Passing 400 on the way to the frog test

In mid-May the atmospheric carbon dioxide measurement at Mauna Loa in Hawaii hit 400 parts per million (ppm). The scientists of the world (at least 95% of them) have declared that 450 ppm is the point where it may cause the atmosphere to warm to at least 2° Celsius, to the point where it was 3 million years ago (when sea levels were 75 feet higher). That, according to many forecasts, could produce many serious climate change events such as extra strength hurricanes and tornadoes—like the one that leveled parts of Moore, Oklahoma last week—not to mention inundation of all low-lying coastal areas.
Yet, apart from the immediate victims of these catastrophic events, most of us are blithely unconcerned about the omens such disruptions represent. It reminds me of the old fable about the frog in a pan of water. The pan is slowly heated by a low flame. The frog is quite comfortable at first. As the water gets warmer and warmer the frog begins to feel a little uncomfortable. Finally the water is really hot and the frog thinks that it is time to leave the scene. But by then it is so enervated that it can’t move. Boiled frog for dinner.
Like the frog, we and our progeny can’t escape to a cooler clime. Well, we can for a while but if we keep pumping CO2 and similar greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we’ll run out of places to go. The only question is how long it will take us collectively to realize that it’s too damn hot!
Meanwhile the trends are clear. We are getting warmer, despite the occasional slowing of increase that’s pointed to by the change deniers. The oceans are acidifying, the coral reefs dying. Species are increasingly going extinct. We are extracting irreplaceable resources at a growing rate. We are desertifying the world. There are too many instances of homo sap around, compounding the problem. When the atmosphere finally does reach its peak temperature it will be thousand of years before it cools to today’s levels. Those are the facts.
Martin Wolf summarized the situation in the Financial Times recently in an article titled “Global inaction shows that the climate sceptics have already won”. He summarizes the present situation as this:

So forget the rhetoric: not only the stocks of CO2 in the atmosphere, but even the flows, are getting worse. Sceptics convinced that the best thing to do is nothing should stop moaning: they have won.

What about the rest of us? The chances that humanity will achieve the reduction in emissions needed to keep CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million and so greatly reduce the risks of a rise in global temperature of more than 2°C are close to zero. The 25-40 per cent cut in emissions of high-income countries by 2020, needed to put the world on that path, will not happen.

We won’t stop warming because we like it the way it is, at least so far, at least in the developing world. So what are our options?

  • Keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and to hell with the progeny. [The most likely option]
  • Get our friends and family together, convince ourselves that, given enough people, we can make a difference by voting the denier politicians out of office; forcing the extractors to stop mining coal, oil, and gas; putting some serious resources into alternative, sustainable energy approaches; and changing our very own wasteful energy ways.

Which do you prefer?

[Later: here’s a Tom Toles cartoon from the Washington Post.]

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