Today’s Poll

Time to ‘Skate to the Box’

Michael Jessen
By Michael Jessen
May 19th, 2014

“Adding CO2 to the air is like throwing another blanket on the bed.”

                                                                                              – James Hansen

The observatory near the summit of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii is well situated at an altitude of 3,400 metres to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) reflective of global trends.

American scientist Charles David Keeling chose the site high up on the slopes of Mauna Loa because he wanted to measure CO2 in the “breathing” of the planet that would be typical of much of the Northern Hemisphere. 

Keeling was the first to make accurate measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere and his initial measurements at Mauna Loa began in March 1958; that air had 315.71 parts per million (ppm) of CO2.

The Mauna Loa record, now known as the Keeling Curve, continues to be collected under the direction of Keeling’s son, Ralph.

As the Sun’s light strikes the ground and warms it, an infrared light is emitted. But CO2 in the air soaks up that light and prevents it from radiating away into space. So Earth radiates less energy than it absorbs, upsetting the delicate balance and altering Earth’s climate.

It’s a simple equation: additional CO2 in the air = more heat in the atmosphere. It  is commonly called the greenhouse effect.

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere go up and down slightly every day, month, and year but are increasing at an accelerating rate from decade to decade. The amount of CO2 increased 2.66 ppm from 2012 to 2013, above the average 2.02 ppm per year for the past 10 years.

CO2 is the principal greenhouse gas that results from human activities and causes global warming and climate disruption.Fossil fuel burning continues to increase concentrations of the greenhouse gas to levels not seen in human history and not in perhaps as many as 3 to 5 million years.

During ice ages, the CO2 levels were around 200 ppm while prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution (the 1750 to 1850 timeframe) they were about 280 ppm.

As I write this column, the latest CO2 levels as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory – where they usually peak in mid-May – sit at 401.61 ppm. (Earth’s plant matter is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, so global carbon dioxide values peak in the spring, after which the summertime plant and leaf growth up north sucks out some of the carbon dioxide.)

For the first time in human history, concentrations of CO2 in the global atmosphere are regularly surpassing 400 ppm.

See YouTube video.

CO2 levels hit ‘sobering’ milestone

April 2014 saw CO2 levels above 400 ppm every day of the month – another first.

There’s more worrying news. The first ever reading above 400 ppm in human history was registered on May 9 last year; this year the first such reading was recorded on March 14, almost two months earlier. For the week beginning April 27, 2014 CO2 levels averaged 402.09 ppm; the weekly value from 10 years ago was 380.38 ppm.

“The 400-ppm threshold is a sobering milestone,” says Tim Lueker, an oceanographer and carbon-cycle researcher with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which operates Mauna Loa. “[It] should serve as a wakeup call for all of us to support clean energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren.”

Given that we’re in the middle of the National Hockey League playoffs, it’s appropriate to say that humanity must “skate to the box” and take full responsibility for its carbon crime, just like a hockey player who has committed a penalty immediately and without protest heads to the penalty box.

To use another euphemism, we’ve had our “hands over the coals” long enough. We’ve felt the heat and pain of droughts, wildfires, floods, and hurricanes; it’s time to act.

We first need to accept that there are limits to growth and suspend our obsession with productivism. Then we must initiate a huge energy efficiency and conservation program, a rapid exploitation of renewable energy, develop an integrated transport policy and commence a big reduction in the use of the car, instigate the localization of food (and other) production where possible, start land reform, water conservation, food sovereignty, a big reduction in meat consumption, the protection of habitats and vulnerable species – the list is neither short nor easy.

The way we’re currently living is not the only way to live. We make choices every day and by making different ones we can change the path we’re on. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that “behaviours informed by awareness of energy and climate issues” can reduce energy demand in buildings by up to 20% in the short run, and by 50% by 2050.

Many of us are dissatisfied with the status quo and seek an altered approach to life. Making the changes mentioned above actually have proven benefits beyond avoiding the climate cliff.

IPCC says humans caused warming

The IPCC’s recently released fifth assessment report – authored by 250 scientists from 39 countries – states:

“It isextremelylikely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The IPCC report goes on to describe the cumulative effect of human-caused CO2:

“Emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel use and from the effects of land use change on plant and soil carbon are the primary sources of increased atmospheric CO2. Since 1750, it is estimated that about 2/3rds of anthropogenic [human] CO2 emissions have come from fossil fuel burning and about 1/3rd from land use change. About 45% of this CO2 has remained in the atmosphere, while about 30% has been taken up by the oceans and the remainder has been taken up by the terrestrial biosphere.”

Currently, the world emits about 2.4 million pounds (1,088,621 kilograms) of CO2 every second. Researchers with the Global Carbon Project predict the 2013 emissions from burning fossil fuels will be a record 36 billion metric tons. Their 2013 estimate represents a 2.1% gain versus 2012 and a 61% increase since 1990, the baseline year for the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol, the only global agreement that places binding limits on national CO2 emission levels.

