Silence of the milestone: how humanity is greeting 400ppm with continuing indifference

The world at >400ppm during the Pliocene: sea surface temperatures relative to today

History affords us lessons if we are prepared to pay attention.

To paraphrase, those who ignores the Earth’s geologic history seem destined to relive it.

Among those who follow such things (scientists, climate bloggers and the journalists chronicling this act of civilisational suicide) the passing of the 400ppm milestone was met with a mixture of resignation, calls for action and a hint of fatalism.

The last time the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was at this level was 3 million years ago during the mid-Pliocene. It was a very different world, with average global temperatures 3-4 degrees higher. Even more concerning, sea levels were at least 5-40 meters higher than today.

But what does 400ppm mean, if having nothing more than the arbitrary significance we assign?

As atmospheric scientist Joanna Haigh notes in a recent BBC interview “In itself, the value 400ppm of CO2 has no particular significance for the physics of the climate system: concentration levels have been in the 300s for so long and now we’ve passed the 400 mark. However, this does give us the chance to mark the ongoing increase in CO2 concentration and talk about why it’s a problem for the climate.”

Like turning 40 or celebrating a Silver Wedding anniversary, passing 400ppm has symbolic value. We all acknowledge significant milestones as they allow us to understand not merely where we have come from, but where we may going.

So now that the 7 billion humans on the planet have shared the passing of this milestone, how have we acknowledged it?

My own sense is in the same way humanity has responded as it has to date: in denial; indifference; the blaming of others and the pointing of fingers; ineffective and halfhearted attempts at solutions; inaction. 

George Monbiot  of The Guardian argues the only way to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is to completely overhaul politics: “This new climate milestone reflects a profound failure of politics, in which democracy has quietly been supplanted by plutocracy. Without a widespread reform of campaign finance, lobbying and influence-peddling and the systematic corruption they promote, our chances of preventing climate breakdown are close to zero.”

Monbiot wishes to lay the full blame the fossil-fuel industry for funding disinformation and corrupting the political system.

There is some truth to this, however I judge the success of such a campaign less likely than halting (let alone reducing) the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

We face political gridlock on such comparably simpler issues like tax reform or funding services for the disabled.

The probability of a root-and-branch renewal of politics as we know it seems unlikely – at least in the time frames required to bring down emissions within the next half decade.

On not wanting to know

Despite sharing some of the sentiments expressed by Monbiot, I’ve long argued we need to take a much more nuanced view on the causes of inaction.

Kari Marie Norgaard in her groundbreaking work of anthropology Living in Denial suggests it is the social organisation of denial to which we can attribute humanities failure.

At all levels of society – from the individual to the level of national politics – we are all engaged in the activity of denial.  We enforce silence on the climate issue within own minds, in our conversations with loved ones and neighbors and within the workplace and the political sphere. The problem – Norgaard suggests – is not that of a lack of information or the malign influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Simply put that vast majority of us do not want to know.

However both Monbiot and Norgaard are right: we cannot attribute this failure to a single cause.

And so between the Scylla and Charybdis of an indifferent populace and a political system inadequate to the task, what our humanities options?

“Daddy, why is the sky white?”

The once fringe science of geoengineering is now being entertained.

It is as the term implies: the deliberate act of engineering the climate. One approach is to examine how we can draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

Another suggestion is shooting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, thus giving it greater reflective properties. It would reduce incoming solar radiation and keep temperatures down.

Paul J. Crutzen, the chemist who gave us the term Anthropocene, recently suggested in a paper we should at least begin looking into such options but he also notes the risks:

 Anthropogenic stratospheric aerosol injection would cool the planet, stop the melting of sea ice and land-based glaciers, slow sea level rise, and increase the terrestrial carbon sink, but produce regional drought, ozone depletion, less sunlight for solar power, and make skies less blue. Furthermore it would hamper Earth-based optical astronomy, do nothing to stop ocean acidification, and present many ethical and moral issues. Further work is needed to quantify many of these factors to allow informed decision-making.

It is the equivalent of blanketing the planet in reflective tinfoil.

One of the more likely consequences of such a strategy would be to change the colour of the sky from its characteristic blue to white: no more would children ask parents why the sky is blue.

