Thursday, October 27, 2016

CO2 Record-Level in Atmosphere: Implications for Human Population

In 2015, average global CO2 levels for the year surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time, the WMO revealed in its 2016 annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. At the time, any scientists regarded that ratio of carbon dioxide to other gases in the atmosphere as a “climate change touchstone.”[1] Curiously, however, 400 ppm was not considered a tipping point. It was still possible to reverse the progression of the ratio—yet no one seems to ask how long that would take. In this regard, the ratio’s accelerating rate is particularly telling. Practically speaking, 400 ppm may in fact be a tipping point.

CO2 concentrations in 2015 “were about 144 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. Other emissions measured in the report, methane and nitrous oxide, were up 256 percent and 121 percent from pre-industrial levels, respectively. Among those, however, CO2 contributes the most to warming and [was] responsible for about 81 percent of the increase in radiative forcing from 2005 to 2015.”[2] Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, pointed to the irreversibility of the ratio of CO2 in the atmosphere. “[I]t 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.”[3] Practically speaking, 400 ppm may be a tipping point in that the likelihood of getting below it again in the foreseeable future is nil.
Lest it be thought that the Paris treaty could turn things around, that the vows are voluntary and without repercussions for failing to adhere to the promised cuts. Moreover, “even if all Paris pledges are fully implemented, predicted emissions in 2030 will still place the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees this century,” according to UNEP in 2016.[4] CO2 emissions would have to be cut an additional 25 percent by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.[5] I assume even that would not be enough to get CO2 levels down below 400.

Sadly, we weren’t even going in the right direction at the time of the U.N. Environment Program’s report. In other words, the CO2 ratio’s rate was accelerating. “The increase of CO2 from 2014 to 2015 was larger than that observed from 2013 to 2014 and that averaged over the past 10 years,” the report noted.[6] Predictably—though not in terms of the acceleration—studies at NASA and the University of California at Irvine showed in 2016 that Smith and Pope Glaciers in Antarctica were “growing thinner” and “retreating at the fastest rate ever observed.”[7] Since 1996, “Smith Glacier’s grounding line retreated at an annual rate of 1.24 miles per year and Pope’s at an annual rate of 0.31 mile per year,” according to NASA.[8] Smith Glacier “lost between 984 and 1,607 feet of ice thickness between 2002 and 2009.”[9] That this pace “is nearly six times faster than a previous estimate” is in line with the accelerating ratio of Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere. I contend that the estimates of the impact of the ratio were low because the ratio’s accelerating rate of increase had not been detected. By implication, estimates of how much carbon-emissions should be reduced by have also been too low.
In fact, even the focus on reducing carbon-emissions may be insufficient. The accelerating rate of the ratio as well as the likelihood that we won’t see anything less than 400 ppm may indicate that we have not yet gotten to the underlying causes. According to the WMO’s report, the bulk of the increase in the ratio was due to unbridled human activities ranging from “growing population, intensified agricultural practices, increase in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil sources.”[10] Even among these causes, that of growing population is most fundamental. The human being necessarily takes energy from the environment and expends waste, including pollution. Simply put, our species has been too successful genetically; we have multiplied. Yet the climatic data suggests that we have over-multiplied.

Crucially, the rate of increase in the global population has been increasing. It took 123 years for the total to go from 1 to 2 billion, then only 33 years to reach 3 billion in 1960.[11] The population reached 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2011.[12] How could there not be an astounding impact on the planet’s climate? As a maximizing variable, human population may be out of control, with the ecosystems bearing the brunt. An analysis in 2014 claims there is a 70% chance that the human population “will rise continuously” from 7 billion in 2014 to 11 billion in 2011.[13] This poses “grave challenges for food supplies, healthcare and social cohesion”—not to mention climate change.[14] The head of the research team stressed that population should return to the top of the international agenda.
Unfortunately, population decrease is typically viewed as a problem in many countries, while those with the largest populations—China and India—have not set population decline as a policy goal. To be sure, decreasing population too fast presents social problems, such as not having enough wage-earners to support retired people. Even so, the accelerating feature of the CO2 ratio and its effects on the climate—most notably, on glaciers and oceans more generally—suggests that serious attempts to reduce reproduction-rates globally—and especially where the rates are highest—are warranted. In addition to international agreements to decrease CO2 emissions, declining population targets should also be negotiated. Both individually and as a group, governments can no longer afford to skirt the underlying cause of the problem, which looks increasingly likely to result in the extinction of our species.

Genetically speaking, our species has been very successful in terms of multiplying our DNA in many, many individual members, yet this very success may be short-lived; it may be breeding extinction, which is failure in genetic terms. Put another way, our short-term thinking that reigns on Wall Street may apply even genetically. It may be up to the people serving in governments around the world to make hard choices in order to extend our species’ perspective enough that we can self-regulate our species back to a reasonable number rather than continue to spiral out of control and be at the mercy of nature’s constraints rather than those of our own choosing. Considering the population growth during the twentieth century alone, we can no longer afford as a species to skip over the underlying cause of climate change, for the acceleration is not limited to the ratio of CO2 and glacier-melt. Add in the lifespan-extending advances in medical science, and it becomes clear just how severe we need to be as a species in limiting our reproduction.

[1] Lydia O’Connor, “The Planet Just Crossed Another Major Carbon Milestone,” The Huffington Post, October 25, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, italics added.
[4] Nick Visser and Dominique Mosbergen, “UN: Paris Deal Won’t Be ‘Enough’ To Stave Off Worst Effects Of Climate Change,” The Huffington Post, November 3, 2016.
[5] Ibid.
[6] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[7] David Freeman, “Glaciers’ Rapic Retreat Should Be ‘Alarm Bell to Everyone’s Ears,’” The Huffington Post, October 26, 2016.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[11]The World at Six Billion: Introduction,” United Nations (1999).
[12] Jasmin Coleman, “World’s ‘Seventh Billionth Baby’ Is Born,” The Guardian, October 31, 2011.
[13] Damian Carrington, “World Population to Hit 11bn in 2100—with 70% Chance of Continuous Rise,” The Guardian, September 18, 2014.
[14] Ibid.