The Most Important Number on Earth

It seems that the number 350, a rather boring looking number, may be even more important than Pi and Phi. It probably isn’t more important in the universe than the Hubble Constant and other important universal constants. However, to life evolved for the current climate range on Earth, 350 may just turn out even more important than all the rest, at least for our island Earth.

Why 350?

Because, 350 parts per million is the number below which we must stabilize the greenhouse gases on the planet in terms of the equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide. Any more and we will disrupt the ecosystem on which humanity and many other organisms depend for our very lives.

The problems are, at least:

1) We’re already above that number. (Current consensus is about 385 ppm, though at least one scientist puts our current number at over 450 ppm.)
2) Even Kyoto and the goals of other nations are way above 350 ppm.
3) Our best efforts to date, even with the best of intentions, have done nothing whatsoever to actually reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
4) Our planet’s ecology will not care one iota for our efforts. It being an inanimate system will care only for results. This was pointed out to me at a lecture by Paul R Ehrlich, coauthor of The Dominant Animal.

Here’s an excellent article from Mother Jones detailing the reason 350 is the most important number and what must be done. It is also the impetus for this blog post.

The Most Important Number on Earth

When you’re done with that, you will likely want to do something. Here’s an organization designed to get the word (or more accurately, the number) out to the public and hopefully influence politicians to take real and decisive action. Global Warming. Global Action. Global Future.

Where the 350 number comes from:

Climate Target Not Radical Enough — Popular press article paraphrasing the study.

Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? — The peer reviewed article, a 15 page PDF.

Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? (Supporting Data) — This is the supporting data to the peer reviewed article, a 21 page PDF.

An article with a claim that the current number is actually over 450:

Greenhouse gas levels ‘far worse than predicted’


18 Responses to The Most Important Number on Earth

  1. tothewire says:

    Really have enjoyed your blog! This is my kind of blog!

  2. eideard says:

    My convictions are solid as the rock our turtle stands on. The number is 42.

  3. eideard,

    Yes, of course it is. The important thing now is the question.

  4. Mr Gilly says:

    Eideard, it maybe that you already know this but for those who do not yet do, Google these 3 words:
    World Deforestation History and you will get numerous articles that relate =
    -in the 300 years since James Watt built the first steam engine we Homo Sapiens have denuded this planet of 50% of its forest cover
    -photosynthesis is Mother Nature’s natural method of Carbon sequestration into cellulose and free Oxygen
    -since we need cellulose in the forms of lumber, pulp, and mulches, etc., it would be rather more intelligent to get with a major replanting program
    -even if we were to replace all of the 50% deficit in trees and plants, it would not be enough to reduce the current CO2} excess in our atmosphere, but it would certainly be of some help towards that goal
    Comments appreciated, Gilly

  5. bobbo says:

    350ppm, boy thats a bummer.

    Yes, I would have enjoyed seeing a “Plant America” program in the stimulus. A core of people out planting the right kind of trees in the right areas.

    I’d like to see a “Green Core” in every city planting and maintaining trees for their beauty, cooling, CO2, job effects. Would provide nice jobs and a distributed benefit for all quite nicely justifying a general tax basis for their payment.

    Am I awake, or just dreaming?

  6. bobbo & Gilly,

    Planting is a great idea. China is planting a huge number of trees to attempt to combat the increasing desertification of the Gobi. NYC is planting a million trees to help with CO2 and with the heat island effect of cities such as New York. Will it be enough? Who knows? How fast is the Amazon still being deforested? What about the Canadian Taiga and the Alaskan temperate rain forests.

    And remember, in temperate rain forests, it’s not just the trees. 99% of the carbon sequestered in an old growth temperate forest is in the soil. Cut it down and the soil immediately begins releasing all of that carbon as CO2.

  7. Amurican says:

    Never mind global warming or the carbon numbers. Over harvesting the the oceans and the steady acidification of global oceanic waters will spell doom to the fido plankton. With out it we’re done.

    If I’m not mistaken our government has already exposed many of our soldiers to low levels of fast evolving biological pathogens that will contribute to an enormous human cull. The space stations will allow some to survive while underground vaults will protect the chosen survivors.I know it sounds like an Arthur C Clarke novel but it’s all true. Mass delusion is the hallmark of the human disorder.So lets be ourselves and do what we humans do best. Party and breed like rabbits until the curtain drops.Not doing so will have no affect on the out come because it is already way too late.So go ahead and act like a bunch of stupid conservatives and see how many remnants of a speceis you can shoot to oblivian. We’re already on that list so Pardy hardy dudes and dudettes!

  8. Amurican,

    Never mind global warming or the carbon numbers. Over harvesting the the oceans and the steady acidification of global oceanic waters will spell doom to the fido plankton. With out it we’re done.

    It’s the global warming, actually the CO2 in particular, that is causing the acidification of the oceans and destroying the phytoplankton (not fido plankton, woof). I agree that without the phytoplankton, we’re toast.

    Global warming is causing a huge range of issues that will be severe and possible threats to human survival as a species. So, it is the global warming numbers that matter.

    The worst mass extinction on the planet was caused by (non-human caused) global warming 250 million years ago. Read “Under a Green Sky” if you’re interested. It’s on my reading list on my books page.

    As for the rest of your post, I’m not into conspiracy theories as a rule. And, I think that the idea of seeing that you’re driving right for a cliff and hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake is rather dumb, unless you actively want to die like Thelma and Louise. Though, what you advocate will take many innocents along with you, and by innocent, I mean non-human.