We’ll have to explain to our children it is white because we made it so.

Steve Sherwood of the University of New South Wales has a piece on The Conversation that pays attention to these growing calls for geoengineering: “There are ideas around to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These would be great if they worked, but to me they look like impractical pipe dreams… We should resist this temptation. You do not apply a tourniquet to a man’s leg if, with a bit of extra effort, you could get him to a hospital and save the leg. Bringing down carbon emissions is a matter of rolling up our sleeves and choosing to do it. For this generation to say, “we can’t” would be a sad admission of failure for a civilisation that has achieved so much.”

In Sherwood’s piece, and so many others there is that talk about civilisation “failing”.

To return to the example of the Pliocene: many scientists see this as analogous to what we can expect as the concentration of CO2 climbs. The past is our best teacher of what to expect.

Is that what failure looks like?

Or is it Götterdämmerung – the twilight of the gods?

For very good reason science journalists Mark Lynas call humanity The God Species in his book of the same title – such is our impact on the planet.

Only time and the judgement of future generations will make sense of the what we have done to ourselves and the world.

Sic transit gloria mundi

I will end not with a call to arms, casting judgement or claiming civilisation is a failed project.

Only to say what is – is.

What will be – will be.

What will come – is coming.

There is enough blame to share in equal portions.

Our task is to watch and note the changing planet; to begin the great works of adaptation.

And to explain to those who follow how this came to pass.


Mike @ WtD

38 thoughts on “Silence of the milestone: how humanity is greeting 400ppm with continuing indifference

  1. john byatt says:

    reaching the global one degree C anomaly will be a milestone
    The first ice free Arctic day will be a milestone

    both these events will trigger action because at the moment the deniers are betting that they could not happen due to their absurd little age is coming rants.

    These two events will persuade most of the sceptics that they have been lied to and led up the garden path by the likes of Monckton, Watts, Carter, Spencer, lindzen etc

    both events are inevitable and sooner than we think

    • john byatt says:

      correction little ice age

      • Greg North says:

        Any chance john that we could have an Artic ice free several hundred or thousand years during which we have warmer times before a return to cooler times, be it eventually another minor or major Ice age, even if in several hundred thousand years time?

        Do we really know and yes we would include all scientists.

        This not to say that climate change is not real for it has always been about and it is also not to say either that Anthropocene Climate Change is not occurring and we have a vastly increased rate of CO2 levels if not yet temperatures.

        Could it also be that the increased rate of CO2 change precipitates some other sort of change in the environment, a trigger effect for nature if you like and not just starting up the wildest stormy weather as predicted but even some sort of reversal or even a spacial dispersal into the universe’s vacuum.

        Could it even be that a warmer planet is more easily lived on than what an Ice Age planet would be?, all that heating we are causing giving something of a moderating effect to Icing up?
        If that is the case, maybe we are better off searching for, accessing and burning even more fossil fuels and quadrupling our beef industries even if it means force feeding vegetarians or just for more blood and bone fertiliser as a double bonus of more methane and a replacement for phosphate.

    • Debunker says:

      “These two events will persuade most of the sceptics that they have been lied to and led up the garden path by the likes of Monckton, Watts, Carter, Spencer, lindzen etc”

      Hate to be cynical here John, but I doubt it. We already have an 80% ice free Arctic in summer, near as dammit ice free, all in just 30 years, and it has made stuff all difference to the likes of Eric, Mark and Weasel. When you lose that much ice in such a short time, one would think that you would have to have a few doubts about your belief system; but no, they’re still bleating that it’s the sun or its natural variation or some other such rubbish.

      My guess is that when the Arctic is finally ice free, they will just say it doesn’t prove anything, it’s an aberration and the Antarctic is still doing fine, and an ice age is coming, and blah, blah…

      • john byatt says:

        I would not expect eric to change though he has stated that an ice free Arctic would convince him to rethink his view. the likes of eric are irrelevant in any case.

        The Ice free Arctic news will go viral around the world, It will dominate every conversation on climate change henceforth.

        most people do not know about the 80% loss, everyone understands zilch.

