387 ppm and Rising: A Plea for Greater Urgency in Developing Post-Carbon Living Arrangements

Published Jan 28 2010 by Energy Bulletin, Archived Jan 28 2010

by Dan Allen

Summary: The latest climate research suggests that we are much closer to global ecological (and perhaps biological) collapse than previously thought. These alarming findings, coupled with the inevitable (and likely imminent) resource-depletion-based economic collapse, suggest that a much greater urgency is needed in transitioning to post-carbon living arrangements. So let’s do it. With a smile.


I cried last night.

After putting my youngest daughter to sleep last night, I stood over her and burst into tears. And it wasn’t just solitary tears welling up in my eyes – it was a full-on, silent, choking, body-shaking sob. I lost it. Completely. It went on for minutes.

She didn’t wake up, thankfully. I don’t know what I would have said.

After I was finished, I wiped my face and went back downstairs. The sheep’s water was frozen and I needed to chip it out. Wood needed to be brought over to the porch. I needed to get ready for bed.

In moments like this, life moves onward — but ominously, with an almost dream-like quality. Though I usually keep it buried beneath the surface, I live my life now under the weight of an awful burden of knowledge. A knowledge of what we have done; what we are doing; what we continue to do to the Earth.

A knowledge of the coming climate catastrophe.


So what exactly sent me over the edge last night? Just one scientific paper too many.

Before putting my daughter to bed, I had just finished going through a semi-recent copy of the journal Science. In it was a paper entitled “Coupling of CO2 and Ice Sheet Stability Over Major Climate Transitions of the Last 20 Million Years.” (Tripati et al., Science vol 326, p 1394, 2009) It’s findings are summarized at http://www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/ 2009/ 10/ 091008152242.htm.

The paper was yet another scientific attempt to shed some more light on the most pressing question of our species’ future: What will our climate look like at 400+ ppm CO2? The author’s strategy was to look for similar instances in Earth’s climatic history.

Our fossil-fuel-burnin’, land-surface-changin’ Industrial Civilization has, of course, increased atmospheric CO2 concentration from 260-280 ppm (where it’s been for past 10,000 years – the ‘Holocene’) to 387 ppm. And we’re not done — it’s rising at over 2 ppm per year. We’re likely headed to the mid-400 ppm’s if we burn all the economically-obtainable fossil fuels. And tack on some more (maybe much more) if the positive feedbacks kick in (which they likely will).

So what sort of Earth will that make?

From ice core data, we know that atmospheric CO2 concentration has alternated back and forth between about 180 and 280 ppm over the past 800,000 years. The 180 ppm corresponds to a colder ‘ice-age’ climate: arctic tundra in Nebraska, mile-high ice sheets on top of Manhattan, drastically lower sea-level, etc. The 280 ppm corresponds to the ‘long summer’ climate in which our modern civilization has developed (the ‘inter-glacial’): ice sheets pushed back towards the poles, our current sea-levels, modern agriculture possible. Note: That’s a big climatic difference for just a 100 ppm change.

But, again, the big question is: What then would a 400+ ppm Earth look like? The ice cores and their easily-determined CO2 ppms don’t go back that far, so we haven’t known.

But now the Tripati et al. paper details a clever way to decipher atmospheric CO2 concentration prior to the well-documented past-800,000-year ice-core record. They do it by analyzing ancient foraminifera (plankton) shells – tiny ocean organisms whose fossilized shells hold chemical information as to ancient atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

From analysis of chemical isotope ratios in these shells, they concluded that atmospheric CO2 varied within the 200-325 ppm range over the past 10 million years. This range is somewhat similar to the more recent 800,000-year ice-core record of 180-280 ppm (i.e similar to the glacial and inter-glacial periods of the recent Holocene).

But more significantly, they found that if we go back 15-20 million years the atmospheric CO2 was actually up around currently-elevated levels at 350-425 ppm.

…Ah ha!!

So what did Earth look like at those elevated, ~2010-level CO2 concentrations? According to the authors: global average surface temperatures were 3oC to 6oC warmer; “there was little glacial ice on land or sea in the Arctic, and maritime ice on Antarctica was not viable”; sea level was 25 to 40 meters higher.

Basically, it was a different Earth. And although the authors don’t go this far, it was probably not an Earth that could support many humans. …Or maybe any humans.

In short, our elevated, present-day CO2 concentrations are likely ALREADY a climate catastrophe in the making. Already!

