If you were paying attention last week you heard the alarms go off when the NOAA Observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii recorded the CO2 level in the atmosphere at 400 parts per million—the highest ever recorded.
The good news is that you can stop with the cycling and recycling—the NOAA officials revised their May 9th measurement back down to 399.89.
Whew! And to think we were that close to irrevocable climate change.
If you read beyond the headlines, however, those doleful scientists can still find a way to ruin a perfectly good coal-fired-global-consumption-binge. It turns out that the number (400 PPM) is an interesting milestone, but the real poo-in-the-punchbowl is in the trend of the data; the so-called Keeling Curve. In 1958 Charles Keeling started measuring C02 in Hawaii. For tens of thousands of years we believe the planet hovered around 300 PPM CO2. Now we are close to 400. We have not seen levels this high for 3 million or so years (think primordial steaming sulfur swamps). And what’s worse still—the rate of the increase, the steepness of the curve, is going up. Charles Keeling had a son named Ralph. Ralph is a climatologist with the Scripps Institute and he has taken over the work of his father. Ralph thinks that “We could hit 450 in a few decades.”
Hope? Solutions? Science?
On May 10, 2013 I attended an Environmental Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference panel included David Suzuki—the TV host of “The nature of Things”; Andrea Durbin the Executive Director of the Oregon Environmental Alliance; Governor John Kitzhaber; and the 14th Dalai Lama. (It was an awesome discussion!)
You can imagine that the 400 PPM threshold was top of mind for this panel. The Dalai Lama made the point that the world’s population continues to grow with a population of ten billion looming not too far away. David Suzuki and Andrea Durbin called out the need for more global responses to the crisis: “You would think we could come together around issues as fundamental as being able to breathe air or drink water.”
Then John Kitzhaber—Oregon’s very cool MD turned politician who is almost always seen in jeans and cowboy boots—said something remarkable. (The following quote is a summary from blogger Treothe Bullock): “He pointed out that the metrics of our economy are driving the current problems and that what we need to develop, in the next few years, is a new set of metrics for our economy. He implied we need metrics that include debits for the externalizations of ecological degradation and credits for responsible and sustainable innovations. We need metrics that show debits for generating class inequities and injustices and credits for development that lifts the most vulnerable up.”
Kitzhaber made the point that our current measures, GDP and the like, actually get a boost from wars, environmental catastrophes, and the building of prisons. He was making the argument that the only way to solve this problem is to rethink the measures we are tracking to measure “success.”
This is not a new thought in business. We are all about having the right Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). It’s like we need a “net promoter” measure for our environment. The Net Promoter concept is all the rage in service industries. It measures customer satisfaction by asking if you are likely to recommend or refer the service to others. If the answer is “Yes!”—you get points. Anything else and you lose points. You are seen as neutral or a detractor. Kitzhaber went on to quote Thomas Pynchon from Gravity’s Rainbow, “If you keep asking the wrong questions, you don’t need to pay attention to the answers.”
We need to be asking different questions. We need to be very attentive to the answers. We need to allow our KPI’s to consider degradation in key areas and interdependence—without getting too hung up on causality. We need a structural equation model that will allow us to consider the relative effects of apparently unrelated variables like: water quality, reforestation, birth rates, crime rates, mental health trends, education levels, income, poverty levels, health care, coral reef health, salmon runs, soil erosion, ice cap levels, alcoholism, voting behavior, disease and epidemiology, urban growth, electric cars, and happiness levels.
Yes it would be complicated, but no more complicated than running a Wal-Mart or assembling a china-hutch from Ikea. Even if it is a crude metric, the trends could be very informative.
The big thing that is different now is that we are so far down the rabbit hole of climate change that individual efforts are less likely to make a difference. You know those signs in the hotel bathroom asking you to save the environment by reusing your bath towel? Yeah, that won’t cut it I’m afraid. David Suzuki suggests that this is now a problem of politics, nation states, and global interdependence. The Dalai Lama believes that the best bet is to concentrate on the kids—educating them more fully and unfolding a new vision of what the world can be.
As for me, I am with Governor Kitzhaber on this one: we need a new way of keeping score. It is not just about “having health insurance” it is about living a more healthy life. It is not about “consumer spending” it is about building communities. It is not just about growing crops, it is about not killing bees.
I also agree that there is no way to mount any solutions of substance without a leadership approach that invites science and collaboration. The demonization of science has become chic over the past 15 years or so, and we are paying a heavy price. We continue to wring the last vestiges of innovation out of our 1960’s heavy-science focus—sparked by Sputnik—and we continue to defund and shutter scientific research programs and scientific education programs.
The future for American science is so dark, we gotta wear night-vision-goggles (ironically a technology developed in the 60’s…)
So let’s sum this up:
- 400 PPM is a critical milestone—but like most data of import, it’s not the number but the trend that should freak us out.
- The Keeling Curve trend is bad. There are going to be big problems ahead.
- These problems can’t be solved by any single business, country, or consortium. We need to be cooperating at amazing new levels, and that just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
- We need a new way to “keep score” that includes “debits” for actions that damage health, environment, and culture.
- We should hope to see a new generation of people who are less concerned with consumption and acquisition and more concerned with quality of life and community development.
- We need leaders who can accomplish the balance Kitzhaber described where positive steps don’t have to happen at the cost of alienating whole groups of people. Progress can’t be a zero-sum game: I win—you lose.
It is a sunny day here in Oregon—and it’s May. Usually it is still cool and rainy. Very strange… Driest and hottest spring yet on record. Nah, it’s probably nothing…