Too much carbon, too little time [Editorial]

If increasingly extreme weather events around the world weren't alarming enough, the latest monitoring by the World Meteorological Organization shows last year was the worst ever for rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Their report released Tuesday demonstrates why efforts to curb climate change deserve to be a top priority for U.S. foreign policy.

The WMO tracks not just the greenhouse gases emitted by power plants, motor vehicles, factories and other major contributors but what the net effect is on the atmosphere since a certain amount of carbon dioxide is naturally absorbed by plants and oceans. But Mother Nature clearly can't keep up with what man produces as the overall carbon levels reached a record high in 2013.

Specifically, the WMO reports that CO2 was measured at 396 parts per million, which was 2.9 ppm more than monitors recorded in 2012, and that was the greatest one-year increase since 1984 when such records first became available. And that's not all. The amount of methane and nitrous oxide, gases that likewise contribute to the atmospheric greenhouse effect, are also increasing at a steady clip along with carbon dioxide.

Contrast those results with the failure of United Nations-led efforts to curb greenhouse gases chiefly by restricting the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Earlier this month, top leaders in China and India — two countries that together produce about one-third of greenhouse gases — announced they would not be participating in the UN's one-day climate change summit in two weeks. There are still hopes that an international agreement to reduce emissions can be reached before the end of next year, but the choice to bypass the leadership summit does not bode well for future negotiations in Lima in December or Paris in 2015.

Climate change deniers tend to scoff at talk of climate disaster, but each week it seems there are new studies revealing just how devastating the rising temperatures can be — often in unexpected ways. Recently, the National Audubon Society found that more than half of all species of North American birds would be threatened by warming temperatures.

Many would likely perish, the report's authors note, unless they are able to adapt. That could mean, for instance, that the beloved Baltimore Oriole might still be found in a baseball uniform in Camden Yards, but the actual bird would no longer be found in Maryland or elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic as it would simply be too hot for it to survive.

And while such a loss of biodiversity is a serious matter, the loss of a migratory bird species pales in comparison to what else climate change will bring, from rising sea levels that could swamp coastal communities to a huge impact on agriculture — putting this nation's $200 billion farm economy (and our ability to feed ourselves) in peril as rising temperatures spread droughts, diminish freshwater resources and worsen certain types of harmful insects and weeds.

A UN panel has already speculated that global temperatures could rise markedly within the next century. The oceans have become more acidic, and some scientists worry that the chance to lessen these impacts is slipping away as major greenhouse gas producing nations fail to make the needed reductions.

The latest numbers are a reminder that it's time to stop listening to the climate change deniers and accept that rising levels of greenhouse gases are a serious, man-made threat that must be addressed for the sake of humanity. The cost of delaying action to stem climate change is high — potentially four percentage points in gross domestic product worldwide by 2030, according to a UN report issued earlier this year.

That's not alarmist, it's a matter of being prudent. Considering the other positive effects of embracing renewable energy, conservation and other remedies from cleaner air and water to new jobs in the "green energy" economy, the U.S. should be moving farther and faster. According to the WMO, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now 142 percent higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution while methane is up more than 250 percent. There's just so much abuse a planet can take before the consequences are disastrous and potentially irreversible.

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