Big One-Year Jump In Atmospheric CO2 Brings Climate Catastrophe Closer

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere underwent one of its biggest single-year jumps ever in 2012, according to researchers at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2013, carbon dioxide levels increased by 2.67 parts per million — a rise topped only by the spike in 1998.

By comparison, global carbon levels averaged a yearly rise of just under 2 parts per million from 2000 to 2010, and increased by less than 1 part per million in the 1960s. The 2012 rise makes it that much more unlikely that global warming can be limited to the 2 degree Celsius threshold most scientist agree is the bare minimum necessary to avoid truly catastrophic levels of climate change. The Associated Press has the report:

Carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to total just under 395 parts per million, says Pieter Tans, who leads the greenhouse gas measurement team for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That’s the second highest rise in carbon emissions since record-keeping began in 1959. The measurements are taken from air samples captured away from civilization near a volcano in Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

More coal-burning power plants, especially in the developing world, are the main reason emissions keep going up – even as they have declined in the U.S. and other places, in part through conservation and cleaner energy.

At the same time, plants and the world’s oceans which normally absorb some carbon dioxide, last year took in less than they do on average, says John Reilly, co-director of Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Plant and ocean absorption of carbon varies naturally year to year.

There is a limited “budget” of carbon the world can dump into the atmosphere while still maintaining a reasonable chance of staying under the 2 degree limit: 565 gigatons by 2050 to keep our chances at 75 percent, to be precise. At our current trends — and as 2012’s jump can attest — we’re set to burn through that budget in 16 years, rendering our chances of staying under 2 degrees of warming alarmingly thin. Getting back on track will require keeping the overwhelming majority of the fossil fuel available to us in the ground.

Otherwise, we face destructively high sea level rise, water supplies for hundreds of millions of people threatened by climate shifts, global crop declines, bleached coral reefs around the world, a rise in ocean acidification threatening marine ecosystems, and a host of other crises.

49 Responses to Big One-Year Jump In Atmospheric CO2 Brings Climate Catastrophe Closer

  1. wili says:

    Those who, like me, are obsessed with the week-to-week numbers (and why aren’t we all?) can keep abreast of weekly trends in Mauna Loa readings at:

    We are on track to exceed 400 ppm this May.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    A shock worth 10,000 words.

    The present concentration in March equals or exceeds last year’s summer high in May.

  3. Gingerbaker says:

    The first thing we need is a timetable. We need agreement by the experts on just how long we have to bring down our CO2 emissions to zero.

    Right now, estimates are all over the place – from it’s already too late to avoid +4C, to five to ten years, to decades.

    The timetable is important, because it can have dramatic effect on which options we choose to build the renewable energy infrastructure necessary to ensure our civilization.

  4. Ben Lieberman says:

    What if the media reported on these figures as well as monthly climate figures the same way they covered gas prices?

  5. Jackie says:

    Warning all around but greed wins. Much like the Titanic when people were told and saw the water rising but still did nothing until it was to late. But America does have alot of people and law makers who aren’t to smart so this is expected.

  6. Superman1 says:

    “much more unlikely that global warming can be limited to the 2 degree Celsius threshold most scientist agree is the bare minimum necessary to avoid truly catastrophic levels of climate change.”. Oh, please, who are these ‘most scientists’? If there are sufficient shallow clathrates, even a modest release from warming water temperatures can accelerate the myriad coupled and synergistic positive feedback mechanisms. We are operating on ‘luck’ in the danger zone as we speak. If we are ‘lucky’, the shallow clathrates will be insufficient to accelerate the feedback mechanisms to any appreciable extent, and that will buy us some time. But, I see nothing on the horizon to slow the emissions.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    At some point nature starts kicking in the CO2 and methane. The earth’s permafrost has tens of millions of years of carbon stored up, but as soon as it melts for the first time, bacteria will start gassing the atmosphere.

    In other news, a local supermarket lost their power during the blizzard and then they threw out all of their frozen foods. Bacteria.

    Also on the list, lots of trees are loaded with hydrocarbons. After the trees die the bacteria and fungi create either methane or CO2. Also, megafires caused by all the dead fuel will burn buried carbon that would be deep enough to not be disturbed by normal fires.

