Climate Change: As CO2 Levels Increase, Congress Does Nothing

It was May 9, 2013. High atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the Big Island of Hawai'i, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography could only observe passively as their measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a dreaded milestone: 400 parts per million (ppm). It would be the first time since record-keeping began in 1958 that CO2 reached this symbolic but startling level. In fact, Earth hasn't seen CO2 levels this high since the Pliocene epoch — between 3.2 million and 5 million years ago — when you more likely to run into a five-ton mastodon than a four-foot, 100 pound precursor to homo sapiens

Yet it was other characteristics of the Pliocene that get climate change scientists all hot and bothered. With CO2 at such high concentrations, sea levels were up to 66 feet higher and average temperatures 5.4-34.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today. Ice sheets collapsed and shorelines vanished, making modern-day Orlando look more like Atlantis. 

While direct comparisons to the Pliocene period still need to account for differences in land mass configurations and other factors that affect warming trends, scientists know at least one thing for sure: CO2 is the master control knob of our planet's temperature, and we've been turning it way up for decades. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing 100 times faster than it did during the last comparable warming period at the end of the Ice Age. In a process that normally takes thousands of years, CO2 levels have soared from 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution to 400 ppm today. 

The impacts of these changes are no longer hypothetical. Glaciers are already melting in Greenland and western Antarctica, a trend that could raise oceans by 40 feet or more. Searing summer temperatures, droughts, and severe storms like Hurricane Sandy are expected to increase both in frequency and intensity, disrupting people and killing crops and animals. If trends continue, we can expect CO2 concentrations to hit 450 ppm within a few decades

Of course, the culprits for this trend are the usual suspects. China emits more CO2 than the U.S. and Canada combined, and their emissions have nearly tripled since the year 2000. India is now the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world. And the United States is still the largest per capita emitter of CO2 — with an average of 18 tons produced per person.

The good news is that CO2 emissions in the U.S. have declined to levels below those required by the Kyoto Protocol (which President Bush infamously rejected) and the failed Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill in 2009. Indeed, the U.S. may reach President Obama's target of cutting emissions by 17% by 2020, in part because of regulatory changes and the fact that 29 states have set up their own cap and trade programs. Secretary of State Kerry recently hailed this downward trend, but Congress has largely done nothing to facilitate it.

Which raises the question of whether Congress will do anything in the near future. In the wake of the 400 ppm milestone, advocacy groups like CREDO Action, 350.org, and others are mobilizing to urge President Obama's non-profit organization, Organizing for Action (OFA), to develop a clear plan to further reduce emissions. At least one former Republican congressman and ex-climate change denier, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, recently announced that he now believes in science — before losing his seat to a Tea Party candidate in 2010. And advocacy groups have found unlikely bedfellows like General Motors who are joining forces to increase pressure on Washington.

That said, some advocates are wondering if this is a case of "it's me, not you." Climate change communications is now a burgeoning field, where public affairs specialists try to reframe the debate in language lawmakers can understand, presumably testing out phrases such as "you will lose reelection." But when Republicans in the House block 24 requests for hearings on climate change, and many lawmakers are more worried about biblical end-times than the CO2-imposed end-times us mere mortals might be able to prevent, the problem seems to be greater than miscommunication.

Let us all take solace, however, because at least one viable solution remains: instead of fighting Congress, it's time to start fighting each other for pristine beachfront property on volcanoes in Hawai'i.