CO2 Going to 1,000 Parts Per Million
A few days ago the NY Times science reporter Andrew Revkin spoke with F. Sherwood Rowland, the atmospheric chemist from the University of California, Irvine, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work revealing the threat to the ozone layer. They met at the World Science Festival.
During a break, I asked Dr. Rowland two quick questions. The first: Given the nature of the climate and energy challenges, what is his best guess for the peak concentration of carbon dioxide?
(Keep in mind that various experts and groups have said risks of centuries of ecological and economic disruption rise with every step toward and beyond 450 parts per million, with some scientists, most notably James Hansen of NASA, saying the long-term goal should be returning the atmospheric concentration to 350 parts per million, a level passed in 1988.)
His answer? “1,000 parts per million,” he said.
My second question was, what will that look like?
“I have no idea,” Dr. Rowland said. He was not smiling.
So far there have been 130 or so comments at Revkin's DOT EARTH blog, ranging from the climate change deniers to those who feel that nuclear energy will solve all problems to neo-Malthusians who say that human beings have exceeded (or soon will exceed) the carrying capacity of the earth and nature is going to bust us for "being fruitful and multiplying."
Here are my thoughts:
There's a line from "The Man From LaMancha" where Pablo says to Don Quixote, "When the glass and the rock have a fight, it's going to be bad for the glass." If we see this as a simple carrying capacity issue -- people versus nature with inelastic limits -- then Malthus was right and we are in for a die-off just like the oft-observed natural dynamic of bloom and crash that governs the populations of other species. As an ecological and environmental storyteller, I used to believe in this narrative. Seeing what appeared as the futility of the human condition, I retired from activism into a delicious life of nature and spirit and beauty in Brazil.
Now I am getting pulled back.
The single thing that was the difference that made the difference for me was not the growing statistics of catastrophe but, rather, the discovery of the BBC Terra Preta de Indíos documentary which strongly suggested that there once was a people that had achieved 100s to 1000s of years of living in balance with their niche in the Amazon basin. No western civilization can make a claim of such harmony or longevity without spoiling the nest. It seemed that the Terra Preta trick was one of turning waste into resource and thus building an agriculture of reciprocity -- a way for human multiplication and wastefulness to increase abundance rather depleting the earth.
I know that much of this is speculative but I'm a "vision-guy" and the draw of this possibility was too great for me to ignore. The possibility of moving from the technologies of depletion toward the technologies of restoration may be the harbinger of moving from the age of scarcity into an age of abundance. I know that we have a long way to go. I know that this is not the history of the industrial age nor the history of the triumphant civilizations of conquest. But I nevertheless hold an ancient-future dream that, once we see beyond the filters of the cheap fossil-fueled industrial age, we will see that Malthus was wrong and that humans can discover a healing and harmonious connection with nature.
That's my shtick.
Terra Preta is now called biochar and there's talk of it all over the Internet. If you want to know more, Beyond Zero Emissions is a great place to start and if you're a gardener this new wiki Biochar FAQ was set up for you.