  8. Superman1 says:

    Wili, We have a classic numbers problem. Half the people in this country don’t recognize, or don’t care about, climate change. While the other half may mumble some good words on a poll about climate change, probably less than ten percent of them would be willing to take the drastic steps I believe are necessary to avoid the catastrophe. So, probably less, probably far less, than five percent of the electorate would be willing to take the steps necessary for survival. How does one achieve victory against such odds?

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “Oh, please, who are these ‘most scientists’?”

    How unsurprising that you don’t know that.

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “Half the people in this country don’t recognize, or don’t care about, climate change.”

    That’s a blatantly false statement:

    Superman1 wrote: “probably less than ten percent of them would be willing to take the drastic steps I believe are necessary”

    Since your “beliefs” about what’s necessary are as WRONG as your “beliefs” about public opinion, that’s a good thing.

  11. Sasparilla says:

    The rise for February 2013 reading of 396.80 ppm is up ~ 3.26ppm from Last February 2012.

  12. Ken Barrows says:

    OK, it’s a serious problem.

    So, who’s for more solar and wind? (Me, me!) Great.

    Who’s for eating lower on the food chain/web? (Crickets)

    Who’s for reducing airline travel by 2/3 within 10 years? (Grumbles)

    Who’s for achieving zero world population growth within five years? (WTF!)

  13. Bill says:

    397 ppm locks in an additional 3.2 C rise to TODAY’s temperature WHEN equilibrium is achieved IF we return to pre-industrial emissions TODAY.

  14. Superman1 says:

    The Carnival Barkers are out in force. ‘Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up. For only ten dollars, you can get a large bottle of Dr. Secular’s Solar Conversion Oil. Eat all you want; drink all you want; you won’t gain an ounce. In fact, the more you use, the more you lose. Step right up. Next tent, prime oceanfront property in Arizona.’

  15. Superman1 says:

    The Carnival Barkers are doing what they do best: pitching for the renewables investors. The final raid on the Titanic’s galley as she goes under.

  16. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “The Carnival Barkers are out in force.”

    I just pointed out that you posted a blatant falsehood about public opinion, Superman1 — and your frequent repetition of that same blatant falsehood is the whole foundation of your blame-the-victim “argument”.

    And your response is what? A bunch of silly nonsense.

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    So, in short, you are utterly unable to make a substantive response to anything I have posted, unable to defend the blatant falsehoods you have posted and the ignorance you have demonstrated, so instead you resort to inane name-calling and bumper-sticker slogans.

    Run, troll, run.

  18. Lore says:

    This is a bit disheartening since we’re still not feeling the full climate effects of our atmospheric contribution to CO2 that we emitted some 30 years ago.

    By mid century, or before, we should have surpassed the temperature threshold at which point vast quantities of trapped methane will begin to gas out into the atmosphere. Our worst fears may come much quicker then most people realize.

    I wonder how many more lame political cycles we can go through before we get there?

  19. Dick Smith says:

    “…to be precise”?

    The 565 GtCO2 is not the budget to 2050. It WAS the budget in 2010. Since then, over 65 GtCO2 of the budget have been used up…to be precise.

  20. Dick Smith says:

    Do you or others have a site, graph, or other source that would gives credible comparable figures for other ppm figures? Also, 3.2C by when? I haven’t spent a lot of time looking for this kind of info, but I’d like to get a better sense of the dynamics.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Then they would not be the entirely business owned MSM. They’d be some other thing, practising something called ‘journalism’, a trade now more or less extinct in the MSM.

  22. Jack Burton says:

    This is predictable. The world is expanding fossil fuel recovery and burning. All this talk of slowing emissions and heading for zero is rubbish talk. Totally unrealistic. The trend is towards MORE fossil fuel use. The countries like China that need growth at cheap costs must rely of the best fuel on earth. Fossil fuel.
    I have yet to a see a credible bit of evidence that any corporate or government entity of any significance is going to change the fossil fuel based economic engine. Thus, and this is a certainty, we are going to blow by this 2C marker as if it was a fly being hit by a 747!
    It is game over, when will we admit it? Is it not we who are in denial? This is not going to end well.

