CO2 Going Up. Human Progress Going Up.

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


Yesterday it was announced by the World Meteorological Organization (an arm of the United Nations), with front page coverage by the global media, that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) last year reached a new high value (396 parts per million, ppm) and got there in record time (2.9ppm/yr). Although newer data (through July of 2014) indicate that the rate of rise has fallen back again to levels more characteristic of the past decade, the signal remains—carbon dioxide is building in the atmosphere and rising to levels that have probably not been seen in along time (hundreds of thousands of years).

This rise is a continued reminder of the steady drumbeat of human progress. The carbon dioxide that is building in the atmosphere, at least in part, gets there through human emissions of carbon dioxide that are the by-product of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to produce the vast majority the energy that has powered mankind’s industrial and technical ascent since the Industrial Revolution.

The gradual increase in the rate of the rise of the carbon dioxide concentration is a sign that we are continuing to expand our energy use and availability, primarily in developing countries like India and China. With more than a billion people still without much access to electricity (and many more than that who would like access to more) and all the life-improving benefits that come with it, we still have a long way to go.

Consequently, we should anticipate that the atmospheric CO2 concentration will continue to grow for many years to come.

The benefits that fossil use have delivered to humanity are enormous. A taste of them can be found at Cato’s HumanProgress.org website and a compelling case for why we should continue to embrace and expand fossil fuel use is made by Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress in his excellent (and very soon forthcoming) book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

The only concern that arises from growing atmospheric CO2 levels stems from the potential climate changes that may result. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that acts basically to trap heat trying to escape from earth to space. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the projections of climate change that have been made by the current family of computerized climate models has been overdone—that the world will warm up significantly less than has been predicted as a result of our ongoing carbon dioxide emissions. We continue to detail the evidence that the earth’s “climate sensitivity” to carbon dioxide is less than expected. Our most recent summary of the new, relevant literature on this topic is available here. Less warming means less resultant impacts which mean less worry about rising CO2 levels (and less impetus for government action).

So rather than accompanying the WMO announcement with hand-wringing and talk of self-destructive doom and gloom—which was obiquitous in media coverage of the data release—the more appropriate response would be to applaud our progress in energy expansion across the world.

The last time an announcement of atmospheric CO2 levels reaching some new high (an announcement that could be made virtually every day), we wrote:

[The rise] of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should remind us of our continuing success at expanding the global supply of energy to meet a growing demand. That success which ultimately leads to an improvement of the global standard of living and a reduction in vulnerability to the vagaries of weather and climate.

[The rise] is cause for celebration.

The same holds today, and will do so far into the future.