2013 saw historically high atmospheric levels of the worst climate change causing gases — CO2, CH4 and N20 — according to a recent report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations meteorological agency.
The WMO study shows that the global average level of atmospheric carbon is just under 400 parts per million— about 40 percent higher than in pre-industrial times, and higher than in any other period in at least 800,000 years. According to study, scientists, and climate movement leaders like Bill McKibben, anything beyond 350 parts per million of CO2 is where we’ll see unpredictable and disastrous effects on the planet’s weather and ecological systems and pass any sort of climate change “safety zone.”
“Scientists have predicted that this problem and the way in which it will present itself now and in the future is not linear,” says Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission Activation Manager. “There are a whole host of tipping points that will likely accelerate warming as we move more deeply into this issue.”
Right now, melting ice in the arctic is reducing the reflectivity of our poles, and increasing heat absorption. The melting Tundra in the Siberia is releasing massive amounts of methane— a gas with 20 times the climate change potential as CO2. And unprecedented levels of ocean acidification have resulted from increased CO2 levels— and the more the ocean acidifies, the less CO2 it can bank.
Typically, the earth has absorbed around 50% of human caused CO2 emissions, preventing temperatures from rising as quickly as they otherwise would. Now, there are a startling number of these feedback loops that are already exacerbating the warming effects. WMO scientists believe that the latest record high emissions reflect a reduced capacity of the world’s oceans and plant life to sponge up the excess carbon we’ve put in the atmosphere. We’ve been emitting faster than the planet can keep up with for a long time— and now that we’ve pushed past this threshold, the effects of climate change on the atmosphere may accelerate dramatically.
“Solving this now is far less disruptive economically, environmentally, from a societal point of view than to think that we can just adapt our way around this problem,” says Miller. “2015 is a pivotal year. A deal will be done in Paris, and the question is, will that deal be enough? We cannot let policy makers show up in Paris, claim victory, and have agreed to something that is not up to the task.”
The September 21st People’s Climate March was a big step in the right direction. It was the critical mass of an international movement that we hope will galvanize the UN Climate Change Conference to take decisive action next winter in Paris. What’s at stake is truly monumental— we need to enact change as emissions rates continue to notch up, year after year.
“This issue gets increasingly difficult the longer we continue to increase global warming emissions,” says Miller, “because it is likely to run away from us in the not too distant future. Even if you shut everything off forever, we will have soon set ourselves on a path that you can’t turn around from.”