  23. speakoutforscience says:

    @Gingerbaker, scientists would give you a timetable if they could. I suggest that you read this article to help you understand why prediction is difficult.

  24. ShellyLeit says:

    This problem is of a scale where world leaders need to get together and solve this with new ideas, rules, regulations, energy subsidies. ASAP
    This cannot be solved by us. We need to pressure them, sure. That said….

    How about a climate rally that’s not in the DEAD OF WINTER but on a hot summer day, for instance?

    I can’t believe climate rallies that occur on the coldest day of the year. Perception, perception, perception….

  25. Greg says:

    Is there a way to show if any of this, and what percentage, may be Co2 that is being released due to feedback loops such as permafrost melting?

  26. Paul Klinkman says:

    Once on “ER” I saw the Dr. Mark Green character tell a fat guy, “You keep eating that much meat and not exercising and in five years you’re going to be back here with a coronary.”

    I want some functional prognostications out of science. Enough people are saying “doom” or even “certain doom”. That’s not something that motivates the patient. The patient needs to know what happens if we keep accelerating with about 2% fossil fuel growth per year, and how much of a worldwide cut will make how much of a difference. Also, keep the two choices reasonably simple for the lard balls.

    Yes, we’re going over 400 this spring, but long term we’re staring at 450. How bad is that going to be if we slack off? How bad in the 2020s? How bad in the 2050s?

    What would a healthy, steady progress look like? How many trips to the gym per week, er, what can we convert over to solar/wind without suffering a particular amount of pain.

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Inevitably there will be much death and suffering but why assume ‘game over’? Keep your eye on China and the BRICS group, ME

  28. BillD says:

    Yesterday I received a letter from the League of Conservation Voters saying that they were urging Obama to make a goal of reducing oil burning by 50% during the next 20 years. Yesterday I watched a segment on the Nightly Business Report, in which oil execs said they could meet the 65% increase in oil demand they expected in the next 20 years, with no mention of climate change in the whole broadcast. Only the “great news” that the USA will become the greatest producer of oil in the world. Really scary stuff.

  29. Superman1 says:

    The premier Carnival Barker is back, doing what he does best: pitching for the renewables investors. ‘Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen. See Dr. Secular separate you from the contents of your wallet using his magic Solar Conversion Oil; made from 100% pure Python.’

  30. Superman1 says:

    Jack, This is the most realistic post on this page. It cuts through the hand-waving of the Carnival Barkers, and shows the world as it is. The ‘hope’ and the evidence are polar opposites.

  31. Superman1 says:

    All sides in this argument are making all sorts of promises and predictions, including the Carnival Barkers on this site. Talk is cheap. Who has the best track record? Look at world-wide demand; the oil execs are probably understating their case.

  32. Superman1 says:

    Paul, As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, Kevin Anderson has done such an analysis. He uses the unrealistically high temp of 2 C as a target, based on models that exclude positive feedbacks, and still finds that ‘planned austerity’ is required (read as ‘planned Depression’). If you cut his temperature target in half, which he suggests, you basically need to end fossil fuel use today. What has to be done is not complex; doing it is the hard part.

  33. Joan Savage says:

    Dick Smith,

    Strong point. Your source, please?

    Jeff Spross is not the only blogger to make that assertion. A web search turns up the 565 Gt CO2 figure in numerous blogs, plus Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article in 2012.

    Many blogs attribute the 565 Gt number to the Potsdam Institute, yet a keyword search of the web site, even with the number 565 alone to avoid formatting variations, didn’t turn up a report with a strong match on all categories.

    Potsdam Institute’s page does include a press release of a 2009 Nature article on estimating carbon dioxide reduction.

    I feel like we should all have solid sources.

    I feel downright unhappy not to have the original source of the 565 Gt CO2 figure at my fingertips and confirmation of your point about it being already out of date.

  34. Paul says:

    Whats with the very long moderation times for comments to approved?

  35. Joe Romm says:

    I’m recovering from major surgery….

  36. Paul says:

    Ah, my apologies. I wasn’t aware of this..

    For what it’s worth Joe i’ve only been a reader of your blog for a few months I mostly agree with what you have to say and i think the articles in general on think progress are rather informative.

