Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

It's a "climate emergency." Environmental campaigners stand on top of a DLR train at Canary Wharf Underground Station during the third day of a coordinated protest by the Extinction Rebellion group on April 17, 2019 in London, England. More than 100 arrests have been made, with demonstrations blocking a number of locations across the capital. (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

'We Don't Know a Planet Like This': CO2 Levels Hit 415 PPM for First Time in 3 Million+ Years

"How is this not breaking news on all channels all over the world?"

Jon Queally

Atmospheric levels of carbon registered 415 parts per million over the weekend at one of the world's key measuring stations, a concentration level researchers say has not existed in more than 3 million years – before the dawn of human history.

Taken at the Mauno Loa Observatory in Hawaii by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the measure continues the upward trend of atmospheric carbon concentration that lies at the heart of the global warming and climate crisis:

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus, a journalist who covers the climate crisis for Grist, contextualized the latest readings in a tweet that was shared widely on Sunday:

One person responded to the Holthaus tweet by asking, "How is this not breaking news on all channels all over the world?"

Rich Pancost, head of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in the U.K., said that the best guess of the scientific community is that global atmospheric carbon levels have not been this high for "about 3 millions years... [m]aybe more."

Writing on his Informed Comment blog Monday, historian Juan Cole said that life on Earth in that pre-historic era, known as the Pliocene Period, is not a place humans would recognize:

In the Pliocene, it was much hotter.

In the Pliocene, oceans were much higher, maybe 90 feet higher.

That is our fate, folks. That is what 415ppm produces. It is only a matter of time, and some of the sea level rise will come quickly.

Amsterdam, New Orleans, Lisbon, Miami – the list of cities that will be submerged is enormous.

Elsewhere online, reaction to the unsettling milestone was met with a mix of frustration, alarm, and fresh demands for urgent action to address the crisis.

Despite the new measurement, it is not as if humanity has not been endlessly warned that this is the path it's on.

"If the threshold seems unremarkable (it shouldn't)," wrote Jonathan Shieber at TechCrunch, "it's yet another indication of the unprecedented territory humanity is now charting as it blazes new trails toward environmental catastrophe."

As Shieber explains:

The increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is important because of its heat absorbing properties. The land and seas on the planet absorb and emit heat and that heat is trapped in carbon dioxide molecules. The NOAA likens CO2 to leaving bricks in a fireplace, that still emit heat after a fire goes out.

Greenhouse gases contribute to the planet maintaining a temperature that can sustain life, but too much can impact the entire ecosystem that sustains us. That's what's happening now. As the NOAA notes, "increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth's energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature."

While scientists have stated that much of the future warming is already "locked in," Cole points out that humanity's main focus must be to make sure all efforts are made to reverse the emissions trend in order to limit the scale of the destruction.

"What can be stopped is its getting any worse," Cole concluded. "But that would require moving with blinding speed to wind and solar power and electric cars."

And the message from the global climate justice movement has been crystal clear: It's an emergency. Act like it.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

AOC Slams Conservative Dems Who Would Rather Skip Town Than Vote to Extend Eviction Ban

"We cannot in good faith blame the Republican Party when House Democrats have the majority."

Jake Johnson ·


'A Devastating Failure': Eviction Ban Expires as House Goes on Vacation and Biden Refuses to Act

"We’re now in an eviction emergency," said Rep. Cori Bush. "Eleven million are now at risk of losing their homes at any moment. The House needs to reconvene and put an end to this crisis."

Jake Johnson ·


With Election Days Away, Bernie Sanders Headlines Get-Out-the-Vote Rally for Nina Turner

In his keynote speech, Sanders said corporate interests are pulling out all the stops to defeat Turner because "they know that when she is elected, she is going to stand up and take them on in the fight for justice."

Jake Johnson ·


Bush, Pressley, and Omar Sleep Outside Capitol to Demand Extension of Eviction Moratorium

Rep. Cori Bush, who was formerly unhoused, slammed her Democratic colleagues who "chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes."

Jake Johnson ·


As Progressives Call for End to Blockade, Biden Announces More Sanctions Against Cuba

The move comes after Democratic leadership in the House blocked an amendment to roll back limits on how much money people in the United States can send to family on the island nation.

Jessica Corbett ·