Don’t Panic, but Carbon Dioxide Levels Are the Highest They’ve Been in Human History

An atmospheric observatory witnessed record levels of CO2 that may be the Earth's highest in the last three million years.
Fossil fuels account for the proliferation of carbon dioxide in our environment. (Photo: Andre Kudyusov/Getty Images)
May 11, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The Mauna Loa Observatory sits atop a hillside on the big island of Hawaii. And while that sounds as if it must be a place of calm and tranquility, on May 10, it became the world’s messenger of doom.

Using its tracking equipment, the observatory recorded that the average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 55 years of measurement—and quite probably the last three million years of Earth’s existence.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities and is a major factor in global warming. What does this mean in practical terms? It means we’re now 50 ppm over the safe zone for avoiding climate change’s worst impacts, reported Mother JonesThe Climate Desk.

Al Gore, who stirred global interest in climate change with his groundbreaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth, responded to the news in a public statement, “…the accumulated manmade global warming pollution in the atmosphere now traps enough extra heat energy each day to equal the energy that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-scale atomic bombs exploding every single day.”

No wonder the Earth has been hotter in recent years than in its last 11,300.

Though The New York Times reports that the 400 ppm mark is on the one hand just an odometer reading, it’s “also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.”

CO2 levels first started their rise with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and have spiked since then by 41 percent, due to our reliance on fossil fuels.

While May is typically the month where CO2 levels rise, reports suggest those levels haven’t in human history reached the height they did this week; by next year, researchers expect that the 400 ppm mark will become the new year-round average.

The science suggests that the last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was around three million years ago, during a period of time called the Pliocene; the Earth’s temperatures are thought to have been remarkably warmer, with sea levels that may have been as much as 80 feet higher.

If our current warming trends continue, scientists fear that among other climate change-related disasters, sea levels might again surge, putting much of the Earth's inhabitants in danger, including at least a quarter of the U.S. population.

Researchers agree that stopping climate change will have to involve an energy evolution on a global scale.

According to groups like, “[T]he only way to get there is to immediately transition the global economy away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable farming practices in all sectors (agriculture, transport, manufacturing, etc.).”

And that include a global ban on coal burning by 2030, if we're to return to safer levels of carbon dioxide.

On a personal level, the obvious suggestions—turning off lights, using power strips, adjusting the thermostat, riding a bike—may sound rote and albeit small, but they're often suggested because they work. In addition, organizations like can help you help your community transition away from fossil fuels, start a campaign, and otherwise initiate a movement in your own neighborhood.

The good news is that more U.S. conservatives are recognizing the science, or at least recognizing the financial value in renewable energy over fossil fuels. Whether that recognition will incite a meaningful energy shift on our own soil is not yet known.

While there are still some groups arguing over the legitimacy of climate science, the rest of us have it in our power to alter our daily lives while insisting our world leaders make profound changes now to reverse our path.

What do you think it will take for countries to give up fossil fuel consumption in favor of renewable energy? Let us know in the Comments.