Hitting 400 ppm in CO2 marks a milestone for the millions. What is our response?

Although we certainly wanted heat and sunshine last summer, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the Lower 48. With all that heat, the US saw prolonged drought, leading to major crop loss and massive wildfires. Across the nation, nearly 10 million acres burned during 2012. Then came Hurricane Sandy pummeling the East Coast with $90 billion worth of damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) attribute these weather events to climate change. In fact, according to NOAA the United States has sustained 90 weather-related disasters from 1980 to 2008. The total normalized loss for these events exceeds $700 billion. It has been estimated that at least 1/3 of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is weather and climate sensitive, a potential impact of $4 trillion/year (in 2008 dollars), after inflation adjustment. In essence, climate change is real and dramatically impacting the US economy.


All this damage occurred when the level of carbon dioxide was less than 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. We have now surpassed this amount according to measurements made May 9 at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii. According to Pieter Tans of NOAA, the last time the worldwide carbon level probably hit 400 ppm was about 2-3 million years ago. That was during the Pleistocene Era. “It was much warmer than it is today,” Tans said. “There were forests in Greenland. Sea level was higher, between 10 and 20 meters (33 to 66 feet).”

Other scientists say it may have been 10 million years ago that Earth last encountered this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We know that before the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels were relatively stable for the period of human civilization and measured around 280 ppm. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists believe this ramp up to 400 ppm is completely due to human activity.

We are fast approaching the 450 ppm mark which is the level that warms the world another 2 degrees and serves as the prevention goal set by the world’s nations. Blowing through the 400 ppm mark “symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem” according to Mr. Tans at NOAA. In this context, NOAA scientists note that carbon pollution levels once thought of as normal for the 20th century are fast becoming history in the 21st century.

To do nothing in the wake of this milestone is morally shameful particularly because we know the solutions — turn off coal, turn on clean energy, weatherization, mass transit, high mileage autos etc. We also know that the most efficient way to deploy these solutions is through the power of the marketplace. Unfortunately, there is one main glitch to unleashing the change power of markets. In order for carbon to be valued by the marketplace as a commodity it need a price and only Congress can set that price by establishing a tax on carbon emissions.

If we could only get over our myopic view that taxes are evil we would soon learn that a properly structured carbon tax can actually boost the economy while providing incentives to reduce carbon emissions. We need look no further than our neighbor, the province of British Columbia for a meaningful example of how to proceed.

“The Economist “magazine did (7/21/11) an update and review of BC’s carbon tax and concluded the new tax had not weakened the province’s economy. Unemployment was slightly below the national average, and growth slightly higher. The review also noted that because the tax started low and its rises were set out in advance, businesses had plenty of time to make plans to cut their carbon use. In short our neighbors in British Columbia use less fuel than any other Canadians and pay lower income taxes too.

Because of these types of economics, putting a price on carbon pollution finds support across the globe, including the United States (outside Congress). According to a March 2012 poll conducted by Yale and George Mason University, three out every four Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports a “revenue neutral” tax. More importantly, 33 countries and 18 sub-national jurisdictions will be pricing carbon in 2013. This comprises 850 million people and nearly a third of the global economy. It will include a lot more of the world if China follows through with their announced intent to implement either a carbon tax or a market-based cap-and-trade system. While the actions of other nations and the shifting attitudes among Americans represent a flicker of hope of not reaching 450 ppm, the gridlock of inaction by Congress threatens to douse that hope.

Here we are the one supposedly “indispensable” country in the world when it comes to global peace and stability yet we don’t mind being left totally behind when it comes to the greatest global challenge before us … leaving a healing Earth behind for future generations. To understand why our leaders make this decision, we need look no further than those politicians doing the bidding of carbon intensive industries. The lobbying pressure by the coal industry and big oil appears to be keeping Congress in gridlock on all matters related to climate change and as result keeps the US from joining the rest of the world in addressing this most pressing challenge.

In the context of passing the 400 ppm mark, a milestone not seen for millions of years, this scenario must change. Doing nothing is not an option. That is why Bill McKibben, author, journalist and scholar at Middlebury College, and his organization 350.Org are organizing “Summer Heat Protest” wherein the summer of 2013 will see seven mass demonstrations across the nation. Thousands upon thousands of students, teachers, retired people, civil servants, farmers, businesswomen, fisher folk, artists, ministers and people whose homes were demolished by climate related events will be protesting inaction and demonstrating support for Congressional action.

Ultimately, our response must be more than taking to the streets; it must be to engage the power of our economy by setting a price for carbon. All we need do is follow the “revenue neutral” carbon tax example set by our neighbor British Columbia.

Kate Troll served on Governor Palin’s Mitigation Advisory Group for Climate Change and was the only Alaskan invited to participate in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Global Climate Summit.


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