        Denial right up until it happens then the awakening, bet my ball on it.

        denier ” the planet is not warming”

        science ” the Arctic ice just disappeared up its arse

        Eric “………………” he can fill that bit in ,

      • astrostevo says:

        Where we’re at with Arctic sea ice is pretty frightening – see :

        How much longer it will last, I don’t know but doubt it has long before all the Arctic ocean is open for parts of the northern summer.. and a planet that used to always have two polar caps sometimes has only one.

      • Mark says:

        Yep, an ice free Arctic would be a reason to reconsider the issue. In fact lots of events are reason to reconsider the issue eg a multi-decadal ‘hiatus’ in temperature increases, would, one would have thought, been reason to re-examine one’s views. But alas not.

        So yes, if we got an ice free Arctic say two out of three consecutive years, it would be a strong indicator that we were moving beyond the mere natural climate cycles.

        But, what if we don’t get an ice free Arctic by say 2015. Will this mean that the resident warmoholics will rethink their position or will they just move on to the next prediction? Ever since 2007 it seems like an ice free Arctic is just a few years away, a bit like the second-coming is always imminent in circles of a certain type.

        I can well remember being told I’d have to re-evaluate if temps continued to climb post 98, or when polar bears went extinct, or if the drought of 2007 continued, or if sydney indeed ran out of water, or if we lost the GBR, or if snow did indeed become a memory, or if…well you get the drift.

        It seems the ground-breaking event is always just around the corner. But it never quite arrives and when it fails to arrive, the true believers just move on to the next big thing.

        So BBD, debinker et al, tell us: If it doesn’t go ice free in Sept 2015, will you be rethinking your faith?

      • Nick says:

        What ‘multi-decadal hiatus’ are you talking about? 1940-1970?

        If we don’t get an ‘ice free summer’ by 2015 it won’t matter at all to AGW as a theory ,as it is a whole system theory,and also as the last IPCC projections underestimated the reduction so far seen. There is likely every summer to be a small stubborn rump of older ice still attached to the northern shores of the Canadian Archipelago/part of north Greenland simply because of local conditions favoring it. What is ‘important’ to identify statistically significant change is whereabouts it ends up when assessed over decades,not whether noisy rejectionists can point to remnants and pretend that summers are not absolutely ice free when they are effectively so

        Your comment is a massive exercise in projection,Mark. It’s you lot who have to define everything ‘just so’ via strawmen constructs and misrepresentations of scientists positions.

        There have been ‘ground-breaking events’…you just don’t see them for what they are. Such as what has already been observed in the Arctic ecosystem…

      • Mark says:

        I was thinking of the purported 1997 -201? hiatus which seems to have been pre-emptively discounted as significant.

        I agree that we are very unlikely to ever see an ice free September in the Arctic. But its not the non-consensus community that’s constantly talking it up. Even here we have the warming bolsters opining what’ll happen when it occurs.

        Its about the politics of AGW. As Schneider said “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have…” in order to ” capture the public’s imagination.” (I assume someone will assert he was taken out of context). So the ice loss becomes the central talking-point today, just as the claims that polar bears were threatened was yesterday. That it never actually happens is not really of concern since the claimants can always fall back on the ‘taken out of context’ excuse or the ‘it was only one of many scenarios’ excuse. The aim is to get the scary scenario into the public domain so as to increase the pressure for the measures favoured by the claimant.

        Unfortunately for the consensus, crying wolf really does have consequences and those particular chickens have come home to roost. World-wide the desire to lift a finger to reduce emissions has waned not least because the public, at least in the west, have tired of the false scare campaigns. You might be convinced that we are all headed to a warming hell, but the public isn’t, or at least isn’t prepared to throw good money at it.

        And as for the developing and undeveloped world – as Leaky said “You have to have at least one square meal a day to be a conservationist or an environmentalist”. They are much more interested in having food on the plate and a roof over their head to worry too much about CO2 emissions.

      • zoot says:

        I was thinking of the purported 1997 -201? hiatus …

        That’s not “multi-decadal” (you really have a problem with English) and it also only exists in the fevered imaginations of the denialati. It would be nice if you restricted yourself to the real world in future.

