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Convenience inertia, 400 ppm and continental warming

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CO2_399ppm_201304The bad news first. The Guardian has reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 399.72 parts per million (ppm) and is likely to pass the symbolically important 400 ppm level for the first time in the next few days. Every additional single ppm is that much closer to the many tipping points earth scientists and climatologists have warned governments and policymakers about.

There are three strands of information tied together here. One of these helps us understand what 400 ppm is, relative to a history that we can measure. Another shows us why, despite repeated warnings about the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and evidence piled upon new evidence with every passing year, policymakers and the consuming public have simply not reacted. And then there is the ppm counter itself, remorseless in its upward march.

The paper, ‘Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia’ (in Nature Geoscience (Vol 6, May 2013)), analysed a number of records (called ‘proxy records’, which indicate temperature change. The researchers found that “of the 323 individual proxy records that extend to ad 1500, more sites seem warmest during 1971-2000 than during any other 30-year period, both in terms of the total number of sites and their proportion in each region”. Moreover, “of the 52 individual records that extend to ad 500, more sites (and a higher proportion) seem warmest during the twentieth century than during any other century”.

Next, the human response. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has released an excellent publication which is a collection of interviews concerning climate, but also what humans have done to climate (and is also about science). The book, ‘Air & Climate: Conversations About Molecules And Planets, With Humans In Between’, contains an interview (there are several) with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the founder and Director of the immensely influential Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Schellnhuber has been a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change since its inception in 1992, and its chairman since 2008.

Schellnhuber in the interview has talked about a moral and a time issue involved, with creating “tremendous inertia in the behaviour of people and the making of politics”. He has said:

“The moral issue goes as follows: if you brought your child to the school bus, and the driver said there was a 50% chance of an accident because something was wrong with the engine, nothing on Earth would make you put your child onto that bus. Climate change undoubtedly creates, with more than 50% probability, the risk of destroying the life of some child in some region that is heavily hit by anthropogenic warming at the other side of the planet – the life of a child who is not even born yet and who you will never get to know. Acting to save that anonymous life is a really tough test for our moral standards, even if you believe every word of what science says about climate disruption.”

“Even when your own survival is at stake it seems far too inconvenient to change your habits now and to reap the benefits later. So it is not that people are wicked or dumb or not perceptive of scientific insights, there is simply this inertia related to the demi-god ‘convenience’.”

[The book ‘Air & Climate’ (by Frank Raes, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2012) can be found here.]

How powerful can the satisfaction of the ‘convenience’ idea be to modern humans? Is it possible that the satisfaction of this idea overrides personal, community, species and ecosystem survival? Although I agree with Schellnhuber’s comment, especially given the speed at which industrial agriculture and food systems are overrunning our landscape, it seems almost inconceivable that the motor of convenience insulates consuming humans from all evidence, even evidence as weighty as the Nature Geosciences paper.

This has said, as clearly as possible, that (1) the best estimate of past temperature from seven continent-sized regions indicates that 1971–2000 was warmer than any other time in nearly 1,400 years, (2) the global warming that has occurred since the end of the nineteenth century reversed a persistent long-term global cooling trend, and (3) the increase in average temperature between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exceeded the temperature difference between all other consecutive centuries in each region, except Antarctica and South America.

And finally, the deadly ppm counter. Readings at the US government’s Earth Systems Research laboratory in Hawaii, are not expected to reach their 2013 peak until mid-May this year, but were recorded at a daily average of 399.72 ppm on 25 April – that is, last week. CO2 atmospheric levels have been steadily rising for 200 years, registering around 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution and 316 ppm in 1958 when the Mauna Loa observatory started measurements. “The increase in the global burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the increase,” said the Guardian article. Profiting from convenience as a way towards extinction?