Nature allows for ordered systems to cohere and to unravel. When systems cohere, we can talk about harmony, syntropy, life evolving out of chaos, and then intelligent life out of whatever life before intelligence is… when systems come apart, that is entropy: the unraveling of orderly persistent systems. The news from Mauna Loa Observatory, in Hawai’i that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have passed 400 ppm means we are at a tipping point, where widespread climate entropy may be taking hold.
In all of human history, we have never seen global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at or above 400 parts per million (ppm). In fact, the last time the geological record shows us CO2 levels were at 400 ppm, there were no polar ice caps, no modern humans and sea levels were 40 meters higher than they are now. Not only were there no human beings and no human civilization, the civilization we know and seek to secure would not have been possible, in those conditions.
Carbon dioxide emissions from human industrial activity add to the already naturally occurring CO2 levels, which are part of a stable global climate, pushing the proportions out of balance, warming air and water currents, altering the flow of energy and nutrients, and imperiling any and every system that depend on stable climate patterns to maintain the delicate balance of life-supporting ecosystem services.
As we now have confirmation that the world has pushed past the 400ppm threshold for atmospheric CO2—building into our global climate system dangerous levels of warming and of displaced flows of energy and nutrients—too many policy-makers continue to discuss the scientific evidence in terms pertaining to how we lived 30 years ago. Since 1980, we have seen the steady and accelerating confirmation of climate science predictions about negative fallout.
The rate of increase in global average temperatures has been far greater than the standard models projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the most diverse and widespread scientific research project in world history—foresaw. Feedback effects have been more potent accelerators of global climate destabilization than expected.
As a result, the kind of catastrophic weather climate displacement events expected to arrive at mid-century have come fast and furious in the last few years. To name a few: Pakistan’s floods affecting millions, the collapse of mountain glaciers, rapidly accelerating catastrophic Arctic ice melt, Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Bopha, not to mention chronic endemic and expanding drought in major agricultural zones of North America, Africa, Asia and Russia.
We know that once emitted into the global atmosphere, excess carbon-dioxide takes roughly four decades to cycle through and be reabsorbed by what are known as natural “carbon sinks”—those phenomena, like the deep ocean or dense tropical rainforests that “sink” carbon dioxide or pull it out of the atmosphere. But the Earth’s most powerful carbon sinks are reaching their limit, and we are seeing ecosystem degradation in dense forests and dangerous acidification in the oceans.
As absorption capacity shrinks, the metabolic rate for reprocessing atmospheric CO2 may be slowed in ways that could further accelerate the destabilization of vital climate patterns. We have the technical know-how and material potential to radically overhaul our energy infrastructure to prevent the worst from unfolding, but we have not been doing enough to motivate that change.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.
Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.
The first thing we need to do is restart our process of exploring and understanding the best options for pricing carbon-emitting fuels. We can implement a fee and dividend plan that would allow for massive sums of private capital to motivate world-altering technological change in how we interact with and consume energy. Then, we can make the most advanced and ultra-efficient energy technologies the dominant paradigm for energy access and use.
We can make big changes that will stave off the worst climate unraveling, but we have already built so much destabilization into our climate system that we cannot afford to continue waiting. It is no longer “wait and see”: we are seeing climate destabilization unfold before our eyes, and it is time to start working together to solve this. The time for dithering and naysaying is long past.
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Featured image shows NASA’s Earth Observing satellites, including OCO-2, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.