On top of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric research facility, encounter dazzling views and sobering news about the earth’s future. Today, they announced that for the first time in millions of years, the level of the carbon dioxide in the air had reached 400 parts per million on average over the course of a full 24-hour day.
It’s a significant reminder that not enough is being done to curtail the volume of climate-changing causing greenhouse gasses that are entering the atmosphere.
As the New York Times reported on Friday, the epoch of the Pliocene, more than 3 million years ago, was the last time the level of carbon dioxide was this high. That was a time of warmer temperatures, less polar ice, and sea levels as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than current levels.
"Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way" warned the Times. As Columbia University scientist Maureen E. Raymo told the paper, "It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster."
Groups like 350.org, founded by environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben, advocate for policies to bring the level of carbon dioxide back to what they say is a safe limit of 350 parts per million. "[T]he only way to get there is to immediately transition the global economy away from fossil fuels and into into renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable farming practices in all sectors (agriculture, transport, manufacturing, etc.)," they write on their website.
Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by more than 40 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, just 250 years ago, when human industry began burning significant amounts of fossil fuels.3