How to actually solve global warming
By Michael McGee
Started | October 26, 2008
Last update | November 6, 2008
Just more than 12 months ago, I started to pay attention to the changing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The latest data is reported monthly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based on measurements made at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This led to the launch of a website that focuses on atmospheric CO2. The curiosity spread from CO2 to questions about the mechanics of the global warming problem and the chief plans, policies and solutions that humanity is pursuing.
In very broadest strokes, here is what I have learned through work that led to the creation of CO2Now.org: The problems and challenges facing humanity in 2008 are vastly greater than I had previously imagined. At the same time, immense potential exists for humanity to actually tackle these problems.
Of greatest concern, I have yet to find a plan that looks like a plan that is capable of turning the tide on global warming and climate change. In response, I have found myself thinking a lot about the science behind these problems and what steps are essential to solving them. This short essay is an evolving, think-out-loud-essay-as-things-get-figured-out. In Spring 2008, there were two essential steps. By summer, there were four. Now, that number has grown to eight, each one in a particular sequence. The key is solving these problems seems unachievable without all eight. The conversation may be patchy and incomplete, but it will actually help to forge ahead with an unfinished product. Feel free to join this figuring-it-out conversation and help this move along.
1. Face Atmospheric Reality
The heart of the global warming crisis is the continuing increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Direct measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere from the Mauna Loa Observatory tells us that atmospheric CO2 was 383.09 parts per million in September 2008, and that the rate of increase this decade is accelerating. In contrast, the key to solving the global warming crisis is the future decline of atmospheric concentrations of the most abundant greenhouse gas released by human activities: CO2. A basic level of carbon literacy is needed, and this information is something that needs to be made visible and recognizable far and wide.
2. We need a science-based target for safe levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
I know of a single scientific report that tells us what level of atmospheric CO2 is safe. The report is based on paleoclimate data and findings published in April 2008 by ten scientists led by James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. What level of atmospheric CO2 is safe? The upper ceiling is 350 parts per million. Directionally, we need to transform the rise of atmospheric CO2 into a decline back to levels not seen since 1987. At another level, we need to move our aim from targets based on policy to targets based on what science says is safe. That uncontested target for safe CO2 is 350 ppm.
3. We need to see the effort to get to Safe CO2 as universally urgent
The world has been on the dangerous side of 350 for more than two decades. The higher that CO2 levels rise in the atmosphere, and the longer that concentrations stay elevated in the danger zone, the greater the harm to the planet and the human community. [See the Hansen report for details.] The main human-caused greenhouse gas, CO2 is rising and accelerating in terms of emissions and atmospheric levels. The world needs a plan right now that can get us to 350 as fast as absolutely practical, and we need a successful execution of that plan.
4. We need a milestone target for Peak CO2
Atmospheric concentrations are accelerating upward when they need to be declining. Before atmospheric CO2 can begin its decent on the road to safe concentrations, the rising concentrations must be brought to a peak. That is the first major milestone target that must be achieved collectively by the people of the world. To reflect the urgency of hitting this target, “Peak CO2” is a target to be achieved within a particular timeframe. The timeframe that is adopted needs to be as soon as absolutely practical.
5. We need to rewire the world economy with alternative energy and get our emissions as close to zero as possible
To get atmospheric CO2 to stop rising, the scientists tell us that global emissions need to be cut by at least 50%. To get atmospheric CO2 to begin a decline back to the safe side of 350 ppm as soon as absolutely practical, global emissions need to be reduced so low they are close to zero. We need to let go of the high carbon present and move swiftly and directly to the inevitable future where emissions are so low they are practically zero. As long as we continue to burn fossil fuels in our daily lives or our places of employment, the causes of the global warming crisis will be alive and well. As long as we are using our local and distant lands in ways that add emissions to the atmosphere, rather than absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, we will know that we are probably not yet doing enough.
6. Unleash human ingenuity everywhere
Solve global warming and climate change? This is not a job for superman. This is not a job for one institution or one country. This is not something to be done by someone else in some other place. This is a mission for as many of the 6.5 billion humans on earth who are prepared to accept it. A carbon-literate population can achieve results that would seem impossible today when they are given clear targets, policy and financial support, access to appropriate technology and objective progress reports. People had the ingenuity to build this world and economy on a fossil fuel platform. They have even more untapped ingenuity that can be used to reinvent and rewire the global economy for sustainable prosperity on a clean and safe platform.
7. Prepare for some of earth’s biggest parties
Solving the global warming crisis requires an unprecedented level of cooperation, coordination and cognition. As the efforts achieve results along the road toward 350 ppm, there will be reason for a planet-wide, human celebration that is bigger than any celebration in history.
8. Repeat for the other greenhouse gases
Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere is responsible for more global warming than the rise of all the other greenhouse gases combined. The global warming crisis cannot be cracked or solved without a focus on CO2. The singular focus on CO2 does not imply that other greenhouse gases from human activities can be ignored. What works for CO2 will apply roughly for methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and the other greenhouses gases.
Please keep in mind that this is just the beginning of this conversation, this search for a plan with a high likelihood of providing great benefits for the planet and humanity, today and into the future. For now, send your thoughts and comments to