That would be May 31, 2012. John Quigley, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and I were having lunch with Larry who is the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Our conversation turned to our shared concern about the increasingly partisan and polarized political environment in Washington and the state capitals. As we see it, there is posturing but no problem solving.
Then Larry said, “Carbon dioxide concentrations hit 400 parts per million over the Arctic.”
I think I will remember where I was when I heard that in the way I remember where I was the day John Kennedy got shot or where I was when the planes hit the twin towers. That is a milestone that humanity should never have gone past.
Even most denier “scientists” will concede that increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere have always been directly associated with higher temperatures. The deniers go off the rails when they insist that the current warming that we are undeniably experiencing is part of a natural cycle that we humans have no influence over. When you consider that we pumped more than 34.8 billion tons of CO2 into the air last year, a 3.2 percent over 2011, you have to wonder how denier scientists reach that illogical conclusion.
Most reputable climate scientists agree that in order to slow the warming and stabilize our increasingly erratic climate, we need to get atmospheric CO2 concentrations down to 350 parts per million. At that level, climate models predict that the earth would warm, but only by 2 degrees Celsius. But our increasing CO2 emissions are putting us on track for a 6 degree Celsius increase or 11 degrees Fahrenheit.
That would be dangerous. Look what’s happening now. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released its report on spring weather. The period between March and May was the hottest on record – a whopping 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the average.
This is an emergency plain and simple. But the world just fiddles. In the US climate policy has been stalled since Congress failed to enact climate legislation in 2009. Anti-science climate denial is the official position of the Republican Party. Their majority in the House of Representatives and their stranglehold on Senate deliberations prevent any clean energy legislation, let alone pro-active climate policy, from advancing. Their only stated priority is defeat of the president regardless of how urgent other public business may be. They are held in line by the iron discipline of Koch brother money and the threat of primary challenges should they violate Grover Norquist’s no-tax dogma.
So, by design, nothing is getting done to address the biggest environmental, economic and social challenge of our generation. Tragically, Republican leaders are bringing their faithful along on this blind plunge into climate chaos. There used to be a bi-partisan consensus about the need for tough environmental regulations. Now the Pew Research Center finds that consensus has been broken along partisan lines with Republican support for strict environmental regulations falling by 40 points since 1992.
We have the tools to begin to aggressively rein in our CO2 emissions – wind and solar energy backed up by nimble gas-fired power plants, electric cars, smart meters, ever more energy efficient technologies, but we need the policies to scale these alternatives up. Getting to 450 parts per million is not an option. The longer we wait to walk that road, the harder it will be to get our grandchildren home to a safe, stable planet.