Carbon dioxide in atmosphere exceeds 410 ppm, threatens human health
Breathing the air of a new world
For the 800,000 years for which we have records, average global CO2 levels fluctuated between about 170 ppm and 280 ppm. Once humans started to burn fossil fuels in the industrial era, things changed rapidly.
Only in the industrial era has the number risen above 300 ppm. The concentration first crept above 400 ppm in 2013, and it continues to climb.
There's a debate among scientists about the last time CO2 levels were this high. It might have been during the Pliocene era, 2 million to 4.6 million years ago, when sea levels were 60 to 80 feet higher than today. Or it may have been in the Miocene, 10 million to 14 million years ago, when seas were more than 100 feet higher than now.
In our 800,000-year record, it took about 1,000 years for CO2 levels to increase by 35 ppm. We're currently averaging an increase of more than 2 ppm a year, meaning we could hit an average of 500 ppm within the next 45 years.
Humans have never had to breathe air like this. And it does not seem to be good for us.
It's not that CO2 directly harms human health in any way — at least, not at these concentrations. But by cranking up the global thermostat, it can have a very significant effect on health.
Global temperature tracks very closely to atmospheric levels of CO2. The potential effects of higher average temperatures include tens of thousands of deaths from heat waves, increased air pollution that leads to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, higher rates of allergies and asthma, more extreme weather events, and the spread of diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes — something we're already seeing.
Global annual temperature and CO2 levels, 1959 to 2019
Higher levels of CO2 and the warming they cause also exacerbate ozone pollution. One 2008 study found that for every degree Celsius the temperature rises because of CO2 levels, ozone pollution can be expected to kill an additional 22,000 people via respiratory illness, asthma, and emphysema. A recent study found that overall, air pollution already kills 9 million people every year.
Other research has raised even more concerns. The average CO2 level doesn't represent the air most of us breathe. Cities tend to have far more CO2 than average — and those levels rise even higher indoors. Some research indicates that it may have a negative effect on human cognition and decision-making. (There's a full list of possible ways climate change will affect human health on an .)
President Barack Obama's EPA ruled in 2009 that CO2 was a pollutant that needed to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, though the Trump administration is reevaluating that ruling.
Pedestrians crossing a road on a smoggy day in Nanjing, China. Thomson Reuters
Drowning in CO2
The human-health effects of CO2 increases are just one part of the bigger story here.
The change we've seen in CO2 levels recently has been much more rapid than the historical trends. Some experts think we're on track to hit 550 ppm by the end of the century, which could cause average global temperatures to rise by 6 degrees Celsius. For context, the increase in superstorms, rising sea levels, and spreading tick-borne disease that we're already seeing comes after a 0.9-degree rise.
Data from Parrenin et al., 2013; Snyder et al., 2019; Bereiter et al., 2015.
Projections of sea-level rise will only get bigger as CO2 levels continue to climb.
Right now, carbon-dioxide emissions are still rising. The goal set in the Paris agreement on climate change is to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius or less. But as a recent feature in the journal Nature put it, we're on track for more than 3 degrees of warming.
The latest measurements from Mauna Loa show that if we want to avoid that, we'll need to make some dramatic changes very quickly.
This story was updated on June 12 to include the newly released data on CO2 levels hitting a new record in May and to clarify the means through which higher levels of CO2 affect human health.
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