On May 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a dreadfully symbolic number — 400 ppm. 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. This benchmark was met with everything from fearful observance and solemn complacency to skeptical dismissal.
Some naysayers were quick to point out that the actual reading was 399.89. Regardless of rounding, this reading offered a grim reminder of our self-aware march into a future with a climate we have no experience in dealing with.
The number itself is less significant than the window of perspective it offers. It ignites a conversation that should be constant, regardless of how many times we have heard it.
This conversation will always bring naysayers, those who believe that scientifically debunked theories have a place at a table that demands cooperation.
But it does no good to muddy a conversation that, even if unified, has mountainous implications and requires impossibly drastic courses of action. Instead, this number is an appeal to the vast majority who believe that climate change is real, and that something must be done to reverse the trends. Again, the majority.
Constant looming threats — such as climate change — regularly give way to daily news cycles, relegated to, at best, the complacent “of course” pile.
Of course global warming is a threat, and we should do something about it. Of course it’s frightening that CO2 levels are higher than they have been in three million years, but it’s too late to do anything.
This cannot be how we discuss these issues.
If there was ever a time to get on a soapbox, it is now. Scientists have warned that the number of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be brought down to 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.
In order for us to curb current emissions, the consumption of fossil fuels must be reduced by almost half. Though drastic, this is not impossible. But our window is becoming narrower by the day.
We must support clean energy. We must reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. But first, we must have a unified conversation.