    I just don’t think we have a hope in hell of stopping this head long rush off the cliff. There is a very very good chance the positive feed backs in regards to the Arctic, clatherates and the permafrost are already self sustaining….

  37. paul magnus magnus says:

    Precisely. Even a rudimentary plan would focus everyone. That is why just a carbon tax is not enough targets and paths to them need to be clear.

  38. Gingerbaker says:

    I don’t accept this idea that climate models need to be better in order for us to generate a proper timetable.

    Climate models are tools that allow us to predict how changes may well occur and give us some idea of where those changes may be seen, ie temperature changes of earth, water, and air.

    But the warming of the planet is controlled by how much extra heat is generated by the greenhouse effect. And this is based on very simple physics and is dependent on the concentration of greenhouse gases.

    But the time scale of CO2 retention in the atmosphere is much longer than the time scale of climate modeling uncertainties. Any anthropogenic CO2 concentration increases will stay in our atmosphere for 1000 to 10,000 years. Eventually, the Earth temperature will stabilize at an increased level which is dictated by those greenhouse gas levels. Climate modeling is based on much smaller time scales, and is concerned with the flow of heat among the various environmental systems. But this is really just just shuffling the chairs on the Titanic – eventually the whole heat balance of the Earth is going to to be homeostatic.

    It is all just a matter of delayed effect. The really important number is the CO2 concentration, because it will ultimately determine the heat generated which will eventually determine temperatures seen.

    We are currently about to pass 400 ppm of CO2 concentration in year 2013. But the Earth is only just beginning to show temperature changes from the increase of humankind’s baseline level – about 250 ppm in 1850. Really, we could say the Earth is still stuck at year ~ 1890(?) or so, as far as the temperature due to CO2 concentration is concerned.

    In other words, if all incremental CO2 emissions stopped today, the Earth would continue to warm and warm and warm until the heat from the greenhouse effect of 400 ppm CO2 finally translated into global temperatures. That temperature – the 400 ppm temperature is inevitable.

    That predicted 400 ppm temperature may well be quite lower than actual, because of positive feedbacks. But at a minimum, the 400 ppm predicted temp can give us a wildly best case scenario for how much time we have.

    So – what does the greenhouse gas model equation tell us will be the expected equilibrium temperature of the Earth? That should give us an idea of a time table, should it not?

    Beyond that, we have some basic understandings now of positive feedbacks and a general idea of the consequences they will produce. Some climate scientists include these in their models, equations, predictions and opinions. Some don’t. But we should, at this point, be able to give an intelligent, if not perfectly accurate, opinion on a time table. And some scientists have given their opinions publicly.

    At least two have them have had their presentations taped, and these were posted at this blog. They claimed we need to reduce our CO2 emissions to zero in 5 to 10 years, or we will face a minimum +4C to +10C world. Which means the end of civilization as we know it.

    These predictions deserve to be vetted. We need to know if the time table they predict is reliable enough to be acted upon. Because getting our CO2 emissions to zero in that time frame can be done – but it would require a very different form of action than a longer time frame. It would require that action be started immediately.

    So, you can see why I think this is the most crucial question we should ask right now at this juncture?

  39. Gingerbaker says:

    Kevin Anderson’s prescription for austerity is madness, sheer madness. We don’t need to disable CO2 emissions by disabling our economy, by disabling our civilization!

    All we have to do is build a lot of green energy generating infrastructure and then start using it, instead of using the existing carbon-based energy generation infrastructure.

    If we had a Federal solar and wind generation project, we could completely replace all carbon fuel use in just a few years.

    So, please, stop telling us over and over that we must suffer to survive! That may be an option, but it sucks hairy root compared to simply building the renewable energy system that we need anyway.

  40. Matthew Calarco says:

    Joan, you’ll want to read the Meinshausen article (
    along with the Unburnable Carbon report from Carbon Tracker (

    Those two pieces will give you the numbers that are being used.

  41. Curtis says:

    No way will the rapacious oil companies allow that money, I mean oil, stay in the ground. And neither will their lackeys, otherwise known as our elected leaders.

