How Climate Communications Can Save The World
Last week, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels reached a troubling milestone: CO2 levels have climbed above 400 parts per million (ppm), a level the world hasn’t seen in half a million years. What does this mean, and how can we move forward? Climate Central asked leading climate scientists to share their insights and recommendations.
Overwhelmingly, scientists were alarmed at how quickly human activity has increased carbon levels in the last thirty years. Atmospheric scientist and Momentus leader Katharine Hayhoe put it simply: “We have significantly reduced the options available to us in the future.” Scientists were particularly troubled by ocean levels, which will likely continue to rise for centuries.
Alarming statistics like these can help motivate people to action, but in Hayhoe’s words, “Passing such a milestone can just as easily create a sense of despair as it
can urgency.” With the right framing, scientists offered hope that this CO2 milestone, coupled with the Paris climate talks, can be a starting point for larger conversations about climate change. In our latest research about effective climate communications, we found that it’s important to focus on the realities of climate change, while pivoting quickly to solutions. For more about how to craft effective climate messages, download our report, Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate Americans. Together, we can turn the CO2 milestone into an opportunity for climate action.
By Andrea Thompson and Brian Kahn, contributors to Climate Central
This week is a big one for our world. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels climbed above the 400 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory and it’s distinctly possible they won’t be back below that level again in our lifetimes.
Humans have burned enough fossil fuels to drive atmospheric CO2 to levels that world hasn’t seen in at least 400,000 years. That’s driven up temperatures, melted ice and caused oceans to acidify. Some extreme weather events around the world have become more likely and stronger because of it, and some will likely only get worse as the planet continues to warm.
Because CO2 sits in the atmosphere long after it’s burned, that means we’ve likely lived our last week in a sub-400 ppm world. It also means that the reshaping of our planet will continue for decades and centuries to come, even ifclimate talks in Paris in two weeks are successful.
To get some perspective on what this means for the world, we asked leading climate scientists for their insight on passing this milestone as well as what it means for their particular areas of research. Below are their answers, some edited lightly for clarity or length.
How Do You Feel About CO2 Levels Passing This Threshold?
Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps CO2 Program: “It will take some getting used to psychologically, like a round-numbered birthday. For someone who remembers when CO2 was only around 330 ppm, it’s a pretty big change.”
Jason Box, ice researcher at the Geologic Survey of Denmark and Greenland: “I feel very concerned because the last time atmospheric CO2 was this high, global sea levels were at least six meters higher. You can see a recent study by Andrea Dutton and others on sea level rise due to polar ice-sheet mass loss during past warm periods.”
Image credit: Climate Central