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29Apr 2013

Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian, etc: 400 ppm and rising - latest CO2 milestone.Significant, symbolic, or just a tick on the plot?

Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Mauna Loa Observatory

A glance at that plot up there shows there's no surprise upon learning that CO2 is on the brink of 400 parts per million in the air tht you and I, plus all the coal CEOs in the world and all the tree huggers who despise what those rich guys do for a living, are sucking into their lungs. That is the famous curve amassed for the last 55 years by the Keelings of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution,  starting with the late Dave (Charles D) Keeling and continued by his son Ralph , on the flank of Hawaii's Mauna Loa shield volcano (CORRECTION NOTE:  initial brain fade id'd it on next volcano over, Mauna Kea).

   It's up from about 280 ppm before burning coal got popular in Britain and soon after that all over the industrializing world. It was at 316 when the observatory started work in the late 50s with the fervid backing of the towering climate chemist and, eventually, climate change worrier Roger Revelle.

   400 is pretty much on schedule, but news it is. A press release (see Grist below) says so. A few outlets are reporting it apace:

  • Sydney Morning Herald - Ben Cubby: Greenhouse gas levels highest in 3m years ; The last time it has been at this "symbolic milestone" he writes, was in the Pliocene. Okay, and I'll have some more to say below about choosing to call it a symbolic milestone. Story quotes are from press release, and another from a local professor is also to be found in accounts at other outlets.
  • Guardian (UK) John Vidal: Global carbon dioxide levels set to pass 400 ppm milestone ; He calls the milestone "symbolically important" and if that raises your eyebrow too, keep reading below. Info and quote derived from press release. One quote calls this a "sobering milestone." Hmppf.
  • Atlantic wire - Philip Bump: So Much for 350: The Atmosphere's Carbon Dioxide Tops 400 ; A fully-credited but nonetheless an apparent cut, paste, and Google job. Done skillfully enough, with familiarity with the topic. But lacks evidence of live reporting (as in email or other conversation with sources). In other words, it's a blog post just as this one you're reading right now is - not journalism of particularly large caliber.
  • Daily KOS:  - Keith Pickering: CO2 edges above 400 ppm ; Hello, enterprise. Not so much gathering quotes, which to be sure may may not add much except evidence that the reporter did more than rewrite a press agent's offering. But Pickering pulled together intereseting detail on the measurement (down to the daily variations lately) and added historical tidbits. He also explains why the famed curve has a sawtooth pattern. Some day, and maybe I should just call Ralph Keeling to ask, somebody will not only explain why the level varies so much on an annual cycle (it's plant growth and decay in the Northern Hemisphere) but why the inflection points are so abrupt. You'd think it'd be a smoother up and down, like a sine wave.

UPDATE (Apr. 30)

  • E&E Climate Wire - Stephanie Page Ogburn: As CO2 concentrations near ominous benchmork, daily updates begin ; Hat tip to Ogburn (see comments). This has elements that, at a minimum, any reporter proud of his or her byline should put on a daily news story not generated by his or her own gumption. You gotta add value to whatever a press release provides if it can possibly be done by deadline. It appears, from the original quotes, she checked with the main source. She thus can use his feelings to buttress suggestion that 400 ppm is more than a milestone of the road journey variety. The piece also does a clear job explaining why, with CO2's geographic variations as well as seasonal cycles, there will be no single moment when the plot surpasses 400.

 

  All the reports write something about how the CO2 is heading fast for - and may already be at - levels that the majority of experts fear will reap serious ecological damage to Earth and economic damage, plus suffering, on its people. One remark to make is that there may be a reporter who phoned around to get some fresh or distinctive angle on this news. But I did not come across evidence for one (UPDATE above has a refreshing exception). Even on an incremental story a little enterprise is in order.

    To close with a point, and then a book plug.

