What’s Your Number? On Hitting 400 May 2012

NASA CO2 figures over the century

MAY 9 2012
Steven A Leibo is a professor of International History & Politics at the Sage Colleges


“I don’t want to be a number.”

It was a comment one heard quite often when I was young, an idea that we should not be reduced to anything so simple as a few digits, that we, the children of the sixties were the essence of individuality. that we would not simply conform to the world created by our parents, an earlier generation made famous for their conformity, indeed dramatized in that famous movie The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit.

But of course non of that really mattered, not for men at least because we were actually obsessed with numbers, one in particular our Vietnam draft number. Mine was 59. Yes, the single most important number in our existence it seemed at the time. Because that number had a direct link to whether we were ever going to be able to build or even reject that earlier 1950s model our parents had built.

But like our failure to avoid letting a number define us it turns that the nineteen fifties of our parents really did set us on numerical path that would define our existence. Because that was when scientist Charles David Keeling, who should be infinitely more famous than he is discovered from his perch in the mountains of Hawaii that despite seasonal variation it was indeed possible to measure the steady buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Yes, a steady growth that mattered enormously because for more than a century scientists had already understood that our lives were absolutely dependent on greenhouses gases to protect us from the freezing temperatures of space.
Understood that it was only such gases that allowed us to retain enough of the sun’s heat to nurture life and that CO2 was one of the more long lasting of them, an extraordinary achievement on Keeling’s part complemented by the later discovery that glacial ice, laid out year after year with each new snowfall, carries with it bubbles of air that can as well be measured for their C02 levels.

And what have we learned, is that before the fossil fuel driven industrial revolution those heat trapping carbon molecules hovered at around 280 ppm in the atmosphere. but as the ancient Greek philosophers told us so long ago too much of a good thing can be very bad.

And the record since the carbon based fossil fuel driven industrial revolution began shows us a planet speeding toward a run-away heat surge, planetary disaster of more and more powerful storms, drought and crop failures.

A figure that was about 303 when my mom and dad showed up in 1919 and 25 respectively. A number that was around 311 when I was born something like a generation later., around 347 when my son was born but had jumped to 356 when my daughter arrived. A not surprising jump given that their arrival roughly paralleled the impact of India and China’s entrance into the fossil fuel driven globalized world economy.

All numbers screaming like a speedometer warning of impending disaster, a number that was about 387 when I started giving public talks on climate change and that was long before massive heat driven storms like Irene, Lee and Super storm Sandy devastated the American north east. And now, this very week it looks like we are posed to hit 400, a number we have not seen in more than 800,000 years.

Like so many more extra blankets over our planet if you will, of heat trapping gases, a number every single one of us needs to understand, checking as well to see what the number was when they arrived as we rush headlong into this new century burning our way through all the carbon molecules we can find from those buried in natural gas, to coal and oil.

Not forgetting to the dirtiest of them all, the Canadian Tar Sands we are perhaps about to inflict upon our children unless cooler heads prevail.

About Steven Leibo

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