      • Mark says:


        Out of that whole post, that’s the thing you want to dispute? The nit-picking is so tiresome….and revealing.

        Its more than one decade…QED.

      • Nick says:

        There are a lot of independent voices making comments about AGW, usually simultaneously,so I reject the idea implicit in your comment,Mark, that issues of concern are highlighted sequentially / moving from scare to scare as if in a propaganda strategy…”first it was this, then it was this, then it was polar bears,then etc ..” Once again,I’d suggested you are projecting,as rejectionists move as a pack on issues highlighted for them by their ring masters,and thus tend to see issues extruded like sausages…. Scientists are not in that sort of business: scores of institutions with specialties are working globally on tracking changes across the board. They don’t choose which issue is the most ‘attractive’ for the media,though some institutions have higher profiles than others.

        As far as I know those concerned about polar bears are still concerned about their prospects,and while the rapid collapse has made Arctic sea ice extent and volume higher profile,it was always an area of strong interest. After all,Arctic change was projected to be fast and heightened forty years ago. So bears and sea-ice are current and were current…along with SLR,ocean acidification,regional projections,sensitivity, and etc.

        And we do not have a ‘hiatus’ at present,if you’d respect the discussions of stat sig and the distribution of energy …1940 to 1970 was a real hiatus.

  2. Steve says:

    Looking at the keeling Curve:
    It would seem that our atmosphere has had a carbon dioxide concentration between 300 and 400 ppm for about 70 years. I wonder how long it will be before the concentration reaches 500ppm.

    • Greg North says:

      Looks as though there’s a few step changes in the curve Steve that kind of split it into three different growth trends with another step change at 2010 seeming to be there and tending towards a hyperbolic trajectory.

      With that continuing, then you might expect to see 500 well within fifty years and even as soon as twenty unless there are other dramatic changes in store for us.

      • louploup2 says:

        What happens as we transition to the downhill side of Peak Oil? We appear to be at about peak right now (85 million barrels/day produced and consumed). Aleklett 2012 (“Peeking at Peak Oil”). Will the EROI of coal allow us to burn significant portions of it? Have we already passed tipping point of Arctic methane release?

        Humanity seems to be in a frenzy of self-destructive behavior. Lots of psychopathology at both individual, group, and structural levels.

  3. Steve says:

    Professor Paul J. Crutzen said that stratospheric aerosol injection would do nothing for ocean acidification. In fact using sulphate aerosols would accelerate it, not only because of the sulfurous and sulfuric acids that would eventually find their way to the ocean but more so by giving an excuse for continuing to put large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
    This type of geoengineering only has an effect for a limited time, and the aerosols would need to be every year.
    This applies also to the use of finely divided calcium carbonate injection into the stratosphere as suggested by Professor Yoshiaki Fujii. His idea would reduce ocean acidification a bit, but would create other problems.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Indeed Steve – at best a dangerous experiment with the atmosphere. But how desperate will we become?

  4. Sou says:

    The milestone itself got the media’s attention. Time will tell how the public and policy makers go. I’ve been reading how there is trouble brewing in the US Republican camp, with some saying it’s time to accept the science. On the other hand, here in Australia it looks as if the deniers in the Liberal Party are wanting to bring on more and worse floods and droughts.

  5. Ben Aveling says:

    Very depressing. There’s a rational argument to be had about how we should react. But it seems that we can’t get past the irrational argument about whether it even exists. Eppur si muove.

  6. mgm75 says:

    Reblogged this on 2012 And All That… The Fight Against Nonsense and commented:
    Finally, we’ve reached that point and the silence is deafening…

  7. mgm75 says:

    Plutocracy… and the plutocrats are pushing toward anarcho-capitalism while accusing anybody who disagrees as being “anti-capitalist”.

  8. john byatt says:

    Julie Brigham-Grette, Martin Melles, Pavel Minyuk, Andrei Andreev, Pavel Tarasov, Robert DeConto, Sebastian Koenig, Norbert Nowaczyk, Volker Wennrich, Peter Rosén, Eeva Haltia, Tim Cook, Catalina Gebhardt, Carsten Meyer-Jacob, Jeff Snyder, and Ulrike Herzschuh.

