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The most underplayed news story of the season — maybe since the first newspaper in 59 B.C. — has to be the story from Hawaii the other day that a climate observatory recorded the highest carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere in three million years.
Carbon dioxide is the life-sustaining greenhouse gas that climate scientists say has been rising since the onset of the industrial age, and much more swiftly lately, toward atmospheric levels that threaten harm to life on the planet.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette played the story at the bottom of page two, which is reserved for corrections and the detritus of national news. Most newspapers gave it no more prominence than that, if any at all, and our state paper's handling was understandable. Its editorial page subscribes to the theory that global warming is a hoax created by a lot of scientists overly invested in self-importance and some leftists who want to do America harm. A poll would likely show that most Arkansans believe that, too. The carbon industry — coal, oil, gas and a few utilities — has spent a lot of money for two decades building that consensus.
The last four presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats — believed the science and pledged to protect the planet for their grandchildren, but none did very much, perhaps seeing the need to surrender to political reality. The rationale for inaction has been that some harsh set of conditions or a cataclysmic event would shock the nation and the world into accepting reality before it was too late to halt the march to climate Armageddon.
Clearly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's May 9 reading of 400 parts of carbon dioxide per million is not that shocking event, however cataclysmic it sounded.
Four hundred parts per million was a level scientists said was the tipping point, although no one can be sure. Many scientists say nations should try to move the reading back to at least 350 parts per million to avoid devastating climate impacts. It was 280 ppm at the dawn of the industrial age. A geophysicist at the oceanography institution that runs the Mauna Loa observatory for NOAA said the 400 reading meant that the world was losing the race to keep carbon levels from reaching disastrous levels. Carbon molecules stay in the atmosphere for 50 to 200 years.
Anticipating the 400-ppm reading, the warming deniers' champion, Princeton physicist William Happer, wrote in the Wall Street Journal editorial section a day earlier that climate fears were hooey and that the earth has been a lot hotter and that life survived. CO2 levels are climbing and the earth is heating, Happer said, but one doesn't necessarily cause the other. Besides, "warming and more CO2 will be good for mankind."
Melting polar icecaps, rising oceans, droughts, floods and more frequent catastrophic weather events should not deter us from seeking the promised land of a warmer planet. Here in remote Arkansas, every effort is being made to keep us moving toward that happy day.
In case people might be getting the wrong idea from all the climate news, Randy Zook, president of the State Chamber of Commerce, wrote a piece for the Democrat-Gazette last week warning that terrible damage was about to be inflicted on Arkansas by the Environmental Protection Agency, which wants to cap carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The U.S. Supreme Court said years ago that the Clean Air act obliged government to regulate greenhouse gases.
Nearly everywhere in the U.S. except Arkansas utilities and government have scaled back coal-based power development. The EPA rules won't discommode a single Arkansas homeowner or business, but Zook warned that we will no longer have electricity that we can afford.
Our congressman Tim Griffin, deterred only briefly by the Exxon-Mobil tar-sands pipeline catastrophe in the heart of his district, rejoined the effort to get the president to approve the giant tar-sands pipeline across the heart of the country, which would enable Canada to develop its tar sands and give the biggest impetus yet to global warming. Griffin was elected by $220,000 of carbon-industry money, including $4,000 from Exxon Mobil, but the entire Arkansas congressional delegation joins him. All six also join the oil and coal industries in opposing the EPA rules.
The unstated argument is that electricity costs might go up a little and that our prosperity should not suffer a whit to preserve a healthy planet for our great-grandchildren. The great search of our time is for a moral philosophy to justify selfishness.