Where Did 400 Go?

October 7, 2013 glenn Uncategorized

Remember the day, May 10, 2013, when we read that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere had exceeded the milestone 400 parts per million (ppm)? Bill McKibben and Al Gore, as well as numerous other activists and scientists, weighed in. According to McKibben, “We’re in new territory for human beings — it’s been millions of years since there’s been this much carbon in the atmosphere. The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it.”

And Mr. Gore chimed in, “This number is a reminder that for the last 150 years — and especially over the last several decades — we have been recklessly polluting the protective sheath of atmosphere that surrounds the Earth and protects the conditions that have fostered the flourishing of our civilization. We are altering the composition of our atmosphere at an unprecedented rate.”

So, if more CO2 is being emitted and levels are rising, shouldn’t the CO2 in the atmosphere have climbed above 400 to at least 401 ppm by now? Actually… would you believe, it’s now at 393? That’s impossible! CO2 is rising, not falling. It should be higher. It can’t have dropped, and it certainly can’t have turned around.

Yes, CO2 levels have fallen nearly seven parts in just over four and a half months. (The reading for September 30 was 393.06 according to http://keelingcurve.ucsd.edu/.) And it didn’t take “a relentless rise in the activism … to stop it,” and actually reverse it, and then draw it down more than three times the amount of its annual rise!

All it took was … Nature.

Those of you who track CO2 fluctuations, or are familiar with the Keeling curve (which has tracked CO2 in the atmosphere since 1958), know of the annual cycling that occurs. This is because every year, the biomass and soil of the earth breath in more than 12 times the annual global emissions, and the oceans also take in more than nine times as much. But the earth also needs to exhale, so respiration gives back all but 5 gigatons (Gt) of carbon each year, with 4 extra Gt remaining in the atmosphere. That is roughly equal to the 2 ppm rise in CO2 that we have come to expect each year.

Biological growth and decay. That’s what happened. Nature dropped the CO2 level by 7 ppm through growing gigatons of vegetation and making gigayards of topsoil. Atmospheric carbon levels will begin to rise again soon, but in the meantime, Nature has provided a lesson for us.

CO2 emissions are part of the carbon cycle. CO2 can be emitted. It can also be cycled back into vegetation and soil, as we have witnessed this summer. Take note — Nature is doing a tremendous amount of work to remove and recycle CO2 from the atmosphere.

Nature is also hurting, big time, with extinction, desertification, deforestation, a dying ocean, and other instabilities too numerous to mention. Even without global warming, these problems are already serious, and are part of the current planetary destabilization that threatens and affects us. All of these are, to a great extent, the result of human mismanagement.

Unfortunately, the way the climate movement views it, since emissions cause the rise in CO2 and global warming, stopping the emissions is the solution. But this is a narrow view. Since CO2 participates in the carbon cycle, part of the problem is that not enough CO2 is being cycled back into the earth and vegetation. This cycle helps regulate the climate. It’s not just that it is hot, but that the air conditioner isn’t functioning well and needs attention.

In addition, atmospheric CO2 levels are now greater than in at least the last 3 million years, causing the problems we are witnessing today. There is over 20 times more legacy CO2 in the atmosphere than we emit each year. Over that “last 150 years” of emissions, we are not only “altering the composition of our atmosphere,” as Al Gore correctly remarked, but we have already altered it — to the point of unacceptable consequences! That 150 years’ worth contributed more than enough to destabilize our climate and earth systems.

The climate strategy of emission reductions does not address this, and cannot reduce the existing amount of CO2, but only prevent more from being emitted. It cannot stop the costly and deadly problems we currently experience, but can only limit how much worse it will get.

What is required is immediate attention and massive, concrete action. That action must include more natural sequestration — methods that work rapidly, such as forestry, and holistic grazing management on pastures and rangelands. We need more farmers and foresters that use nature and natural principles to recycle that atmospheric carbon into living vegetation and soil. For example, 25 tropical trees can draw down a ton of CO2 per year, and the most innovative farmers can sequester 15 tons per acre each year. This can easily amplify the effect of whatever emission reductions, or other land and personal use changes, we may be able to achieve.

If you don’t have a relationship with the natural world, start now to develop one. You are natural, after all. If you don’t know a farmer, meet one. Farmers feed us, and you can meet some of them at farmers markets or farm stands. Learn who adds carbon and who emits, who adds life and who extracts. Find ways to help them improve and increase their effectiveness. We need to develop this conversation about the connection between climate change, nature, and farming. Raise the kind of climate awareness that involves the whole cycle and system of carbon, life, and global temperature control… and become a part of it!

More life is needed, and to make it so, we need to capture more carbon — not just reduce emissions. We can build a more bountiful and resilient world. Let us broaden our climate and ecological focus to include this important work, fostering more life and more abundance.

400 sounded the alarm. Let 393 teach us some solutions.

See Reverse Global Warming’s Resources page to find out what can be done, or contact glenngall@gmail.com for presentations or consulting.


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