    1) The point is about the common use of milestone or symbolic milestone or even symbolically important milestone or sobering milestone in media reports. What does that mean, aside from the lamentable fact that a press release planted the seed and thus we can all shake are heads in dismay at the scrivening herd's obedience?  The handout hed is 'As CO2 Approaches Symbolic Milestone, Scripps Launches Daily Keeling Curve Update.' Well, think about that. Aren't all milestones symbolic? That is, except for a non-metaphorical milestone, an imprinted bollard by the road giving the distance in whole digits or multiples of five or ten to something ahead or from something behind. The word milestone is adequate to handle the latest CO2 marker. To add 'symbolic' presumably is to tell readers this is just a number, not a border to something different in character, but only a point within a gradient. Now, to be sure, commonly people shout "this is a milestone!" to underscore that an event is NOT just a little trend continuation but something really important. That's an inversion of the non-metaphorical meaning of the word. The point is: why not just skip the whole airy milestone nonsense when reporting this story rather than let the press release decide? It's 400 ppm. Few readers are so dumb that they won't recognize that this is just a round number of the sort that helps to organize thought.

    2)  The plug is for a gigantic book that just finally got off the guilt pile in the corner of the office:Daniel Yergin's The Quest/ Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. It was a best-seller last year. Yergin has often disappointed me. Years ago, after his The Prize won a Pulitzer for its dumbfoundingly grand history of the oil industry, it was clear his is a keen mind. Good writer, too. He managed to inject urgency and narrative flow throughout his epic gathering of history and technology.  But usually, since then, whenever news accounts quoted him in context of energy crises or fossil fuels, he tended in my recollection to say things narrowly focussed and sometimes turgid. I thought maybe he had become a reactionary establishment man. The Quest set me straight. Its start is a fresh, faster-paced and engrossing tale of the oil and coal industries going back a century or two. Not once, as he walks readers through the deeds of audacious oil tycoons and petro-state potentates, does he hint that oil and other fossil fuels are bad news for the planet. So he doesn't season his prose with overarching opinion without immediate reason.

   But The Quest does wend its way to today's energy mix and the reasons so many people want to green it up. It reads perfectly to me. Nothing contrarian in its eventual meditation on what our oil and coal appetites have wrought. I still have not finished the whole thing. But if you  could use  a superbly told history of climate + carbon worries, and of key events including how the greenhouse effect arose in scientific discourse long ago, why Charles David Keeling set up that monitoring station on Mauna Loa, why Jim Hansen may have gotten a little lucky when science later vindicated his 1988 declaration that global warming's fingerprints were already evident in that year's hot summer, plus the road to Rio and Kyoto and Stockholm and the whole hot enchilada of climate policy paralysis including some ameliorating hope for the better, get the Quest.

Grist for the Mill: UCSD Scripps Inst. of Oceanography Press Release ;

Comments

No worries, Charlie. Thank you for the nice response in your update. I was just lucky to get Keeling in his office that day, I think.

With regards to tracking E&E stories, I know E&E makes several stories publicly available each day, some of them science stories, at http://www.eenews.net/public/

The ones in the left (main) column are the public ones, and they are updated daily midday I believe.

 - Stephanie

Thanks Stephanie for the note, and thanks for not pointedly pointing out I initially had the observatory on the wrong volcano, Mauna Kea, which I just fixed. I also have updated the post to include your piece. It's good to have an E&E story out in public to be shared with tracker readers.

I wrote about Scripps' launch of the daily updates last week, for ClimateWire. Our headline was perhaps one of the ones you'd poke fun of. "As CO2 concentrations near ominous benchmark, daily updates begin." 

However, I thought the news hook provided a good opportunity to explain some of the history behind the curve and also about how concentrations are measured globally, and where concentrations go up first (the Arctic, where we already hit 400 ppm last year) and how they cycle. The problem with a "benchmark" like this is that it's not as if you hit 400 ppm and are just -- boom -- there. There might be a day this May that Mauna Loa hits it, but that's not a monthly average, it's just one event. Then, even once Mauna Loa hits 400 ppm for a monthly average in May, (which may not happen until next year even) that still isn't a yearly average, because May is generally the month with the highest concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. So it's hitting 400 ppm for the month that every year has the highest CO2 concentrations. 

And then it's also worth noting that Mauna Loa is a bit ahead of the global average, because of its northern hemisphere location. I discuss this in the article. All of these factors make it kind of hard to pick a nice round number and say, "oh, we crossed it here!" but on the other hand, scientists are seeking ways to capture the public's attention on this issue and so it seems this 400 ppm discussion is almost more about that than anything else.

-Stephanie

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