Carbon Dioxide Emissions Near Level Not Seen in 15 Million Years, New Study Warns
By Jessica Corbett
As a United Nations agency released new climate projections showing that the world is on track in the next five years to hit or surpass a key limit of the Paris agreement, authors of a new study warned Thursday that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nearing a level not seen in 15 million years.
For the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom examined CO2 levels during the Late Pliocene about three million years ago "to search for modern and near future-like climate states," co-author Thomas Chalk explained in a series of tweets.
"A striking result we've found is that the warmest part of the Pliocene had between 380 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere," Chalk told the Guardian. "This is similar to today's value of around 415 parts per million, showing that we are already at levels that in the past were associated with temperature and sea-level significantly higher than today."
When CO2 levels peaked during the Pliocene, temperatures were 3ºC to 4ºC hotter and seas were 65 feet higher, the newspaper reported. Chalk said that "currently, our CO2 levels are rising at about 2.5 ppm per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3 million years."
"We are burning through the Pliocene and heading towards a Miocene-like future," warned co-author Gavin Foster, referencing a period from about 23 to 5.3 million years ago. It was during the Miocene, around 15 million years ago, when "our ancestors are thought to have diverged from orangutans and become recognizably hominoid," the Guardian noted.
https://t.co/3sNdmN8mCz New study covered by @guardiannews, we look at CO2 levels in the Late Pliocene (~3 million… https://t.co/xRhhLcpdJ5— Tom Chalk (@Tom Chalk)1594292663.0
Reporting on the study elicited concern and calls for action from environmentalists and advocacy groups.
Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the U.S.-based Environmental Voter Project, also responded to the report on Twitter, saying, "Big Oil and Gas are killing us."
A new report released Thursday by the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) about global temperatures likely coming in the next five years provoked similar alarm and demands.
The WMO report projects that the annual global temperature is likely to be at least 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels in each of the next five years. Although it is "extremely unlikely" the average temperature for 2020–2024 will be 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, WMO warned certain periods could hit that temperature.
Specifically, there is about a 70% chance that one or more months during those five years will be at least 1.5°C hotter than pre-industrial levels and about a 20% chance that one of the next five years will be at least that warm, according to WMO's Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom's Met Office.
Annual mean global temperature likely to be at least 1° C above pre-industrial levels in each of coming 5 years (20… https://t.co/WOBeEOhbCe— World Meteorological Organization (@World Meteorological Organization)1594278501.0
In a statement Thursday, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas also pointed to the coronavirus pandemic—which prompted global lockdowns that briefly caused planet-heating emissions to drop—as an opportunity to pursue bold recovery plans that incorporate policies that combat the climate crisis, such as rapidly transitioning to renewable energy worldwide.
"WMO has repeatedly stressed that the industrial and economic slowdown from Covid-19 is not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action," Taalas said. "Due to the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the impact of the drop in emissions this year is not expected to lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric concentrations which are driving global temperature increases."
"Whilst Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems, and economies for centuries," he continued. "Governments should use the opportunity to embrace climate action as part of recovery program and ensure that we grow back better."
Taalas added that "this study shows—with a high level of scientific skill—the enormous challenge ahead in meeting the Paris agreement on climate change target of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C."
While some scientists and activists have criticized the 2015 Paris climate agreement as not ambitious enough, it is backed by nearly all nations on Earth. U.S. President Donald Trump began the one-year withdrawal process in November 2019 but former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, has vowed to rejoin the accord if he wins this year's election.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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