Just Another Sleepy Friday Afternoon

It’s a sad sign of how we consume news these days that this item from Justin Gillis of the New York Times will probably get buried on a sleepy Friday afternoon after we’ve been been deluged with Benghazi! stories all week:

The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported on Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.

Scientific monitors reported that the gas had reached an average daily level that surpassed 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.

Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.

I wish those who read and discard such reports because someone has told them 5% of scientists don’t agree with them would focus on this word catastrophic. If the 5% turn out to be right and carbon emissions aren’t as big a deal as the majority of scientists claim, and we listen to the 95% and take action, the worst consequences might be a modest rise in energy prices. That would not be any fun, particularly in today’s era of perpetually slow growth, high unemployment, and rampant inequality, and adjustment to new energy sources would take a while. But if we do nothing and the 5% are wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic, which means something worse than most of us can imagine, much less “adjust” to. Indeed, it’s all so difficult to grasp that it’s easier to turn the page and read and think about something else, again and again and again.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.