By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

So now we’re at 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere — or 399.89, according to a revision of last week’s reading.

Either way, we’ve reached a level  higher than any previously experienced by human beings.

We hit that landmark, or near landmark, this past week at the weather observatory in Mauna Loa, which records daily CO2 concentrations in the air.

This is a threshold worthy of our attention because scientists believe our upper comfort zone may be only 450 ppm. Considering how fast we moved from 350 ppm (last seen around 1990), considered a safe level for humans, to 400 ppm, we’re clearly on a crash course toward massive change. (See graph.)

The Keeling Curve
CO2 levels are rising super fast, after centuries of stability, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels.

And still, I can imagine some people responding to this news with a blank stare; a so-what attitude.

They haven’t got the time to think about it and they’re not certain they need to, because frankly, their corner of the world doesn’t look all that different. Some may have been persuaded to ignore or even ridicule the problem by the mocking pseudo scientists working 24/7 on behalf of the oil and coal industries to minimize and discredit climate science.

Others may shove climate change out of their vision, because they’ve simply got oppressive financial/family/medical problems. (And their corner of the world doesn’t look all that different.)

Even people who are directly affected by climate change — they’ve lived through extreme drought, or Hurricane Sandy or suffered worsening  asthma as ragweed proliferates in a carbon-rich atmosphere — may still fail to see the urgency. They chalk up super storms, ice melts and rising oceans to weather aberrations. They think someone at MIT will solve Planet Earth’s luge slide toward disaster.

Arctic as of Sept. 16, 2012 PROMO
The North Polar Ice Cap shrunk to its smallest point ever on Sept. 16, 2012. The red line shows the average area it used to cover in September from 1979 to 2000.

Others may look critically at the alarming rise in greenhouse gases (it’s methane too) and just hit brain freeze — 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide pollution. Isn’t that still highly diluted? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Of course that’s not what our shrinking Arctic ice cap is saying. It’s lost about half its volume since 2004.

I can understand all these s0-so reactions to the 400 ppm news. Climate change is hard to see, unless you’re living near a vanishing glacier or on a Pacific Ocean island that’s being subsumed. It’s an unparalleled, gargantuan threat. It looms over everything. That’s hard to wrap your head around.

But we have to try.

I propose that we start right now to think about climate change as a giant, lurking monster, sort of like in Alien (we’re the crew). Even better, we should visual it as the scariest possible thing. I come up with this: a phalanx of missiles with nuclear warheads aimed at our cities and towns. Picture these missiles coming from wherever you want. They could be on the moon. (The Soviet Union’s been dissolved.) But your town is in range. In fact, it’s in the bulls-eye.

Nuclear Bomb Cloud over Nagasaki Japan, Wikimedia
Sorry to have to bring it up, but this is the atomic bomb cloud over Nagasaki, Japan. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This should work well for Americans, because we’re generally energized by arms debates, large and small. And there’s a microcosm of this scenario called North Korea vs. the world.

Now, every time you hear that this invisible carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen, picture a new bank of missiles being added to those already in place. The missile field is large, like the size of Rhode Island or Kardashian’s collective egos.

This vision of annihilation might help you see climate change as something concrete and ominous. Sorry, we can’t personalize it with a Soviet dictator; in this case, we are all pulling the strings: Your SUV, your neighbor’s gas well, the friendly local coal-fired power plant, all those cook stoves in the developing world, Wall Street with it’s relentless drive for profits and everyone you know who eats meat three times a day. We all carry a share of the blame.

Now let’s step this vision up a notch, because climate change is really worse than the nuclear missile threat, in a key way. Missiles can be disarmed, and so can climate change, but only up to a point.

At a certain point in time, our homegrown climate change missiles cannot be disengaged. After certain tipping points (if you believe the scientists) a timer starts ticking. In a sense, it is already ticking. But we’re talking about the point of no return. When that final timer begins, we are doomed.  And as we focus in on this possibility, remember, try to remember that this is not a TV show. Castle will not figure out the password in the 11th Hour (a film we should all see by the way, though like an increasing number of DiCaprio flicks, it’s not uplifting).

Earth will be on an irretrievable course,  ready to shake of current life forms and hit restart.

But let’s not dwell on it.

There’s one other aspect we need to consider to round out our scenario. We need to envision the run-up to the end of the planet as a world of miseries. This is not the rapture we’re headed for, or even a mercifully swift guillotine. This will likely be a painful life sentence, marked by shortages of vital goods, disease and possibly mass migrations. (OK, we don’t know for sure, but do we want to take the risk?)

The Maldives, to say it's vulnerable to sea level rise doesn't even cover it. (Photo -The Island President, a film.)
To say the Maldives is vulnerable to sea level rise is an understatement. (Photo: The Island President.)

We see the changes starting — unfortunately they’re too scattered to raise our radar — as sea levels climb, forest fires accelerate, flooding deluges cities and drought saps arable land.

Florida, predicted sea level rise.
In the US, a 1 meter sea level rise — now considered a conservative prediction for the end of this century — would swallow big swaths of populated Florida and play havoc with fresh drinking water, probably even before those invasive pythons eat up the Everglades.

In some places, like the tar sands region of Canada, there are big, ugly glimpses of how we’re failing to cherish and save our planet, which would nurture us if she weren’t under attack.

To keep it web-friendly, here’s a short list of what’s ahead:

1 -Water shortages caused by increasing contamination of freshwater by industry and loss of freshwater to the ocean as ice sheets melt.

2 – Food shortages, triggered by drought, overpopulation and the dumb reliance on fragile monocultures (corn).

3 – Carbon-rich air that creates higher pollen counts, exacerbating asthma and allergies.

4 – Acidic oceans that can no longer support fisheries.

5 – Super storms fueled by water ocean and air temperatures that wipe out coastal cities.

6 – The loss of glaciers that provide water for millions.

7 -Persistent drought in previously arable regions.

8 — Spreading tropical diseases, like malaria and dengue fever.

Now let’s ask why. Is most of this mainly happening because we cannot figure out a way to move off of fossil fuels?


When they read this is the history books (if they’re around to read history books) they won’t believe it.

Solar panels on Walmart in Calif.
The solution is at hand. It’s even on Walmart, like this solar rooftop in California. (Photo: Walmart)

Of course, it’s not quite that simple — there are many accessories to the crime — deforestation, overfishing, overpopulation and landfills leaking methane.

But it is almost that simple. If we just could move away from fossil fuels, we could save the planet. Most experts agree that we’ve got the technology to do that today. We could do that! How the next phase of human history would shape up is the subject of much debate. Would we be as mobile? Would we need to live in smaller houses? Would we ride fast trains (they do in China). Would we eat 500 varieties of genetically modified snack foods or join food cooperatives and grow heirloom tomatoes and wheat in our backyards? The exact facets of our new Oz are yet to be crafted.

The man behind the green curtain...
Who’s pulling the strings? We are.

But again, experts tell us that a sustainable, clean economy is completely possibly and would provide us with decent lives that would still be far more advanced than those of our ancestors who lived without fossil fuels.

First, we need to secure that future by stopping the greenhouse gas pollution and revving up a new economy based on clean energy.

We could do it. Just like we disarmed so many of those intercontinental missiles aimed at the US and the Soviet Union by each other.

In the late 1960s, the US had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads actively deployed. Today that number is a whittled down 2150. Some believe that’s still too many.

But we didn’t say facing down climate change would be easy.

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