Prominent climate researchers have warned that we must reduce the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, or CO2, to 350 parts per million (ppm) or below in order to stabilize climate change and avoid global catastrophe. The Center for Biological Diversity, along with groups such as 350.org, is strongly advocating now for this necessary standard.
While CO2 isn’t the only global warming pollutant we need to control, it’s the number one contributor to climate change.
Before the Industrial Revolution, around 1750, atmospheric CO2 levels were hovering around 280 ppm. And in all of human history — going back more than 200,000 years — research shows that the highest CO2 concentration reached before modern times was 308 ppm. The Earth’s atmosphere for 2010 had an average concentration of 389 ppm. This high loading of atmospheric CO2 is rising by about 2 ppm per year — and in the geological blink of an eye, we’ve dumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than built up naturally over the past 800,000 years.
Even modest increases in CO2 levels, sustained over very long periods on the geologic time scale, have meant major temperature increases and a much higher sea level — only one of many reasons these high CO2 levels are an extremely urgent cause for concern. We also know that an atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm will swiftly cause our oceans to become so acidic that critically important marine food webs will be at risk of collapse — meaning that our oceans are also desperately in need of the reduction to 350 ppm.
Several lines of evidence show that allowing greenhouse gas levels to remain above 350 ppm for a sustained period of time will lead to dangerously acidic oceans, runaway global warming, and melting of the polar ice caps. Such a climate would be well outside anything experienced in the history of the human species, and would carry with it irreversible cascades of species extinctions and significant dangers for human civilization.
With current CO2 levels at 385 ppm, we’re already experiencing dramatic and frightening impacts of climate change. Recently, researchers reported that the Arctic is warmer than it’s been in 2,000 years, even though it should be cooling because of changes in the Earth’s orbit that cause the region to get less direct sunlight. Eric Post, an associate professor of biology at Penn State University, released a recent study on arctic warming and concluded: “The Arctic as we know it may soon be a thing of the past.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has called for an immediate reduction of atmospheric CO2, with the goal of an overall concentration of 350 ppm or less to be achieved as quickly as possible. To accomplish that, we support the rapid phasing out of all coal-fired power plants, the highest technologically feasible vehicle-mileage standards, and a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas drilling, among other critical measures.
According to NASA scientist James Hansen, “An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon.” This means no new coal plants; institution of sustainable, science-based farming and timber regimes that keep carbon locked up; and replacement of fossil-fuel technologies with low-carbon alternatives throughout the transportation, residential, industrial and energy sectors as quickly as possible. A goal of 350 ppm will also necessitate the large-scale establishment of conservation and efficiency regulations and incentives.
Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence pointing urgently toward the need for a 350 ppm goal, even many environmental groups have not yet committed to the standard. It’s crucial that the federal government take aggressive regulatory action to reduce emissions now with a 350 ppm goal, catalyzing international action on the 350 ppm standard so that we can secure binding global agreements with the same benchmark.
Will we have the political will to get there?
There’s no doubt that 350 is an ambitious goal, but failing to get there isn’t a viable option. To date, proposed bills in the U.S. Congress have fallen far short of the ppm goal needed to stave off global catastrophe from climate change. At the Center, we’ve been working hard to get the 350 message out. While we advocate for new legislation and international agreements that would help us reach the 350 ppm target, we’re busy using existing environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, to help curb global warming pollution now. The Clean Air Act has dramatically reduced air pollution over the past four decades, but is currently under attack in Congress. The Center’s Clean Air Cities campaign seeks to safeguard this critical protection and urge the Obama administration to use the Clean Air Act ambitiously and urgently. But we need your help. Step up right now to sign our petition to cap carbon dioxide at 350 ppm.
Then take part in the Center for Biological Diversity’s Clean Air Cities Campaign, and get your local government to join the chorus of voices urging the EPA to use the Clean Air Act to regulate and reduce carbon dioxide pollution.
To find out what else you can do to help, please click here.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons/350.org.