    Pliocene Warmth, Polar Amplification, and Stepped Pleistocene Cooling Recorded in NE Arctic Russia. Science, 9 May 2013 DOI: 10.1126/science.1233137

    climate sensitivity to CO2 may be higher than suggested in IPCC AR4

    • BBD says:

      Brigham-Grette et al. (2013) full paper.

      B-G13 is more and strong evidence that Earth System Sensitivity is higher than fast-feedback sensitivity, yes. But the ~3C most likely value for ECS in AR4 is the fast-feeback sensitivity, so care must be taken to avoid confusion.


  9. We are ALL in denial.

    What we effectively need is the equivalent of a brain transplant- a heart transplant would be acceptable but a brain one would mean the end of self, possibly. Fossil fuels are who we are, they are the foundation of everything in our modern civilisation and therefore our politics with all its concentrated power reflects our power source.

    Growing up in the 70s the script I expected [after the 1970s oil ‘crisis’] was a technological transition: fusion and solar, electric cars and cities our of scifi movies. Collectively I think we would have been happy to accept the transition- although the notion of eternal economic growth would still be part of that narrative.

    What was not part of the script was the efforts of some to cling to the status quo with such tenacity and the neat way the real cost of fossil has been hidden to give the impression that the alternatives are not economic: read- you, the consumer, will be poorer.

    I think the loss of the Arctic Ice will stimulate debate and marginalise the idiot denialists but it won’t change us collectively. The continuing peak-oil driven recession will be most people’s concern and will listen to the plea of more fracking or polar drilling.

    The idea of ‘white sky’ is particularly disturbing. Perhaps it will be this threat that will change minds to act.

    • Take my love.

      Take my land.

      Take me where I cannot stand.

      I don’t care,

      I’m still free.

      You can’t take the sky from me.

      [Sonny Rhodes – The Ballad Of Serenity]

      Ironically, we can take the blue sky from future generations.

      And why not? Many babies are whiny, smelly, illiterate, incontinent, unemployed layabouts suckling at Big Mother’s teat. Many don’t even speak English, and history suggests they’ll take our jobs!

      So let’s crush their future. Serves ’em right for the Look Who’s Talking sequels.

      Luckily, we just have to do exactly what we’ve been doing. Bwahaha!

  10. catweazle666 says:

    It’s a good job the effect of CO2 on temperature is governed by a logarithmic function, isn’t it?

    • BBD says:

      You think CO2 forcing will be increasingly attenuated as concentrations increase because that’s a common scepticoid misunderstanding. Let’s correct it.

      Here’s a spread of equilibrium responses to 800ppmv CO2 based on three different estimates of ECS/2xCO2. As is standard, pre-industrial CO2 is assumed to be 280ppmv:

      If ECS/2xCO2 = 2.5C:

      dT = 3ln(800/280)/in(2) = 3.8C

      If ECS/2xCO2 = 2.8C:

      dT = 3ln(800/280)/in(2) = 4.2C

      If ECS/2xCO2 = 3.0C:

      dT = 3ln(800/280)/in(2) = 4.5C

      • BTW, coefficients shouldn’t all be 3, and in(2) -> ln(2).

      • BBD says:

        Oops. Thanks for catching that. I’m cutting and pasting myself into a mess here. Let’s try again:

        Assuming pre-industrial CO2ppmv = 280

        If ECS/2xCO2 = 2.5C:

        dT = 2.5 x ln(800/280)/ln(2) = 3.8C

        If ECS/2xCO2 = 2.8C:

        dT = 2.8 x ln(800/280)/ln(2) = 4.2C

        If ECS/2xCO2 = 3.0C:

        dT = 3 x ln(800/280)/ln(2) = 4.5C

    • Just a shame our emissions are rising more than linearly.

      So, you believe in AGW as long as it’s not too much? Wow.

    • Nick says:

      But the logarithmic function has to be seen in context with absorption bandwidths non-linear effects…and non-logarithmic feedbacks. Not simple, weazle.

  11. […] 2013/05/12: WtD: Silence of the milestone: how humanity is greeting 400ppm with continuing indiffere… […]

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