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We Just Dumped 38.2 Billion Pounds of CO2 Into the Atmosphere

And other fun ways to conceptualize our record-breaking year of pollution-spewing.

by Brian Merchant
Dec 3 2012, 4:30pm

... And Other Fun Ways to Conceptualize Our Record-Breaking Year of Pollution-Spewing

Over the weekend, scientists from the Global Carbon Project released a report that showed global greenhouse gas emissions grew 3% in 2011. That was enough to shatter the previous global record. Again. And that's the thing about following along with the whole sordid global climate change saga; you keep on seeing this sentence, or depressing iterations of it:

"Global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in ____ and are likely to take a similar jump in ____, scientists reported Sunday — the latest indication that efforts to limit such emissions are failing."

Now that specific quote is from the weekend edition of the New York Times, and the years in question are 2011, and 2012, respectively. But the way things are going, on our current emissions trajectory, we might as well save that graf and republish it once a year going forward.  Because the story about our emissions habits is barely changing–we're perpetually emitting more and more planet-warming gases than we were before, with no end in sight.

And the problem is, telling this story over and over moves no one—it's a tidbit, an 'oh, shit,' a mildly depressing but mostly unmoving anecdote. So how about we reframe this thing, come at it from another angle or three? With the same data, let's grab three bite-sized brain-blowers that might have more staying power than "Carbon Dioxide Emissions Hit Record High. Again." Again and again and again.

Like:

1. Last year, the world pumped 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

That's a billion pounds more than 2010. That's what 'new record emissions' actually looks like. Imagine it, for a second. 38.6 billion pounds. Imagine 38.6 billon pounds of anything. You can't. It's pretty much incomprehensible, and that's what we added to the atmosphere last year alone.

2. The world is now spewing out 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide every second.

That's right, every second. By the time you're done reading this sentence, that's another 10 million pounds of CO2 or so trapped up in the atmosphere, wrapping round us and humming like a haywire electric blanket we can't turn off. 

3. Scientists are pretty sure there's no way we're going to keep warming below 3.6 degrees F this century. 

It's right there in the report. And imagine that. A world that's perpetually 4 degrees warmer. That we can feel; our skin knows the difference between 51 and 55, 86 and 90. Because we're spewing out CO2 at this rate, and because global climate negotiations are worthless, bloated affairs that haven't resulted in any serious progress in over 10 years. Because the various nation-states that send representatives can't agree on anything except that they shouldn't have to stop burning fossil fuels. It's the deepest and perhaps most historic stalemate, year after year.

Sure, we tinker. Emissions are slowly falling in the U.S., because cleaner-burning natural gas is now cheaper than coal, and we're replacing our power plants accordingly. But we're shipping that excess coal over to Asia, where they're burning more of the stuff than ever, and the net emissions tick ever-upward.

So maybe these additional bullet points can help contextualize the new 'record' some. Because it's pretty much impossible to actually conceptualize the net impact of industrial society on our atmosphere; especially when CO2 is an invisible and pervasive and mundane gas. It's an elusive image, one that's too distorted and wide in scope for easy and thorough comprehension. Regardless, we're still breaking the records—whether or not we can picture what they look like or not.