9-1-10 WBBM channel 2 studio, 22 W. Washington St., Chicago Bill Kurtis on new set prior to their first newscast tonight as WBBM's new regular 6 p.m. anchor team. [Keith Hale/Sun-Times]
Updated: December 4, 2012 5:33PM
The most frightening interview I’ve ever done was with Dr. Lonnie Thompson of The Ohio State University on the subject of global warming.
It was about 20 years ago. He was noting the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the beginning of the Industrial Age when the internal combustion engine began burning oil and gasoline as fuel, it was about 280 parts per million. Dr. Thompson said, “It’s moving up. At what point will the earth restructure itself to accommodate a different volume of gasses in the atmosphere?”
He didn’t say “the world would end” or that we’d “return to a time when the dinosaurs roamed every inch.” It was more subtle, like a soft mallet to the forehead. Restructure. We breathe oxygen in and exhale carbon dioxide. How do you restructure that?
To make matters worse, Dr. James Hansen, the father of modern global warming theory, puts the safe level at 350 parts per million. So last month, when the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization announced that the volume of carbon dioxide in 2011 hit 390 parts per million and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration followed with a 2012 level of 391.01 at their Hawaiian observatory, I pulled out the Mayan calendar to check the date for the end of the world.
A small number of skeptics have managed to take the adrenaline out of the global warming movement; and by creating the impression that there are actually two sides to the issue, they have stalled efforts to do something about it.
I’ve been producing documentaries on global warming for 20 years and have seen the early warnings of extreme weather events come true. Predictions of stronger hurricanes now have names — Katrina and Sandy. Greater forest fires recall the Colorado Springs fire last June. More droughts — this year’s drought in the Midwest is the worst in more than 50 years. The prediction that glaciers will be gone from Glacier National Park has been moved up by 10 years to 2020, the same year it’s predicted the Arctic Sea will be ice-free in the summer.
Unfortunately there isn’t time to debate the causal connection between these events and global warming because the relentless numbers keep going up. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in 800,000 years, a figure based on gases found in ice cores taken in Antarctica.
In a landmark paper published in “The Behavior Analyst” in 2010, Dr. Thompson wrote, “There is now a very clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible.”
The urgency to do something about it has faded. But I can’t get these two things out of my head: 391parts per million. Restructure.
Bill Kurtis donated his fee for writing this column to Openlands, www.openlands.org.