The National Climate Assessment Says We’re in Trouble. This Chart Shows Why.

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This animated chart from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences shows the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Note the spike?

Measuring CO2 in parts per million (ppm), the chart shows, first, how the amount of the gas in our atmosphere has increased year-by-year over the past few decades, and then, how dramatic those increases are relative to CO2 levels over the last 800,000 years. (For context, anthropologists believe Homo sapiens started acting like the humans we recognize today, with different languages and cultures and technologies, only about 50,000 years ago.)

Yes, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuate naturally over time — but not by this much. Experts have concluded that, to keep the Earth’s climate from spinning out of control, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere must be kept below 350 ppm. Because of our fossil fuel consumption, we’re now well beyond 400. And, as the National Climate Assessment recently illustrated, we’re starting to feel the effects.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Scott Kuli

    It’s not just carbon either. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and there are others.

    Next time someone says “There’s no such thing as global warming”, just say “Fine, because it doesn’t happen everywhere at once, but there is LARGE AREA REGIONAL WARMING, and it IS due to greenhouse gases, and it IS causing the AVERAGE temperature to rise”.

    Ever notice it doesn’t get appreciably cooler at night now like it used to when you were a kid?

    That’s the heat being kept down, prevented unnaturally from rising, by greenhouse gases, and that is probably the most obvious proof of their danger.

    It’s also unarguable and not something that someone clever with math and bull can manipulate out of existence on paper.

    This ought to be used to silence the idiots.

  • Brad Farnsworth

    Those that are trying to hide global warming with misleading facts and
    propaganda are psychopaths, plain and simple and should be brought up on
    charges in the world court for crimes against humanity for ignoring the
    dangers and warning signs.

    Some already are calling for a world
    climate court to prosecute those who don;t heed the warnings and
    continue business as usual.

  • Alpha Wolf

    Our – AMERICANS – lifestyles have been built on carbon fuels for at least the last century and a half and, pound for pound, we’ve done more to contribute to this than anyone else on the planet.

    We’re 4.5% of the world’s population and have emitted at least 25% of its carbon. For example, while China (with over 4 times our population) recently surpassed us in carbon emissions, it will take them another 94 years (at current levels) to surpass our cumulative emissions. The fundamental paradox is that, while there’s much weeping and gnashing of teeth (at least among certain groups), and some shifting of energy sources at the margin (solar equals about 0.04% (4 one hundredths of one percent) of our energy consumption) we are not willing to fundamentally change and downsize our lifestyles and expectations or to take the economic hit this would entail.

    President Obama’s photo opp at the Wal-Mart in Mountain View to publicize the report as part of this week’s news cycle fundamentally illustrates the paradox and internal conflicts on the left. While purists don’t shop at Wal-Mart because of its labor policies and/or because most of its products are imported from China and elsewhere, it went from a single store to the largest retailer in the world in a little over half a century because of Sam Walton’s obsession with driving down costs, which entailed driving down the cost of goods sold and the costs of selling them, including salaries, for his customers. On the positive side, Wal-Mart has the largest privately installed base of solar panels, making a significant contribution to that 0.04% solar, but it’s not because they’re environmentalists, but because they have large energy intensive stores with unobstructed roofs and can justify the capital investment in solar panels in terms of saving money on electricity over time.

    While Americans’ carbon output has peaked, and actually declined as a result of the shift from coal to natural gas as a result of fracking (another conflict and paradox), the current, and prospective future driver of carbon emissions is the 6 billion people in the developing world, epitomized by the 1.3 billion Chinese, as they desperately attempt to catchup to a fraction of our lifestyles and standards of living. While on the one hand, energy consumption, and carbon emissions, predictably increase with economic development, on the other, many developing and developed economies (including ours) are dependent on the extraction and production of fossil fuels.

  • Melty

    The units are years AD (like “2014”) until 1 minute in, when they switch to yBCE (years Before Christian Era) and then at 1:03 kyBCE (thousand years Before Christian Era). It’s pretty clear — but you are right, it ought to have been more clearly labelled (it would not pass peer review w/o comment!). Anyway, I hope this helps.

  • Rhea Foster

    thanks for the reply. I did finally notice the dates when closely examining the film.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not just CO2 and methane either, …’s Republicans.

  • Michael Parker

    It’s true that there are other greenhouse gases, but they tend to be short-lived. Methane, for example, is something like 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of the amount of heat it traps, but it only lives in the atmosphere for 10 years or so. I read in one paper or another that a focus on reduction of methane output can have a cooling effect on of ~0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

    The effects of carbon dioxide are more long-term. We’re stuck with what’s already been pumped into the atmosphere for quite a while yet. This is why there’s more concern over it.

  • CaliforniaHal

    Water vapor is another global warmer … !!

  • Anonymous

    But we can’t ignore the methane. The global warming potential of methane relative to CO2 — which does factor in lifetime — is about 20.

  • Robert L. Henderson

    Water vapor is a positive feedback, not a climate forcer. Because warmer air holds more moisture, water vapor amplifies the warming effect of the other GHG’s. Methane is a big concern because in the short term it is ~ 100 times as effective as carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and “the short term” is all the time we have left before the various positive feedbacks render us moot.

  • Michael Parker

    I didn’t suggest we should. As I implied above, if we tighten up methane output we can see short term benefits. The same is not true of CO2. Even if we were to reduce output today, we still have to live with the effect of what’s already in the atmosphere (not to mention what’s circulating in the ocean) for a very long time. The benefits of reduced output are far into the future. That’s why it’s a larger concern. No one is ignoring methane, or the effects of other greenhouse gases.

    There are some great lectures about this on YouTube from the Scripps Institute at UC/SD as part of their Climate Change in Four Dimensions course. They cover a lot of ground, including the political challenges to getting something done. Political will is the biggest obstacle right now, no matter which greenhouse gas you want to curb.

  • Casaundra

    Not all of us :)