Note: The text from this post was published as an oped in the News-Leader on 6/22/21.
On June 7 the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration had reached its highest level since accurate measurements began 63 years ago. The monthly average CO2 concentration for 2021 is 419 ppm.
CO2 Concentration Increased Over 100 ppm
When I was born in 1955 the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 313 ppm. What? In 66 years, the CO2 concentration has increased by over 100 ppm! Some people don’t believe there is a climate crisis or that humans are to blame. Some think there is nothing we can do about CO2 levels. You can’t see carbon dioxide, so maybe that’s why some think it’s not a problem.
If You Can’t See It, Do You Believe It’s There?
There are many things we can’t see but believe exist, perhaps because we trust science. Temperature or heat for example. We can’t see temperature or heat, but we can measure it with a thermometer.
I’m a farmer who wants to know how much phosphorus is in my soil so I don’t waste money buying phosphorus fertilizer if I don’t need it. I can’t see soil phosphorus, but I can send a soil sample to a lab, and they can measure how much phosphorus is in the soil and recommend what I need based on the crop I want to grow.
I want to know whether my water is safe to drink. I can’t see bacteria in my water, but I can take a water sample to a lab, and they use science to inform me if bacteria are in the water.
Measuring CO2 Concentration
We can’t see CO2 in the air, but scientists at Scripps use an infrared analyzer to measure it. Their method was first developed by David Keeling in 1958. Joint measurements from Scripps and NOAA are known as the Keeling Curve. In 1958 the CO2 concentration was 315 ppm. It’s now higher than it’s been in 3 million years, according to scientists at NOAA. This causes sea levels to rise and makes our weather warmer and weirder. It’s not a hoax. For a safer planet climate scientists tell us the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere needs to be below 350 ppm.
Freedom from Fossil Fuels Reduces CO2 Concentration
The largest contributor (48%) to greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 is the burning of fossil fuels for energy. The second-largest contributor (29%) is fossil fuel-driven transportation. We’ve been on a fossil fuel binge for too long. It’s time to move on to 100% clean energy generation and electric cars. No more coal-fired power plants or fracked gas. No more fossil fuel pipelines—they are a waste of money. We need solar panels on every building, every brownfield, and on marginal farmland. We need utility-scale solar and wind turbines.
Carbon Sequestration Reduces CO2 Concentration
We also need to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it up. The process is called carbon sequestration—taking carbon out of the air and storing it in a safe place where it can be put to good use. Trees do this. They take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it as wood. Other plants do it as well. Corn, for example, takes CO2 out of the air and stores most of it in its stalks. When farmers leave the stalks on the land, they decompose, and their carbon goes into the soil. Carbon is good for the soil. As a matter of fact, the soil is the second-largest carbon sink on the planet. Oceans are the largest and forests are third.
The Path Forward
Want to help us get to 350 ppm CO2? Here’s what you can do:
Go solar: Put photovoltaic panels on your house or in your yard. Trade-in your gas-guzzling car for an electric one. Encourage your locality to develop a good ordinance for utility-scale solar and then support these projects. Support soil health initiatives. Support your local farmers. Eat less meat.
Thanks for the science lesson! I wish everyone would heed the obvious science behind this crisis.
My best to you and all the life forms down there at Whisky Creek Farm!
Do they call it Whisky creek because of past moonshine activity?
Thanks, George. Yes, At one time, there were more stills than churches in Churchville.
ok i get we are trending up but at 410ppm co2 today and 900ppmco2 during the Jurassic period i have to ask 1 how is it the highest today if history proves this isnt true 2 what factories suv’s fraking drilling was happing then to cause the 900ppm co2 levels and lastly how much of natrual climat change have you taken into account vs anthropogenic climate change?
Once again Bobby gives us an accurate and timely heads up. In fact, we have belched so much fossil carbon into the air that if we stopped today the global average temperature would still rise above the 2 degrees C to which we can adapt. We should stop today but the most optimistic projection is carbon neutral humanity by 2050.
Here’s some parallel thinking. Trees and corn do capture carbon through photosynthesis but most of it is in the standing crop and it goes back into the air when the plant dies and rots or burns. Grasses on the other hand store most of their carbon underground in massive complexes of roots and mycorrhizae which stays underground. Until the ground is plowed, and plowing soil is a major source of atmospheric CO2. Every time a stand of grass is cut or grazed it sheds part of its root mass into the soil as sequestered carbon. If the stand is rested, as in rotational grazing, the root mass regrows with the above ground part of the grass and the sequestration cycle can repeat.
Because grasslands are much more effective at sequestering carbon than any other vegetation community, they are our best hope for drawing down enough of the fossil carbon we have released to buy time to make our adjustments to living in an environment in which we did not evolve.
Therefore, don’t eat less meat, eat more, but insist that it be raised on rotationally grazed pasture. Feedlot commodity beef puts fossil carbon into the air. Rotationally grazed beef takes it out. Cattle are the principal economic reason for grasslands and grasslands are our best hope of sequestering carbon.
