the increased amount of atmospheric carbon (and the aforementioned bonding capabilities of the atom) the oxygen that’s released from the ocean bonds to carbon atoms and forms CO2.
More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere allows for less heat radiation to escape from the atmosphere, causing increasing temperatures, and resulting in more snow and ice melt. Carbon and carbon dioxide get absorbed into the oceans, but it can only absorb so much. The loss of oceanic oxygen concentration has caused its pH to drop resulting ocean acidification. Not only are the oceanic pH levels changing, climate change is making the oceans less salty. Salinity is a key part of regulating inter-oceanic currents, which are important to climate/temperature regulation. With less salt in the water, the currents can’t flow as they once did, disrupting the regulatory processes.
This example is only a narrow sliver of what’s happening on a global scale. Each individual factor that affects the global climate is innately and inseparably bonded to another. There is no single solution.
Who’s To Blame
The short, over-generalized answer would be “everyone.” While it’s true that nearly every person in developed, developing, and underdeveloped economies contributes to systems that contribute to climate change, even massive lifestyle changes on an individual scale do very little to counteract the actions of the largest factors leading to climate change.
The burning of fossil fuels is generally viewed as the primary contributor to climate change – for good reason. Fossil fuel combustion releases a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, along with other gases with high global warming potential such as methane and sulfur dioxide. This isn’t a new discovery, either. In 1977, Exxon funded a study about the effects that carbon dioxide had on the climate, revealing various projection models that all pointed towards climate change. Exxon senior scientist Dr. James Black reported that: “the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”
A year after this statement, he advised Exxon that an increase in CO2 emissions would raise global temperatures in time. Exxon ignored the study and actively worked to keep the information out of public knowledge, even going so far as to blatantly misinform the public about the effects of carbon-based fuel combustion.
Agribusiness is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Primarily, the beef industry. Due to their stomach anatomy, cows have to burp (a lot). Those burps release methane into the atmosphere. Multiply that by millions of cows across the world and the numbers add up quickly. Methane has a global warming potential more than 25 times that of CO2.
In the United States, agribusiness giants like Monsanto stand to gain huge profits by selling their crops to beef producers for cow feed, in the form of corn. Massive corn production operations primarily serve two markets: the beef and gas industries, in the form of cattle feed and ethanol. Monocropping operations for crops like corn are environmentally deleterious because they limit opportunities for carbon sequestration via natural systems such as forests and grasslands. Responsibly managed farm operations can sustainably produce crops without disrupting carbon sequestration as severely as monocropping does.
What It All Means Now
We’ve crossed the carbon threshold, and the Earth’s regulatory systems can no longer keep up with the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most current projections hypothesize that global catastrophic climate collapse will begin sometime around 2050.
Oceans will rise, coastal cities will be destroyed, massive droughts will cause human suffering and illness, widespread crop failure, livestock death, and bee colony collapse. Temperatures will continue to rise, extreme weather events will increase in both frequency and severity. “Climate refugees” will evacuate areas heavily affected by drought, famine, and disease. Resources will become limited. Populations will become more dense.
If this sounds like a cynical, apocalyptic environmentalist fever dream – it’s not. It should be noted that most people living in developed countries will not feel the full effects of cataclysmic climate collapse at its start, but that does not mean there it will not affect those populations in time.
One thing above all should be very clear – climate change will inevitably have little effect on the Earth as a planet, but it will affect its organisms. Life on Earth will go on, but humans and life as we know it are in very real danger.
What is there to do? Massive, unprecedented global cooperation between countries is required to mitigate climate change. But there is no going back below the 400 carbon ppm threshold. Remediation, even in it’s most basic of forms, is necessary.
The lack of discussion about climate change in the presidential debates is profoundly frightening, and while Trump’s energy plan is just plain stupid, Clinton’s climate change mitigation strategies are far too lenient. And then there’s Gary Johnson, who thinks it doesn’t matter since the sun will one day envelope the Earth. Although Johnson’s plan makes no sense, it’s kind of reassuring – from a nihilistic perspective – that our struggles are inevitably feckless on the scale of space and time.
What if we do nothing, and carry on as usual? Then we may as well consider our climate scientists and environmentalists to be hospice workers for the world as we know it, making things as comfortable as possible for its untimely demise.