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Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Highest Level in Nearly a Million Years

The US is responsible for 29 percent of greenhouse gases emitted worldwide in the last 150 years.

(Photo: Dave Sizer; Edited: LW / TO)

According to the World Meteorological Organization, atmospheric CO2 levels have reached the highest level in 800,000 years — a gain that took just a few decades. The agency warns that urgent action is needed to reverse this worrying trend — and notes that we have the technology, but perhaps not the political will.

This announcement is especially alarming, given that the Trump administration has adopted aggressively anti-environmental policies, including placing climate change deniers in key policymaking positions.

The WMO report states that atmospheric CO2 levels have reached 403.3 parts per million, an increase from 2015. The agency claims that some of this rise can be explained by a particularly strong El Niño year, but human activity was also a contributing factor. The spike represents a 145 percent increase over pre-Industrial levels, reflecting a rapid change over a relatively short period of time.

Methane levels have also jumped radically, and researchers aren’t quite sure why. Some methane is natural in origin, while other amounts come from human activities, including agriculture. One reason why methane levels are increasing may be a rise in global temperatures, which leads to more methane release.

Nitrous oxide is also on the rise, with levels reaching about 122 percent of those seen prior to 1750. This gas destroys ozone, a key part of the atmosphere that makes the planet habitable.

One option for addressing the increase of greenhouses gases is to set — and meet — strict emissions targets worldwide, a major goal of the Paris Agreement. But these targets are only effective when all nations commit to honoring them, and they require creative problem solving for polluting industries that need to develop cleaner, more efficient methods of doing business.

Mitigation efforts may also be key, along with research like this, which generates a tremendous amount of useful data to help track emissions trends.

Additionally, nations should seriously consider strategies for climate change resilience. Even if we sharply reverse emissions and meet other goals, sea levels will likely continue to rise, and severe weather could become the norm. Planning for such events must include conversations about building robust and flexible infrastructure, relocating communities when necessary and developing a sustainable legacy for the next generation.

While the Obama administration promoted action in all of these areas, unfortunately, the Trump administration doesn’t view the climate as a priority. And this should worry US residents — especially those living in hurricane-prone areas and regions subject to wildfires.

This issue remains one of global importance, as the US is responsible for 29 percent of greenhouse gases emitted worldwide in the last 150 years. The US has contributed heavily to the Earth’s burden, and now it must be part of the solution.

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