This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start–even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.
It’s not just the economy. We’ve gone through swoons before. It’s that gas at $4 a gallon means we’re running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It’s that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It’s that everything is so inextricably tied together. It’s that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the “limits to growth” suddenly seem… how best to put it, right.
All of a sudden it isn’t morning in America, it’s dusk on planet Earth.
There’s a number–a new number–that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued–and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper–“if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO
So it’s a tough diagnosis. It’s like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high, and if you don’t bring it down right away, you’re going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you’re lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary. It’s like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.
In this case, though, it’s worse than that because we’re not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas–hard. Instead of slowing down, we’re pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year–two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.
And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. Apparently, we’ve managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.