The bad news: Earth’s climate change problem just passed a point of no return. Atmospheric carbon levels have passed 400 parts per million, and they won’t return to more environment-friendly levels “ever again for the indefinite future.”
The good news? Oh, wait, no. Sorry. We’re pretty screwed.
We already knew it was bad. After all, in the last 20 years, humanity destroyed 1.27 million square miles—10 percent—of the Earth’s wilderness. Climate change has “devastated” 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. The world’s so screwed that genius Stephen Hawking recently claimed that “the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.”
But now we really, really know we’re in trouble. Scientist Ralph Keeling, who’s in charge of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, wrote in a blog that “it already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year—or ever again for the indefinite future.”
Similarly, NASA’s chief climate scientist Gavin Schmidt told Climate Central, “In my opinion, we won’t ever see a month below 400 ppm.”
Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the “primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.NASA says that the planet’s average surface temperature has warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, because of “increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.”
A lot of problems come with climate change. Because of it, one-fourth of the Earth’s species could be extinct by 2050. It also screws up food webs, as polar bears are finding out the hard way. Millions and millions of people will have to relocate due to rising sea levels, with scientists estimating that over 13 million Americans might have to move by 2100.
While 400 ppm is more of a symbolic point than an actual tipping point (for example, there’s not a huge difference between 395 ppm and 405 ppm), the findings at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii are troubling because September is typically the lowest point of the year for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Keeling explained, “By November, we will be marching up the rising half of the cycle, pushing towards new highs and perhaps even breaking the 410 ppm barrier.”
In 2012, the Arctic passed the 400 ppm mark—the first region to do so. In recent years, Antarctica was the only carbon dioxide monitoring station that hadn’t reached a reading of 400 ppm, but they passed that mark in June—for the first time in millions of years.