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Carbon Dioxide Hits New Highs: Living In a League Where Batting 400 Is Not Good

David Doniger

Posted May 10, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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Carbon dioxide concentrations have hit 400 parts per million for the first time in at least three million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.  That’s 40 percent more than the CO2 level in the air at the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s – 280 ppm – which hadn’t been topped in the entire 8,000 years of human history, or in the 800,000 years before that. 

This has happened in a blink of an eye.  Worldwide emissions of CO2 and the other heat-trapping air pollutants are still increasing, and CO2 concentrations are hurtling towards 450 ppm, the brink most climate scientists agree we must not go over.  “Unless things slow down,” Dr. Ralph Keeling told the New York Times, “we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years.” 

Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, first started tracking the steadily-increasing CO2 concentrations from an observatory on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii in the 1950s.

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” Columbia University scientist Maureen Raymo told the Times.

Unless we finally act to turn the ship – to slow, stop, and reverse the trend.

We have one last chance.  But our leaders have to act.

President Obama sounded a clarion call at the outset of his second term.  “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in his Inaugural Address.  And in his State of the Union:  “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it’s too late.” 

The President promised that he will act, taking executive actions under the laws Congress has already enacted “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”  And he reaffirmed his target of cutting U.S. heat-trapping emissions by 17 percent from their 2005 peak by the end of this decade.

To his credit, President Obama took some big steps in his first term – most importantly, the clean car and fuel efficiency standards that will cut new cars’ carbon pollution in half and double their gas mileage over the next dozen years, while saving consumers billions of dollars at the pump.

But that’s not enough to meet the 17 percent target, or to do our part to stop CO2’s relentless rise above the 400 ppm threshold just crossed.

The biggest single step that he can take is to direct EPA to use the Clean Air Act to curb the carbon pollution from America’s aging fleet of power plants, which spew 2.2 billion tons of CO2 into the air each year, 40 percent of the U.S. total. 

He can give the green light to curbing the enormous leakage of methane from oil and gas wells and the pipes that bring natural gas to our doors.  He can hasten the switchover from “super greenhouse gases” called HFCs to much safer refrigerants and other chemicals.  And he can direct the Energy Department to upgrade the efficiency of tens of millions of power-hogging appliances and buildings, and to cut wasteful losses by modernizing our power grid.

Do these things, and we can meet – even beat – the President’s 17 percent target.

To be sure, the President and his Cabinet continue to sound the climate alarm and make the case for urgent action.  Today Secretary of State Kerry spoke on a Google Hangout: “If we don’t respond to adequately to the challenge of global climate change over the course of these next years, there will be people fighting.  Wars over water and over land, agricultural land and other kinds of things.”

And this week Vice President Biden told Rolling Stone:  “[T]he president is going to use his executive authority to, essentially, clean up the bad stuff, encourage the good stuff and promote private industry moving in that direction.”

But we are now six months from the President’s re-election, and four months into his second term.  Using his existing authority to set clean air and clean energy standards will take time. 

One example:  The President jumped on setting clean car standards in the first week of his first term.  Yet it took until August of 2012, half-way through year four, to seal the deal and finish those standards.

There’s no time to waste to tackle power plants and the rest. 

We are still waiting for clear plans and schedules for what President Obama will do.  And time is passing through the hourglass. 

And we are already batting 400 in a league where that’s nothing but bad news.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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