Is It Too Late to Avoid the Worst Impacts of Climate Change?

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Q: I read that CO2 in our atmosphere is now more than 300 parts per million. Doesn’t this mean that we’re too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change?

Actually the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today is roughly 390 parts per million (ppm). And that’s not good news. “Experts agree that this level cannot be sustained for many decades without potentially catastrophic consequences,” reports the Geos Institute, an Oregon-based non-profit and consulting firm that uses science to help people predict, reduce and prepare for climate change.

While we’re unlikely to get atmospheric CO2 concentrations down as low as they were (275 ppm) before we started pumping pollution skyward during the Industrial Revolution, climate scientists and green leaders agree that 350 ppm would be a tolerable upper limit. Prior to 2007 scientists weren’t sure what emissions reduction goal to shoot for, but new evidence led researchers to reach consensus on 350 ppm if we wished to have a planet, in the words of NASA climatologist James Hansen, “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”

The non-profit 350.org, launched in 2008 by writer and activist Bill McKibben and others to raise awareness about global warming, has circled the proverbial wagons around the cause of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm. The group has enlisted the help of thousands of student volunteers around the world to mobilize public support for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint before it is too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change

McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature detailed the potential effects of climate change and remains one of the most influential environmental books of all time, believes that 350 ppm is attainable. “We’re like the patient that goes to the doctor and learns he’s overweight, or his cholesterol is too high. He doesn’t die immediately—but until he changes his lifestyle and gets back down to the safe zone, he’s at more risk for heart attack or stroke,” says McKibben. “The planet is in its danger zone because we’ve poured too much carbon into the atmosphere, and we’re starting to see signs of real trouble: melting ice caps, rapidly spreading drought. We need to scramble back as quickly as we can to safety.”

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