If scientists are right about the connection between carbon dioxide and climate change, then what comes next? The past is all very interesting, but it's history. What the future holds concerns all of humanity — and the predictions that scientists have for the future are alarming.
As the ice cores demonstrate, carbon dioxide levels have always fluctuated (check out "Making the Case for Carbon" earlier in the chapter for more information), but the atmosphere now has 35 percent more carbon dioxide than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Historically, carbon dioxide has reached highs of 280 parts per million (ppm) at a maximum. The atmosphere is now at 385 ppm.
Why scientists compare temperatures to the year 1850
The international scientific community uses the temperatures at the time just before the Industrial Revolution (1850) as a baseline. They do so because human contributions to climate change were not significant before that time.
By measuring the build-up of greenhouse gases and temperatures compared to what they were before the Industrial Revolution, they're measuring the impact that is largely attributable to human activity.
This increase in carbon dioxide is an extraordinary shift. If present trends continue, the Earth's average temperature is likely to increase by 3.6 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 6 degrees Celsius) above 1850 temperatures — and that temperature increase could be disastrous for all life on Earth. The Earth's temperature has already risen approximately 1.4 degrees F (0.8 degrees C).
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