  9. bobbo says:

    Scott–you make me wonder about the “utility” of our climate models. Does it have a firm estimate of the “most important number” for when the ocean gets too acidic to support phytoplankton ((or some other element necessary to the food/oxygen chain?)).

    Seems to me acidification is NOT an element of global warming–it is concomitant with global warming in that both are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere?

    I have posted several times at DU that I thought we would see the ocean die off while we are still arguing about “the weather.”

    Add it to your growing list of variables that affect the carrying capacity of the earth? (smile!!)

    Idyllically yours.

  10. bobbo,

    I think the ocean acidity limit would be expressed simply as PH or as a change in PH from some known time period. I’m not really sure we know how to translate atmospheric PPM of CO2 into ocean PH. Perhaps we do. But, remember, as the ocean warms, it also reduces how much gas it can dissolve, including O2, which, by it’s absence, will restrict many fish to higher and higher latitudes. Unfortunately, since the earth is wider at the equator, this means that they will be in ever shrinking sections of ocean.

    You are right that ocean acidity is merely caused by CO2 rather than being an element of global warming. However, the ocean warming and thus supporting less life is a result of warming. So, there are multiple factors at work here.

    A third factor in the ocean is simple overfishing. Ocean fisheries output has been declining since 1983 despite continually improving fishing technology and harvesting of new fish stocks, often to commercial extinction, such as Patagonian tooth fish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass), orange roughy, and other long-lived, slowly reproducing fish.

    So, yes, all of these go into the reduced medium term carrying capacity of the planet with respect to humans (and most of the other species we care about).

    More (or less) food for disasturbation, I guess.

  11. bobbo says:

    This fun fact just in from Modern Marvels on “Carbon”: “Planting 300,000 new trees and allowing tham a full life would offset the carbon dioxide emissions of one 500-megawatt coal fired power plant operating for a little more than one week.”

    What that means to me is—-we better start asap on green energy and stop burning coal asap? And always==that I think trees are pretty anyway, even if one tree doesn’t balance out a megawatt power plant. Different scale of things.

  12. bobbo,

    You won’t get any disagreement from me on any of that post. Coal is the worst of all fuels. It produces (from memory, so I may be off a bit) 4 times as much CO2 as gas and twice as much as oil for the same energy.

    Mining of coal is horrific. Even out west where they still dig holes, it is terrible for the environment to mine coal. Here in the east, they are literally leveling large swaths of the Appalachian Mountains and turning them into a Mars-scape.

    Clean Coal??!!? Hah!

    Carbon sequestration by burying the CO2 underground? It might work. How will we know? We probably need to do this for existing plants. But, building new ones is unconscionable.

    And, I love trees too. Let’s plant some native species and reforest some large swaths of suburbia. Suburbia is proving to be a failed concept anyway. It is the very definition of unsustainable. Suburbia will be the new slums.


  13. Mr Gilly says:

    Bobbo, the CO2} is the least of the worries with burning coal and coke. It has other residuals that are very harmful, to mention 2, Mercury and Arsenic. When we NDT go into the firebox[flues] of one of those huge power plant steam boilers during a major outage inspection project, we have to wear a special monitoring device that collects samples of the air we breathe through our dust masks. This is so that the company and the contractor know what our exposure has been! I was never on that crew, so I don’t know if there were follow up blood tests.
    The design of these coal and oil/gas fired steam boiler electric generation plants use much higher steam pressures than do the nuclear plants, where the design safety factors are much higher. All of these generation plants must periodically go through very rigorous inspections for both safety and power generation reliability reasons. We tend to forget how much of our society has critical dependency on the primary source of electricity, from the common street lights to the major hospital trauma operating theatres with heart, lung, or dialysis machines, etc!

  14. Mr. Gilly,

    Excellent points!! I was not aware of many of those dangers. However, given the near-term threat to the survival of our species and many others from global warming, I am not prepared to call CO2 the least of the worries regarding coal.

  15. bobbo says:

    Well, the three of us agree. Whats wrong with the rest of the world?

  16. bobbo,

    Their brains were baked in coal ovens.

  17. Mr Gilly says:

    While I remember it, there are also other contaminants like Selenium. I am not aware of what levels of this element occur in various coal beds, but in Central Alberta it does occur in the waste gases from oil wells. For years these gases were “flared off” at the well heads until some serious problems began occurring. The oil companies stated that they were in no way responsible for the rising rates of bovine miscarriages, but when this also started to happen in the resident local Hmo Sapien population, some University of Alberta researchers started to investigate in depth.
    They found that the Selenium in these flares was being washed out of the atmosphere into the soil, then it was taken up into the cows when they ate the grass which was enriched with Selenium from the soil.
    Association Between Exposure to Emissions From the Oil and Gas …
    a compressor station or gas plant with a large flare stack or incinerator stack. ….. 55% were exposed to a gas or oil well site during this period. Table 1. …… associated with selenium or vitamin E deficiency. The re- …. Janowski TM, Chmielowiec J. Poisoning of cattle with sulphur from … – Similar pages –
    by CL Waldner – 2009 – Cited by 2

    The end result of this study and others is that now the oil/gas companies are not allowed in those fields to release such toxics into the atmosphere.

    Another element you would never expect to find in natural gases is Vanadium. Vanadium is a valuable micro alloying element used in steel making. It became into short supply during the Viet Nam War as the materials yeild strength enhancer and grain refining agent used in steel helicopter rotor blades. That put a pinch on the more mundane use of VO2} in higher yield strength steel reinforcing bars.

  18. Mr. Gilly,

    Thanks for some more great information about the ways in which humans are totally trashing the biosphere upon which we depend for our very lives.

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