Spot on, Michael! I’m going to use your comment for my class this fall. Thank you.
Thanks Bobby, and keep up the good work.
Methane levels in our atmosphere are also at the highest they’ve been in at least 800,000 years, and methane contributes to around 35% to 40% of global warming.
Th last time CO2 levels were this high sea level was about 70 feet higher than it is today, and the planet was much hotter. If we stay at the current level of CO2, our planet will eventually reach those horrific conditions.
Unfortunately CO2 persists in our atmosphere for centuries, and methane for decades, so we are basically locked in to the further increase in temperature and sea levels, unless we can remove them from the atmosphere on a massive scale, and that is very expensive, and untested on a large scale basis. I think the fossil fuel companies should help pay for it, if it is at all feasible, through reparations for their crimes against humanity.
So, we need to stop all fossil fuel combustion NOW, and then CO2 and methane levels will slowly begin to drop. If we just reduce fossil fuel emissions, CO2 and methane levels will continue to rise past the already extreme levels, and we will be further down the path to catastrophic climate change.
Renewable energy systems like solar, wind, and geothermal, once in place, and except for very minor maintenance costs, produce energy the is robust, inexhaustible, and free, while not discharging any greenhouse gases, or unhealthful emissions. Renewable energy is a no brainer, win, win solution.
Per Michael Mann, in his book “The New Climate War”, regenerative agriculture could at the very best sequester 11 billion tons of CO2 per year. Reforestation, and planting trees where they have not historically grown in the past could, at the very best, sequester another 11 billion tons of CO2. We are currently discharging 55 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year, so these practices could reduce our net carbon gain by about 40%.
We’ve got a huge challenge ahead of us, but we can do it. We mobilized for, and won WWII, put a man on the moon, and developed Covid vaccines in record time. It will take a massive, and concerted effort from everyone on the planet to save the climate, especially for those who follow us.
Let’s all work together to save our planet.
Bill, thank you so much for the information! Rockin!
Thanks for the education and the inspiration.
Thank you for stopping in, Charlie.
That’s interesting about the carbon sequestration benefits of pastures. Are some pasture plants better than others at this? Native warm season grasses? Fescue? Legumes? I know that around here, native grasses like eastern gama grass and indian grass put their roots down pretty deep.
Overton, thanks for your comment. I have not seen any research data on that but I’m sure proper grazing of any kind is good for soil health and C sequestration.
Thanks, Bobby, for this up to date information. We are clearly not taking care of the earth as we should be. Sandy Greene suggests electric tractors for our farms. Our solar investments at both farms are providing us with electricity. I’m trying to incorporate tree planting, pastures, stream protection, too. We need higher taxes on fossil fuel to discourage its use.
Ann, you have been a leader from the get-go. Thank you.
Bobby – thank you for the excellent analogy between not seeing phosphorous in your soil and not seeing CO2 in the air. We certainly have to trust science!
I have a question for you and Michael – if one were interested in sequestering more carbon by planting trees, but the only available area for the tree planting were in a grassland area used for either hay or grazing, would one sequester more carbon, over time, by the reforestation or by just leaving it in grass?
Joe, thanks for your kind words and question. Good one. I’ll defer to Michael on that one.
Thanks again, Bobby. The real underlying issues driving all the others, that apparently cannot be spoken about, is the number of humans on Earth. When you and I were born there were less than 3 billion people on the planet, now we near 8 billion. Too many people living too close together, competing for too few resources are at the heart of all the human issues we face today and all 8 billion would like to live like we do; Earth will not support that.
The current young generations are ready for, craving big change but greed is still driving the bus. They can make it happen quickly, social media could spark a worldwide, wait a while to have kids and only have none, one or two, great kids. Cancerous, unbridled growth that is currently driving world economies cannot go on for ever and solar panels for 10 billion…well, that’s not doable either.
All farmers know if the roots don’t have what they need, the plant doesn’t make it and the root of ALL human issues is overpopulation and we keep snipping at the outer branches hoping the tree will get better. And, as a geologist, I know the Earth does not care and does not need saving; it will spin on with some type of life aboard for a few billion more years. We humans know the problems, we have and are still creating them. We also can fix them, lots of good ideas shared here, all with potential to help, thanks again, Bobby! Hope to seeeeeya soon!
Spot on, Randy. Thank you so much for your comments!
Great article, thanks for writing. I am in the erosion control business in Canada and I think a good opportunity is for civil engineering projects (roads, pipelines) be put to good carbon storage use. Millions of acres of soil is disturbed and little attention to the soil health is made. The opportunity for our governments to look at Ditches in a new way (rather than just a conveyance of water) where soil grows, pollinators flourish and Carbon is captured. Could this be Ditch 2.0? How would you use that land?
There remains no influence on the earth’s atmospheric temperature and CO2 content. Want to go back to the early 1960s? When CO2 was allegedly 100ppm lower? There will be significant extreme weather, just as there is today. Why would I go back to that?