    We’re doomed.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Excuses, excuses…

  43. Brian R Smith says:

    Sorry, you don’t get to be a doomer THAT easily. Merely proclaiming doom is so 3rd grade. You have to sprinkle in more contradictory facts! Bolster your case with seductively ambiguous conclusions while feigning underlying concern! And note the importance of being unbearably smug about having a superior understanding of climate science and human nature. This is yours alone, a precious gift from the Internet. Humility is for losers, so by all means don’t waste time being civil with your naive detractors. Be quick to cleverly dismiss them for the snake oil vendors, Carnival Barkers and technology whores they are. Remember: you know the truth of things and others do not. Piece of cake. You just have to practice and keep doggin it.

  44. J4zonian says:

    By trying.

    By taking those numbers as a starting point and knowing how to change them.

    By doing what Bill McKibben and James Hansen and many others are doing: acting now in ways that teach and inspire.

  45. DanB says:

    This is a good post. It might be a great post. In order for that to happen it’s necessary to us words that connect and motivate viscerally. And don’t overdo them.


    There are many more like these words. The point is you won’t get noticed unless you get the attention of the limbic brain.

    Climate Change is about survival. When you want change you must speak at the same level of emotion as the results you want.

    We’re realizing, because of the avalanche of scientific evidence that we may be doomed. The moral imperative has been engaged, as has the economic, and the personal. They will only resonate with the broader public’s perception when they connect the dots between major fossil fuels sucking resources out of the ground and sucking blood out of the American people.

  46. Joan Savage says:

    Interesting. The Meinshausen article is the same as the one featured in the Potsdam Institute press release that I linked.

    The famous 565 Gt number does not appear in the abstract of the Meinshausen article, it comes from the Carbon Tracker interpretation.

    Matthew, Thanks for piecing it together.

  47. craig11 says:

    I agree with superman that we are past the point of no return…but why does he have to be such an asshole? And wtf is with the repeated use of the metaphor carnival barker to describe anyone who is for trying to do something to combat climate change? Carnival Barker? What a Used Car Salesman.

  48. J4zonian says:

    Well, 3 outa 4 ain’t bad…

    The richest 7% of people on Earth produce half the greenhouse gases. The poorest 80% produce only one fifth of the GHGs. The developed world (that 7%+) is already virtually at replacement rate, globally, population growth rates are half what they were in the 60s and still declining. The only places significant population growth is still happening are exactly those places where people have the least effect on climate. Many problems will no doubt be made easier to solve as population growth continues to decline, and we should do all we can to reach global ZPG ASAP. But it will do very little to help with climate catastrophe in the time we have to solve that.

    Imagine the most effective possible birth control program: no children born anywhere in the world for say, the next 20 years, since that’s about how long we have to cut emissions by about 90% to avoid utter catastrophe. Of course that program would be a cultural disaster almost unparalleled in history,. And the population, instead of 7.5 billion, would be 7.3 billion. Hmmmm… The reduction of course, would be mostly among those who have little effect on global warming.

    Or imagine an alternative plan, that we decide to humanely off 80%, say of the people on Earth, somebody having decided that 1.5 billion people would be OK. If “we” could somehow get 6 billion to magically agree to be sacrificed peacefully, the program would inevitably, without doubt follow the same lines all such assignment of sacrifice follows—racist, nationalist, classist, religious and ethnic lines. The rich would as always give themselves a free pass, and there is no power on Earth—no institution, religion, philosophy, logic or reason, that could compel them not to. Again, we would be eliminating pretty much only those people who cause almost none of the problem. Getting rid of that 80% of the people on Earth would leave us with 80% of the global warming problem to solve some other way.

    That way, of course, would be to reduce both the consumption by the rich and the effects of that consumption by switching to solar, wind, efficiency, low-meat local organic permaculture and reforesting the world. So instead of ending up doing that after it’s too late, why don’t we start with it?
    Population growth is a problem. But it’s neither the problem nor the solution to climate cataclysm.

  49. SecularAnimist says:

    Gingerbaker wrote to Superman1: “So, please, stop telling us over and over that we must suffer to survive!”

    That’s just standard fossil fuel corporation fear-mongering propaganda — “phasing out fossil fuels will make you SUFFER! without fossil fuels you’ll live in misery and poverty!” — that Superman1 is regurgitating.