Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, December 31, 2010

Is It Too Late?

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  
 Psalm 90:12

I looked around in the waiting room after cataract surgery a few weeks ago and was amazed.  Look at all these old people!  What am I doing here?  The doctor gave me a clue:  He began several sentences with the preface: “Given your age ….” 

It’s not easy coming to terms with the passage of time, is it?  We can all hope to do so, however, before having to confront those dreadful words: “It’s too late.”

This year, we think our country took a giant step in the direction of “too late.”  Warned by scientists everywhere of the tipping point in carbon concentrations – irreversible for many generations – we instead looked resolutely the other way.  Cutting taxes? Sure.  Stimulating the economy?  Of course.  And who can list all the other things that captured our national attention?

But here’s one thing that we probably weren’t watching: global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations grew again this year, with CO2 levels reaching 391 parts per million.  At this pace, we’ll break 400 ppm by 2015.  Scientists are divided as to whether 400 or 500 ppm is the magic number for melting Greenland’s ice sheet, and West Antarctica’s in the bargain.  But here’s the point:  We’re hurtling toward both numbers with increasing velocity.  In the 1960’s, we added less than 1.0 ppm CO2  per year.  Now, we’re pumping the stuff into the atmosphere at twice that rate, and will almost certainly accelerate further.

CO2 levels increase every year, as does the rate of growth.
For as long as researchers have been able to measure, global temperature and global atmospheric CO2  have moved in lockstep, measured over hundreds of thousands of years (by testing air bubbles trapped every year in successive layers of snow and ice in 2-mile-thick polar ice sheets).  When CO2 is high, the global climate is hot; when CO2 is low, the climate is cool.  And for the period of human civilization, climate has remained relatively steady, while CO2 has hovered around 280 ppm.  But then, in the late 18th century, we learned to drive the tools of industry by burning coal – the carbon buried eons ago – and vented the resulting gases into our atmosphere. 

The right hand 1/4" of this chart shows the time of human civilization.  We've never seen carbon concentrations like today's.  What will it mean for us and our children?
By 1965 we passed 320 ppm.  Was it too late to head off climate calamity?

In 1988, we broke 350 ppm.  Or was this too late?

In 2006, we broke 380 ppm, 100 points higher than the highest level measured in the hottest of the last 800,000 years.  Surely the most concentrated greenhouse gas in about a million years is getting awfully late.

And this year – the year we got mad as hell about bank bailouts and socialized medicine – we broke 391 ppm.

Nothing you do in 2011 will alter the fact that we’ll be at 393 ppm next New Year’s Eve.  But whatever your concerns in the coming year, maybe you can find a little space to resist what our Father’s world hasn’t seen in a million years: greenhouse gases breaking 400 ppm. 

Give us, O Lord, a heart of wisdom, that we may number our days.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


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