The current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the global atmosphere is 401.38 parts per million: that was recorded two days ago at the Mauna Loa CO2 observatory in Hawaii. I publish this running value in the left sidebar (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography), just above Tables 1 and 2; have a look.
That value, 401.38 ppm, is unprecedented in human history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was around 275 ppm. (Click on the link given in Tables 1 and 2; that will take you to the Scripps Institution’s Keeling Curve page, where you will see various timelines of the Keeling Curve, which is based on continuous observations of CO2 at Mauna Loa since 1958. The timeline “1700-present” is particularly interesting.)
The current reading, 401.38 (it will change nearly every day; keep your eye on Tables 1 and 2), is not just a number out of the blue. It is, according to both statistical climate data and anecdotal observations by people who spend their lives on the world’s oceans, a large part of the explanation for the increasing strength of ocean storms. We keep dumping CO2 into the atmosphere so the concentration goes up, and the planet gets warmer. The concentration has risen by 2 ppm per year over the past ten years, according to the World Meteorological Organization. There is no indication that this is slowing down, and at that rate we will reach 450 ppm within a quarter century. The level of 450 ppm has been linked by climatologists to an average increase in temperature of 2 °C.
There is no indication at all that humans will stop dumping gargantuan amounts of CO2 into the giant garbage bucket we refer to as our planet’s atmosphere. In my own small neck of the woods, the Canadian province of Ontario, our electric power generating system has already dumped, in the first eight hours of June 16 2014, 4,464 metric tons of CO2 into that garbage bucket. I predict that that number will be close to 20,000 tons by the end of the day.
If you find that alarming, then it is with trepidation that I add that by the end of today Ontario light-duty gasoline powered cars and trucks will have dumped a further 97,000 tons of heat-trapping CO2 into our air. (This is based on a rather back-of-the-envelope estimate which divides Ontario’s consumption of 15.5 billion liters of gasoline in the year 2012 by 365, and multiplies the resulting 42.4 million liters by 2.3 kilograms of CO2 per liter burned.)
I just watched a terrific documentary, called Ocean’s Fury, which features Dr. Bob Ballard, the underwater explorer who found the Titanic. You can view Ocean’s Fury at TV Ontario, by clicking here. It is nearly 48 minutes long, and worth every minute.
Near the end, Dr. Ballard says this:
The world is getting hotter, and that’s putting more energy into the system. So from there you just have to follow the trail, and that leads you to more violent storms and bigger waves… . Whether you like it or not, global warming is happening. And we know that humans are behind at least some of this heat, and maybe a lot of it. We’re burning oil and we’re burning coal, and that all traps heat. We know this. We’re seeing the effects… . So really we have two choices. We can move to higher ground, design stronger ships, and build higher seawalls… or we face the facts: and stop adding more heat to the system.
To stop adding heat to the system, we have to face another set of facts. What Dr. Ballard really means is, stop dumping CO2 into our air. That means stop burning fossil fuels.
But the world is increasing its energy use, you say. And you are right. Highly populated countries, like China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa—they are all racing to catch up to North America and western Europe in the area of basic life amenities like plentiful electricity and motorized transportation.
Does that mean that CO2 will be dumped in ever-increasing amounts into the global atmosphere, jacking up the ppm concentration of this heat trapping gas, well beyond the 401.38 ppm it currently is?
The answer is yes—unless we face the most important fact of them all. And that fact is, only nuclear energy can meet mankind’s burgeoning energy requirements without dumping CO2 into the air.
Look again at Tables 1 and 2. The “Total” row represents mankind’s need for electricity in this part of the world. How did Ontario meet that need, in the last hour? How has it met that need so far today? The seven fuel categories in the table tell you at a glance. The tables also tell at a glance the price we made our environment pay, in the form of the CO2 we dumped into the environment, in the course of meeting our need for electricity.
You will also see that four of those fuel categories—Gas, Oil & Gas, “Other,” and Coal—dumped the CO2. Collectively, those four fuel types generated less than eleven percent of Ontario’s power over the last hour, and less than seven percent since midnight.
The overwhelming bulk of Ontario’s power—62 percent in the last hour, and 65 percent since midnight—came from nuclear plants. Notice in the “CO2, tons” column how much CO2 came with that huge nuclear output: zero.
That is the simple fact that mankind must face.