Late last year, an important and frightening milestone was reached on the climate change front. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. That might not seem like much, but it’s the highest the levels have been for millions of years. So what does that mean for us? To answer that, we need to look at what life was like on Earth the last time greenhouse gas levels were this high.
A Return to Prehistoric Conditions
Since the conditions we’re talking about happened over 50 million years ago, there’s obviously no record of temperatures or climate. However, there is evidence of what conditions were like then. There were no polar ice caps and in fact, the area may have been closer to swamp-like. The Antarctic, which is currently the world’s largest desert, would be a temperate forest instead. Meanwhile, temperatures at the Equator could get up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.
Of course, it will take some time for things to reach that level. The conditions are in place, but the climate won’t spike overnight. And the fact that these changes are difficult to perceive on a day to day level is what leads a lot of people to doubt that climate change is a danger at all. But it is. Experts estimate that the scenario described above will likely be a reality by the year 2300.
Furthermore, since there’s no precedent for it in recorded history, it’s difficult to know just what will become of life on Earth by that time. However, what is certain is that, for humanity to survive, we’ll need to adapt to levels of heat that we’ve not experienced before, in all of recorded history.
The History of Climate Change
There are a number of factors that contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena pump CO2 into the air. However, one of the most significant sources of carbon emissions is, of course, the burning of fossil fuels.
This began during the Industrial Revolution, when coal and oil first started being used to power everything from homes to factories. There have been fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature since the beginning of recorded history. However, before about 1750, those changes were attributable to natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar energy.
Not long after the start of the Industrial Revolution, though, temperatures began to change much more sharply, to the point where it could no longer be attributed to natural causes. As fossil fuels were burned, more and more carbon was released into the air, causing the atmosphere to radiate more warmly and raising temperatures.
As technology continues to develop, our emissions only become more pronounced. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased by over 30% since 1960. Now that the concentration has passed 400 parts per million, it’s virtually impossible to get them back below that level within our lifetimes.
The year 2300 seems like a long way off, but the fact is, if we don’t start right now and make significant changes on a global scale, the world we leave to our descendants will be virtually uninhabitable.
Most of these changes will have to be made by governments and corporations, but every little bit helps, so you can do your part as well. By moving towards clean, renewable energy in your home, buying a more efficient vehicle and/or relying on public/alternate transportation, and generally working towards reducing your carbon footprint wherever possible, you can help put Earth on a better path, so that future generations will be able to enjoy it too.