Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Reaches 400 ppm Milestone

Newspapers carried reports at the end of last week that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Arctic have passed the 400 ppm milestone. Their level is roughly 50 percent higher than at the time since the industrial revolution started 250 years ago--a concentration well measured from sampling of ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica --and indeed higher than at any time during the 200 000 years homo sapiens has roamed Earth or the last 800 000 years for which ice core measurements are possible and available.

The report that we have crossed the 400-ppm threshold inspired the U.S. political satirist Stephen Colbert to devote a segment of his show last night, June 4, to climate change. Colbert, a native of South Carolina, linked the new measurement of atmospheric CO2 to the 1-meter rise in global sea levels that climate modelers are predicting for the next century. Don't worry, said Colbert, "We [really] have no idea how much devastation that might cause, because [after all] it's metric."

The subject of climate change is near and dear to Colbert's heart, and especially to his South Carolina beach house, he went on to observe. But again, not to worry! In neighboring North Carolina, real estate and development interests claiming to speak for the state's 20 coastal counties have persuaded legislators to introduce a bill prohibiting planners from referring to the 1-meter sea rise estimate. Instead they should base planning on linear extrapolations from historic trends in sea level.

"Sea, no evil!" commented Colbert. And forget about those annoying insurance actuaries predicting that eventually you will die. "I've been alive all my life, therefore [on a linear projection}, I always will be alive."

Colbert is by no means the only observer of the U.S. scene to be taking acidic note of North Carolina's NC-20. North Carolina native Scott Huler, blogging for Scientific American, has weighed in with a similar riff. "According to North Carolina law, I am a billionaire. I have a full-time nanny for my children, [and] I have won the Pulitzer Prize…You think I’m kidding, but listen to me: I’m from North Carolina, and that’s how we roll. We take what we want to be reality, and we just make it law… 'Because that’s how I WANT it to be.' ”

For a serious treatment of how the sea rise issue is being handled in a number of coastal areas of the United States that will be affected, see the article by Sara Peach, who teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, at Yale University’s Forum on Climate Change and the Media. One of her conclusions: Future rising waters do not by themselves have much sway; they must be linked to more tangible environmental issues to get general attention.

 

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