Facing a frightening milestone: What we can do about greenhouse gas levels at 400 ppm

Benjamin Schneider

We recently learned that the earth’s greenhouse gas levels are surging past 400 parts per million (ppm), a level not reached in 3 million years. It is clear why: humans are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, including last year’s all-time high of 35 billion tons. And as the planet warms as a result, we’re getting an early glimpse at the superstorms, drought and other challenges we’ll face in an increasingly dangerous environment if we don’t change course.

Lots of people are rightly worried, and the media have largely focused on the worst potential outcomes for us and future generations if we don’t curb emissions. It’s important for everyone to know what’s at stake, but it’s also crucial that everyone understands we’re not helpless to act. There are steps we can take that will make a real difference, as individuals and as a country. So before you become too pessimistic about the milestone, take a look at some of the ways we can do something about it:

Continue to feed the conversation.

Whether in the media or at your dinner table, simply talking about why 400 ppm is important will inform others and keep climate change at the front of everyone’s mind. It will be especially important to include less traditional allies whom studies show increasingly recognize the reality of climate change.

Reduce climate accelerants.

Because it burns cleaner than coal, natural gas can be a positive for our climate. The challenge is that natural gas comes with its own set of serious risks to public health and the environment, and methane (the main ingredient in natural gas) is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. We must ensure this resource is harnessed in a way that minimizes methane leakage and has as little impact on people and the environment as possible. No one should have to trade their health or quality of life for cheap energy.

Accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The U.S. is poised to spend around $2 trillion over the next two decades replacing our antiquated electricity infrastructure, creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionize how we generate, distribute and use electricity. We must seize this opportunity to modernize our electricity grid and put the right policies in place to accelerate investments in clean, homegrown renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative ways to generate and use energy. These approaches can address the need for power, spur economic development, lessen our carbon footprint and help America gain a global leadership position in the multi-trillion dollar clean energy economy.

Use the Clean Air Act.

The Administration is authorized to use the Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama should utilize it to both establish new CO2 emission standards for power plants and vigorously defend the rules he has already put in place.

Put a price on carbon.

We must acknowledge and act on what economists from across the political spectrum have long argued — the most efficient way to cut carbon pollution is with a cap or tax. Either would be a powerful tool that would help drive cleaner power developments. We could ease the impact on working families and businesses through lower taxes on either labor or capital.

The 400 ppm milestone is a reminder that the status quo won’t do if we want to protect the world we leave our kids. But the news has prompted new conversations about emissions across the country. I hope we seize this opportunity to talk not only about how we got here, but more importantly, what we’re going to do about it.

This post first appeared on our Climate 411 blog.

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