And should positive feedbacks then kick in drastically (as NASA’s James Hansen maintains is very possible at some alarmingly-undetermined point) to elevate greenhouse gas concentrations even further, it very well may mean the death of the biosphere. A runaway greenhouse effect. The Venus Syndrome.


Now, of course, I realize that one scientific paper does not a catastrophe predict. But here’s the thing: peer-reviewed scientific findings like this are flooding in. There are scores of them — papers upon papers about past climate changes; papers about present changes; papers about models of changes to future climates. All together, they paint an increasingly horrific picture.

Check out Joseph Romm’s recently-posted summary of 2009’s peer-reviewed climate papers at http://climateprogress.org/2010/01/04/the-year-in-climate-science-scient…. In short, ominous changes in temperature, ice sheet stability, and sea-level change are already becoming evident at the current 387 ppm level.

So in case you haven’t been paying close attention lately, the new climate research is not just scary – it’s verging on utterly horrific.

And it’s this scientifically-illuminated reality that has prompted Dr. James Hansen, perhaps the world’s preeminent climate scientist, to set 350 ppm as the likely ‘safe’ maximum for atmospheric CO2 concentration. The updated climate diagnostic graphs Hansen maintains at his website (www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/) are as frightening as they are enlightening.

Again, Dr. Hansen didn’t just pick 350 ppm out of his hat. Check out his hugely important 2008 paper entitled “Target Atmosphere CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” posted along with others at his website: www.columbia.edu/~jeh1. In this document, he details the evidence for his recommended maximum atmospheric CO2 concentration we should ‘permit.’ The evidence comes from both past Earth climates (on the orders of thousands to millions of years ago), as well as currently observable changes in our present climate. I won’t go into the details here, but above 350 ppm the danger of catastrophic climate change is disturbingly high.

In other words, we are poking the sleeping bear with a stick – harder and harder. Hansen is suggesting that he’s probably going to wake up at some point – maybe very soon. He may already be awake. And when he wakes up, it won’t be pretty.


So you think we’d heed the informed, urgent warning of Dr. Hansen and the other scientists most informed about our climate predicament — no? In fact, when Hansen started publishing scientifically-based climate warnings in the ‘80’s, he was confident that we would prudently recognize the profound danger of our climate ‘experiment’ and change our ways.

But, of course, we haven’t. We passed 350 in the late 1980’s. And we’re currently at 387– with a bullet. It’s increasing now at over 2 ppm per year.

And again, burning of the remaining economically-recoverable fossil fuels – especially coal – will likely take us to the mid-400 ppms (or higher, with feedbacks).

And again, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is likely the recipe for suicide.

And again, it’s very possibly the recipe for The End.

We are proving tragically incapable as a species of altering the trajectory of our careening civilization as it approaches the precipice of climatic doom. Literal doom. As in, our civilization gone. As in, many many billions dead. As in, possibly our species gone. As in, possibly the biosphere gone. Doom doom doom. The Venus syndrome. It doesn’t get any more doomerish.

And it’s becoming more likely every day as we continue our insane conflagration of carbonized ancient sunlight; as we continue our massive, infinitely-irresponsible experiment in climatic destabilization.

In short, we are playing the most dangerous, reckless game imaginable: betting the very biosphere that the scientists are wrong or corrupt; that everything’s gonna work out in the end — like some damn sitcom episode; that fate, or technology – or…something — will step in to save us at the last minute; that the Earth couldn’t possibly reject us – it’s all-time favorite species, the ‘pinnacle of evolution.’



There are many proposed explanations for our lack of ability to confront our approaching climate change realities in a responsible manner. My explanation invokes the corrupting influence of unchecked corporate power on the political system. I think that’s the key potentially-alterable factor involved. (See my essay, “Who Then Will Lead Us?” at www.energybulletin.net/51070.) Dr. Hansen, at least partially, shares this explanation, pointing a finger at corporate ‘special interests’ in his excellent new book, Storms of My Grandchildren.

But it doesn’t even matter at this point.

If we believe the increasingly dire warnings of the climate scientists (and I think we have to at this point), humanity basically must stop burning fossil fuels…yesterday. The chances for climate catastrophe are ALREADY dangerously high. Recklessly high.

We simply must do something NOW. We need to stop pumping CO2 into our atmosphere NOW. Right now.

But obviously, there is no conceivable political path to a significant immediate reduction of fossil fuel use — or tragically, even a (probably insufficient) voluntary, step-wise decrease, for that matter. The forces against constructive action are too entrenched at this point. The inertia is too great under the current socio-economic regime for the scale of change that the Earth requires of us.