The world community has been discussing atmospheric CO2 levels since 1992 and since that time about140 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2°C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages. Organizations including NASA, the International Energy Agency and the World Bank have warned of catastrophic impacts that will result from warmer temperatures.

From 1880 to 2012, elevated CO2 concentrations increased the average global temperature by 0.85°C, with half of that rise occurring since 1980. To keep from exceeding a 2°C increase, some scientists say we need to maintain CO2 concentrations under 450 ppm, a level that could be reached in two decades or less if fossil fuel emissions are not minimized.

450 ppm CO2 “so dangerous”

Others, like James Hansen, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, declare that the 2°C target is not stringent enough, and “so dangerous” as to be “foolhardy”.  At that level, the worldrisks disastrous consequences and major dislocations for civilization.

Hansen, the world’s foremost climate scientist, knows of what he speaks. In 1981 he co-authored a paper published in Science that predicted the effects of increased warming would include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climatic zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage – events that have already occurred or are well under way.

In 1988 when he testified before the U.S. Congress, Hansen said that the time had come “to stop waffling so much and say the planet was warming”.

And the warming is increasing even faster than Hansen predicted in his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

Hansen’s December 2013 paper Assessing Dangerous Climate Change – co-authored with 17 other scientists – advocates for a target of 350 ppm as the maximum safe level of CO2 concentration. This, the authors say, would stabilize the global temperature at 1°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid runaway climate destabilization.

As Hansen states in his 2012 TED talk, it would be immoral to leave our grandchildren with a climate system spiralling out of control.

The ‘fee-and-dividend’ solution

As blunt as Hansen is about the severity of our situation, he does have a solution.

Essential to reducing CO2 levels, says Hansen, is a rising price on carbon applied at the source, be it a mine, wellhead, or port of entry. This would affect all activities that use fossil fuels, directly or indirectly.

 “Our goal is a global phaseout of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions,” Hansen writes in his book. “We have shown, quantitatively, that the only practical way to achieve an acceptable carbon dioxide level is to disallow the use of coal and unconventional fossil fuels (such as tar sands and oil shale) unless the resulting carbon is captured and stored.”

 Under Hansen’s fee-and-dividend scheme, money collected from the fossil fuel companies is distributed 100% electronicallyevery month to the bank account or debit card of all legal residentson a per capita basis,with up to two half shares for children per family.  The government doesn’t keep one dime. “Thus those who do better than average in reducing their carbon footprint will receive more in the dividend than they will pay in the added costs of the products they buy,” Hansen writes.

The carbon fee will rise gradually – and continually – so that the public will have time to adjust their lifestyle, choice of vehicle, home insulation, etc., so as to minimize their carbon footprint.

“Low-income people can gain by limiting their emissions,” says Hansen. People with multiple houses, or who fly around the world a lot, will pay more in increased prices than they obtain in the dividend.”

A redistribution of income

Such a scheme is essentially a redistribution of income from those in the top quintile of the population who have above average carbon footprints and consume more fossil fuels to those in the bottom quintile that have below average carbon footprints and consume less.

“But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissionsto make fossil fuels paytheir true cost to society,our governments are forcing the publicto subsidize fossil fuelsby 400 to 500 billion dollarsper year worldwide,thus encouraging extraction of every fossil fuel –mountaintop removal,longwall mining, fracking,tar sands, tar shale,deep ocean Arctic drilling,” says Hansen.

Although Hansen has been outspoken for years and been arrested while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and mountaintop coal mining, he laments that his message is not being heard.

As he ends his TED talk, Hansen tells the audience: “I need your helpto communicate the gravity and the urgencyof this situationand its solutionsmore effectively.We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Now that we know what Hansen knows, the question is what are we going to do about it?

The Third National Climate Assessment issued earlier this month paints a stark picture: Inaction will devastate much of the arable land of the nation’s breadbasket and ruin a livable climate for most Americans.

If we ignore Hansen’s advice, we will be penalized. The game we are playing is a “barn burner” and if we don’t “skate to the box”, we’ll end up the “hosers”.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based eco-writer whose consulting business is called Zero Waste Solutions. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by email at

RESOURCES –The latest carbon dioxide reading at Mauna Loa Observatory can be found at

Learn how background CO2 levels are measured on Mauna Loa at

A time history of atmospheric carbon dioxide can be watched at

A Hyperlinked History of Climate Change Scienceis available at

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and its summaries for policymakers are found at

A 12-minute video prepared by the IPCC explains the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of climate change. It is at

The paper Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide published in Science in 1981 can be downloaded at

Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Naturecan be read at

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanityby James Hansen was published in 2009 by Bloomsbury USA

James Hansen’s February 2012 TED talk can be found at A transcript of the talk can be read at the need to limit cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide

The recently released National Climate Assessment which summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States can be accessed at

A slideshow of hockey slang can be found at

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