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Carbon Dioxide Reached a New High in Humanity's Existence

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We’re not even through the first month of 2020, and we already broke the record for the day with the most carbon dioxide in all of human history.

Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hit 415.79 parts per million (ppm) at Mauna Loa Observatory on Tuesday. It’s not surprising carbon dioxide levels hit a new daily high, but the new atmospheric record underscores the fact that carbon emissions are rising to new all-time highs when they need to be dropping.


Atmospheric carbon dioxide follow seesaw pattern over the course of a year, rising from fall into spring as plants decay and then declining over the summer as plants grow and suck carbon out of the atmosphere. The cycle has been driven by natural processes for all of human existence until the world began emitting carbon dioxide. Now, the seesaw still exists but it’s been steadily rising with each passing year of continued carbon emissions. The daily record on Tuesday recorded at Mauna Loa Observatory, the gold standard of measuring sites, is an indicator of more records to come in the next few months. The monthly carbon dioxide record is usually set in March or April, though last year’s happened in February owing to human activities that burn fossil fuels.

Scientists can take a long view of carbon dioxide by looking at air trapped in ice cores to understand what the atmosphere of the past looked like. Those record stretch back 800,000 years, as long as humans have walked the Earth. For most of those 800,000 years, average carbon dioxide levels stayed beneath 280 ppm. Things started changing quickly during the industrial era, when humans started burning fossil fuels. The atmosphere humanity has created to day pre-dates our very existence by millions of years.


Despite the clear risks a more carbon dioxide-laden atmosphere poses, emissions are rising faster and faster. As long as humans continue emitting carbon, we’re guaranteed to keep setting new milestones. Just last May, we crossed 415 ppm for the first time ever. That record topped the previous one, which we hit just three months prior. We never even crossed 400 ppm before 2015.

All this carbon is heating up the planet, which is increasing the odds and intensity of heat waves, wildfires, storms and floods. It’s also ruining our air quality, causing public health crises, and even making it harder to think. All the while, science continues to show the risks have never been clearer of what will happen if humanity keeps emitting carbon.


Researchers warn that we’re approaching key tipping points that can trigger runaway global warming and fundamentally disrupt the planet’s climate system. Old Arctic sea ice is on the brink of disappearing. On land, massive ice sheets in Antarctica face the risk of unstoppable collapse and could raise sea levels 10 feet or more. And as forest become more prone to burning, some are beginning to emit carbon and worsening the climate crisis. All this, combined with continued carbon emissions, means we’re headed for even more climate devastation.

We can still change that. It will take radical changes to the global economy, which won’t be easy. But the alternative is complete catastrophe.