The clarity of climate change

We do, indeed, live in interesting times.

On any given day, news from around the globe reports tragic loss of life, economic and/or political crises, corruption, and other social ills – all of which can be sandwiched between stories of technological advances, human courage and generosity, topped by plenty of celebrity scandals and entertainment events. All too much to absorb, but the range has become a relatively normal fare for our overactive minds.

Yet, with all due respect to all that the good people in Oklahoma are suffering through, there are three distinct but related threshold news events from the last month which have long lasting global implications.

∎ On May 10, we were informed that air tested at the summit of the volcano Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii had carbon dioxide (CO2) levels which exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm).

Mauna Loa has been the primary testing site for monitoring and reporting the worldwide CO2 level trends since the 1950s. While levels spiked above 400 ppm in the Arctic last year and once before in Hawaii, this was the first time they remained elevated above 400 ppm for a full 24-hour period. Global CO2 levels vary throughout a year, most notably falling as tree leaves in the northern hemisphere sequester 10 billion tons of carbon every growing season, and then rising again with the fall. Yet scientists agree that CO2 levels had remained between 180-280 ppm for the last three million years and fairly stable near that upper range for the last 8,000 years. And that is what is newsworthy about the May 10 report: The last time CO2 levels were this high was over three million years ago, during the Pliocene Era, when the planet was much warmer, ice caps much smaller, and sea level was 60-80 feet higher than it is today. These are the conditions we are creating by burning fossil fuels. You can watch a very effective animated graph showing CO2 level increases at And with this trend, breaking records for hottest temperatures, longest droughts, worst fires, and 100 year storms every few years, are becoming the new normal.

∎  In the last few months, huge oil shale deposit discoveries have been announced – on the order of 10 billion to 30 billion barrels each — in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and elsewhere. Conventional oil drilling in the US peaked in the 70s – that means we were no longer finding large sources of oil which could be economically extracted. With the development of “tight oil extraction technologies” – i.e. horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – we can now extract oil from thinner deposits within shale and have now discovered vast “shale fields” in addition to the tar sand deposits known in western Canada. The industry and its pocketed politicians are planning the infrastructure for an oil shale revolution, starting with the pipeline for Canada’s tar sands. And all of this is on top of the fact that if we burn the previously known reserves, we would produce enough carbon emissions to raise the earth’s temperature 5 degrees C (41F) within the lifetimes of people alive today. The world governments agreed in 2009 that allowing a 2 degree Celsius increase would be catastrophic. Yet the world’s fossil fuel financial markets are based on selling enough oil which, when burned, would raise the earth’s average temperature 5 degrees. It bears repeating.

For those who see only economic expansion from burning fossil fuels and choose to downplay or ignore the environmental impacts of fracturing — or the 97 percent consensus among climate scientists who agree that CO2 emissions have us on a precipitous track towards irreversible and catastrophic climate change — these oil deposit discoveries are cause for great relief if not celebration. For those who are convinced that current fracturing methods risk permanent damage to our water aquifers and that if we don’t cap carbon emissions immediately, we will be leaving our children with an uninhabitable planet, these discoveries are somewhat analogous to the owner of the Titanic discovering that his Great Ship’s engines could be ramped up to go even faster towards its destiny. The differences being that a) it’s the Earth, not a ship and b) we know what will happen if we don’t change course.

And who is in charge of leading us through this treacherous reality gamble? Our own elected officials in Washington — stymied by ineffectual posturing — are barely even talking about climate change. Which leads me to the most recent related news item:

∎  Just last week, China announced the details of its first carbon trading program and on its way is to implementing an absolute, nationwide cap on its carbon emissions by 2016. Within two years of becoming the greatest contributor to CO2 levels – a title formerly held by the United States since the beginning of the industrial revolution — China is stepping up to the leadership plate with a meaningful cap on carbon. While the GOP pushes and pulls strings to green light the tar sands pipeline and usher in the next “oil and gas revolution,” China is leading the way toward what may be our children’s last chance for a future.

I have no illusions that this column would ever change someone’s mind about climate change. But if you, dear reader, are among those who believe the warnings of 97 percent of the world’s scientists, run – don’t walk – to your phone and call your representatives in New Hampshire and Washington and demand of them that they stand up to Exon, Shell, the Koch brothers and the rest and create meaningful climate legislation. And for our Children’s sake, kill the tar sands pipeline deal. Today.

Margaret Dillon promotes high performance buildings through her energy consulting practice Sustainable Energy Education and Demonstration Services (SEEDS). Contact her at

Legacy Comments1

Mauna Loa is just one place of many where scientists measure carbon dioxide. The stations all tell the same story: carbon dioxide levels are rising.

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