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Humans Can't Stop Breaking Carbon Emissions Records

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The climate is changing, driven in part by humans spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists agrees with this statement. They agree with this statement because they look at long-term climate models, look at carbon emissions, run lots of tests, and see that one drives the other. I do not like writing serious articles about climate change because it’s exasperating. But there is news that I must report: As usual, we’re on track for a record-breaking year.

The Met Office, the United Kingdom’s weather agency, predicts that we’re to break 410 parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time on record. The change from 2016 to 2017 isn’t as high as the change from 2015 to 2016 (yay!) but is still the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide on record (boo). On top of that, 2016 was the first year on record where the levels were above 400 ppm the whole year, a level we’ll probably be at permanently.


I’m about to explain climate change. Again. If you are already convinced, skip a few paragraphs. If not, prepare for some agonizing facts pulled mainly from government websites and previous Gizmodo reporting.

The Earth is a balanced, dynamic system with the oceans, forests, polar ice, and atmosphere each playing a different role in maintaining the climate and carbon dioxide levels. Usually plants, the ocean, and the soil suck up carbon from things like animals and natural fires via photosynthesis or by dissolving it. But us humans cut down lots of those plants, and add extra carbon by burning fossil fuels to run our cars, heat our homes, et cetera. That means these so-called carbon sinks only eat up half of the greenhouse gases, says the Met Office, and the other half goes into the atmosphere where it makes an insulating layer that keeps heat trapped on Earth. Did I mention that I hate writing about climate change?


That excess carbon dioxide and other gases like methane lead to a warming Earth—average global temperatures are now around one to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.8 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the temperatures in the 19th century. That might not sound like a lot, but these slight changes can lead to bad things. Long term, we might see melting polar ice, more coastal flooding, and stranger weather patterns. It’s mainly our fault, too. If you look at how quickly it usually takes the Earth to heat up that much, you’ll realize it’s fairly clear that we’re the ones causing the warming. Volcanoes are not the main problem. Solar cycles are not the main problem. As the EPA says, “recent changes cannot be explained by natural causes alone.”

If this sounds familiar, sorry, but lots of people don’t think it’s a serious threat. I am already cringing thinking of the emails I will get containing links to some non-climate scientist’s blog with baseless or incorrect assertions.

The Met Office’s predictions shouldn’t be taken lightly—its model perfectly predicted 2016's carbon levels, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Last year’s prediction is the blue line, the black line is what happened, and the orange line is this year’s prediction.


The graph goes up and down thanks to the seasons, but in the past sixty years the highs and lows always seem to be a little higher than the ones from the year before. And if that graph doesn’t look like a problem, here’s what happens if you zoom out to look at the carbon levels over the past 60 years—the so-called “Keeling Curve.”


Maybe to you that just looks like carbon levels have always been increasing. They haven’t. Here’s what the graph looks like if you zoom out to, let’s say the past several hundred thousand years.


All that is to say, the news I’ve got for you today is business as usual—the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is skyrocketing as usual, and 2017 is on track to have the highest level of carbon in the atmosphere ever, as usual. Carbon dioxide isn’t the only bad greenhouse gas (there’s methane and others) but if the Keeling curve isn’t convincing enough for you, I’m not sure what will convince you. I’d suggest looking at that xkcd comic again.

We and 194 other countries signed the Paris Agreement, saying we’d do our best to keep emissions down in order to keep the total warming below 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. People seem to be in agreement that keeping below 2 degrees, and hopefully below 1.5 degrees of warming will prevent us from some of climate change’s more catastrophic effects. Of course, a certain President of a certain country doesn’t seem to believe the evidence his own agencies produce. Maybe he’ll change his mind.


So, we wrote a story like this last year and one of the top comments was “what do you want me to do?” Good question. 1. Write letters to your congresspeople, the President, everyone who represents you, and tell them that this is an important issue. Convince your friends to do the same. 2. If you drive, try to drive less. Take public transportation. Buy an energy efficient or electric car. Convince your friends to do the same. 3. Use more energy efficient electronics. Watch how you’re heating and cooling your home to save energy. Convince your friends to do the same. 4. Arm yourself with knowledge about climate change. Ignore the trolls, convince people who aren’t sure.

That’s all I’ve got.

[Met Office]