Thoughts on a CO2 Milestone

It was reported last week that the average daily level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has passed 400 ppm, well above the 350 ppm that is considered acceptable to avoid catastrophic climate change.  The New York Times article on the subject includes this rather predictable and necessary acknowledgment of climate change denialists:

Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

It is unclear to me why they would select this one dated quote by Dana Rohrabacher, but that’s rather beside the point.  Obviously the willful ignorance of this argument is laughable, but it’s also one of the last remaining lines of argumentation available at a time when even scientists on the Koch brothers’ payroll are finding it harder to stick to to the party line. What’s interesting about this argument, though, is the long history it has.  To assume that 0.04% of the atmosphere is inconsequential is to revive the old argument that the earth’s ecosystem is capable of absorbing whatever we pump into it without any immediate consequences.  The same mentality explains the proximity of latrines to drinking water wells in many medieval European cities.1  It’s also an argument that was put forward by German industry in the era of the 19th century water trials.  Thus in 1890 one Konrad Wilhelm Jurisch of the “Wastewater Commission for of the Organization for the Protection of the Interests of the Chemical Industry in Germany” could write that the introduction of industrial waste water into the streams was justified, because the streams are natural waste ditches (“die natürlichen Ableiter der Abwässer,” 359).2

Passing the 400 ppm mark is unremarkable inasmuch as it is just another addition to the already existing mountain of evidence that our most banal quotidian activities are collectively both destructive and ultimately self-destructive.  What fascinates me about the climate-change denialists, though, is that the sum of their arguments make up a kind of Freudian kettle logic.  The science gets denied with arguments that boil down to: 1.) global warming isn’t happening, 2.) the climate is changing, but it’s not anthropogenic, and 3.) gloabl warming is good for us.  All of these points can be found in Naomi Klein’s article 2011 article for The Nation from the Heartland Institute’s Climate Conference.

1.  See Ulf Dirlmeier “Zu den Lebensbedingungen in der mittelalterlichen Stadt: Trinkwasserversorgung und Abfallbeseitigung” 156-158 in Herrman, Bernd, ed. Mensch und Umwelt im Mittelalter. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986. 150-160.  See also Wolfgang Schmid “Brunnen und Gemeinschaften im Mittelalter” in Historische Zeitschrift. 267.3, 1998. 561-586.

2.  Jurisch, Konrad Wilhelm. “Die Verunreinigung der Gewässer (1890)” in Bayerl, Günter and Ulrich Troitzsch (ed). Quellentexte zur Geschichte der Umwelt von der Antike bis heute. Göttingen, Muster-Schmidt Verlag, 1998. 359-360.

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