Onward to 450

by Paul Donahue

In February 2013 researchers at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric baseline station on Mauna Loa Volcano on the big island of Hawaii, recorded 396.80 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This was an increase of 3.26 ppm over February 2012, and represents the second largest annual increase since data collection began there in 1956. This is not good news.

 Not many years ago we talked about atmospheric CO2 increasing at the rate of about two ppm per year. Now it’s increasing at over three ppm per year. At this rate of increase, in 15 years or so atmospheric CO2 will have reached a concentration of 450 ppm. That’s a significant number on two accounts. First of all, it’s a full 100 ppm of CO2 above and beyond the 350 ppm researchers tell us we need to remain below if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. Second, the last time in Earth’s history that atmospheric CO2 was at 450 ppm for any length of time, all of the ice on the planet melted - ALL of the ice.

 In case you are wondering, the current volume of ice on the planet represents 75 METERS of sea level rise. That’s a lot. Unless you are looking forward to the day when you’ll have an ocean view from the front porch of your cottage in the Appalachians, then, clearly, 75 meters of sea level rise would not be a good thing. Virtually every major coastal city in the world would disappear, plus all of Florida and the US Gulf Coast, the lower Mississippi Valley, the Amazon Basin, etc., etc. Granted, that level of rise won’t be happening anytime soon, but if the concentration of atmospheric CO2 remains high, the rise is inevitable.

So, obviously, with the world facing catastrophic climate change (hurricanes, tornados, severe thunderstorms, floods, droughts, wildfires, food shortages) and a serious rise in sea level, not to mention the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of marine food webs, our so-called leaders must be doing everything in their power to change course, right? If they didn’t take seriously the dire warnings emanating from virtually every climate scientist in the world, then a reasonable person might assume that the climate-related disasters of just the past year would have been enough to get the attention of the politicians. But no, the criminally negligent and corrupt political class is still taking its marching orders from the fossil fuel corporations.

The US is the world’s second largest emitter of CO2 (China is number one), but the US government has done virtually nothing to lower the country’s emissions. The Republican Bush administration did nothing, and now the Democratic Obama administration is doing nothing. The parties change, the allegiance to the fossil fuel corporations does not. Internationally, the US government’s position on climate change continues to be the main stumbling block to the nations of the world reaching meaningful agreement at the annual UN climate meetings, and, here at home, it’s full on development of ever more supplies of fossil fuels - more and more deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, shale oil development in the US West, and fracking for natural gas everywhere.

Last year we went through a presidential election season in which climate change was barely mentioned. Instead of discussing what scientists tell us will be the biggest challenge humankind has faced, Obama and Romney sparred over which one of them was going to promote the most drilling. Obama actually gave a campaign speech in Oklahoma while standing in front of a stack of oil pipe in the TransCanada Pipe Yard - pipe waiting to be laid in the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. When the candidates were not talking about drilling, they were talking about their plans for economic growth, ignoring the direct connection between increased economic activity and increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

As I write this essay, environmentalists around the country are anxiously awaiting Obama’s long-delayed decision on the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry 850,000 barrels a day of dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries along the US Gulf coast. This is potentially one of the most important issues on which his administration will rule. If the pipeline is not approved, it could well mean the beginning of the end for further investment in the development of the tar sands, the most environmentally destructive project on the planet. If the pipeline is approved, it will mean continued development of the tar sands, one of the largest pools of carbon on the planet, and that, in the words of prominent climate researchers and activists, could well mean “game over” for the climate.

I really hope that I am wrong, but, in my view, I think there is very little doubt that Obama, the great prevaricator, will approve the pipeline. The signs are not good. As the pipeline will cross an international border, it is actually the US State Department that will make the final determination. For his second term, Obama’s first pick for Secretary of State was Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN. Both she and her husband are heavily invested in TransCanada, the company building the Keystone XL Pipeline. John Kerry, the person who finally assumed the position of Secretary of State, owns stock in two Canadian oil companies that have pushed for approval of the pipeline.

On February 17th, while 40,000 activists were on the National Mall protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, Obama was golfing in Florida on a private resort with a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas, and pipeline players. Recently the US State Department released a newly updated draft of its Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the report concludes that the pipeline will “not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects.” This report was based, in part, on research conducted by two firms with financial ties to companies invested in the development of the tar sands.

Most recently, in speaking to the press, a White House spokesperson claimed, “Thousands of miles of pipelines have been built since President Obama took office inside the U.S., and it hasn’t had a measurable impact on climate change."

 Only the terminally optimistic could find hope in this situation.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m not exactly known for my cheery and hopeful view of the world, and maybe I’m misreading the situation. Maybe, shortly after this newspaper goes to press, Obama will reverse course and finally do something positive for the world and the future of humanity. If so, we can all rejoice in that step back from the brink. If not, then it looks like full steam ahead to 450 ppm.

Pacifica, California

18 March 2013