Thus, we are left with one option if we wish to avoid an increasingly likely climate catastrophe: massive global economic collapse within the next few years.

Ironically, as the necessity for such a change crystallizes into view, just such a global economic collapse is beginning to coalesce — in the form of an impending global credit default (brought about ultimately by resource depletion – especially the stagnation of energy inputs to a growth-based economy). The timing of the coming collapse seems to be perhaps on the order of a few months to a few years.

And again, the Earth has spoken to us on this subject through her scientific interpreters: ‘For your sake, and possibly for my sake, this must occur soon. You cannot go on as you have.’

Now, I realize that in very many respects, collapse of a civilization is a horrible thing to hope for. I am under no illusions that this collapse will be anything other than utterly disastrous for us. We are not ready for it. We have not prepared, and we will pay dearly. In that sense, it is a profoundly misanthropic wish. But…

But what’s the other choice? Again, the Earth has spoken, and it is this: doom. We must embrace the coming collapse as the lesser of two great evils; as the only practical alternative to the extinction of our species and the greatest evil imaginable – the death of the biosphere.


So what then should we do?

Even absent of our climate predicament, the reality of ‘peak-oil’ and resource depletion mandates immediate preparations for lower-consumptive, post-carbon living arrangements.

These necessary arrangements are described most succinctly by Rob Hopkins and his Transition movement (http://transitionus.org/). They involve ‘relocalization’ of the means to provide the basics to all citizens: food, water, shelter, manufacturing, transportation, and entertainment. In other words, returning the generation and caretaking of these essential services to the skilled direction of the people who are using them – to you and me.

The reality of our climate predicament not only expands the scope of practical urgency for these preparations, but has profound moral implications as well. It is simply evil for us to knowingly destroy the Earth for future generations. And it is monstrously evil to knowingly destroy the biosphere. And at this point, given the clear scientific findings described earlier, we are knowingly doing so.

So, in light of our accelerating resource and climate predicaments, here is my plea: (1) If you have not already done so, please help begin the necessary transition to your living arrangements at the personal and community levels – the only scales where we can have an effect at this point. And (2) if you have already begun the transition, please approach your efforts with a drastically increased urgency. Dedicate more time to them. Try to expand their scope if possible. Try to get more people involved.

As a very wise man once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I might humbly add the 2010 corrolary: “…and be it damn quick.”

Throw yourself into learning. Learn to grow food, store food, save seeds; to build things; to fix things; to make things. In short, learn to provide for your community the things that a community needs. And learn to do it without fossil fuels.

Throw yourself into organizing. Organize a community garden, a ‘sustainability’ project with a few neighbors, a CSA for a few families, an ‘unofficial’ planning group to prepare for the possible breakdown of some basic service now provided by the doomed governmental/corporate entities. In short, organize the ‘shadow structures’ that can serve your community when the fossil-fuel-based structures collapse.

Nothing is more important right now. Nothing.


And despite the grimness of our predicaments — a grimness that prompted my little aforementioned ‘boo-hoo’ fit, there is no requirement that the necessary transition be carried out in a correspondingly grim fashion.

In fact, it can (and should!) be a celebration.

Whatever it is about humans that you personally find beautiful and admirable – now is the time to show it in spades. Now is the time to stop holding back. Now is the time to unleash all love, kindness, intelligence, generosity, enthusiasm, humor, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and curiosity you can muster.

For if this really is to be our Last Act as a species (which it very well may be), let us at least go out in a grand style: celebrating and demonstrating the very best qualities we possess.

Let’s make our children proud of us.

I think that’s the least we can do, in light of all that we have done.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m a high school Chemistry teacher in NJ. I’m also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer.

You can contact me at danallen1968.

My other Energy Bulletin posts include:
The Speech Obama Needs to Give www.energybulletin.net/50370
What ‘Lower Consumption’ Means www.energybulletin.net/node/50617
A Doomer’s Christmas Carol www.energybulletin.net/50773
Cornucopian Man vs. Biophysical Reality www.energybulletin.net/50876
Sasha and Barack Debate the Merits of Peak Oil Preparation www.energybulletin.net/50932
‘Generation Limits’: An Open Letter to Teenagers www.energybulletin.net/50991
Who Then Will Lead Us? www.energybulletin.net/51070
Peak Oil Rock & Roll www.energybulletin.net/51262



~ by Cory Morningstar on January 29, 2010.

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