400 Parts Per Million... and Counting

The greenhouse effect is not a bad thing.  In fact, without greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, life on earth would not be sustainable.  Without greenhouse gases, solar radiation would simply bounce off the planet and escape into space.  The earth would be a frozen ball of ice.  Greenhouse gases serve as a global blanket, keeping the earth warm enough to sustain life.  Thank goodness for the greenhouse effect, and thank goodness for greenhouse gases.

But what if human activity dramatically altered the natural levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?  If greenhouse gases dropped significantly, the global blanket would be threadbare and the planet would cool.  If greenhouse gases rose substantially, the insulating effect would increase and the earth would warm.  That's the theory, and we are all living through the experiment.  

The historical average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 280 parts per million.  The current level is almost 400 parts per million.  This increase has occurred over the past 250 years, coinciding with the industrial age, but the bulk of the increase has occurred over the past 50 years.  This increase is primarily a result of the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas for heating, transportation, electricity generation, and industrial production.  

As a result, global temperatures have already risen about 1.4 degrees Farenheit.  The effects of rising global temperatures are many: Melting sea ice, rising sea levels, more severe droughts and other changing weather patterns, extinction of species.  But what we must understand is that we are still in the early stages of this experiment.  Despite some efforts to change our ways, we are still burning unacceptably large amounts of fossil fuels.  In 2012, 35.6 billion metric tons of CO2 were released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity. 

Without a dramatic change in our patterns of energy usage, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise, global temperatures will continue to rise, and the consequences will become increasingly more severe.  This is an experiment we cannot afford to continue.  The potential consequences are too dire.  Let us not be the last generation to enjoy a habitable planet.  Let us be the generation which recognizes the problem and faces it head-on.