Are Carbon Dioxide Levels Turning Earth into Krypton?

Superman and the moon

Carbon dioxide levels on Earth have reached an all-time high. Are we making a new planet? Can we live on it?

Sitting in a packed theater on opening weekend of “Man of Steel,” I couldn’t help notice the similarities between Earth and Krypton, Superman’s home planet (I won’t ruin the movie for you, I promise. The 40 unnecessary minutes of excessive violence will do that for you). Dissension, manipulation of resources, and Krypton’s caste system on par with our economic apartheid, mirror some of Earth’s biggest crises of late. No doubt the parallels weren’t coincidental.

Krypton is clearly in trouble, facing a fate that can’t be avoided, as we know from previous Superman films (or comics, if you have the time for that sort of reading). A highly advanced culture couldn’t figure out how to harness unlimited energy from its star, and, well, poor Kal-El was sent off into the universe orphaned by the devolving stubbornness of his people.

If only we could set a course for another, more hospitable planet.

But we can’t. And we’re not doing this one any favors lately, either, reports Business Insider: “[C]arbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached a major milestone: a daily average above 400 parts per million. The new high — the highest in human history — was recorded at two separate stations — one in Hawaii and the other in San Diego, California.” That’s a 22 point increase in ten years. And nearly a 200 point jump in the last 200 years, since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Since then, carbon dioxide levels have increased steadily, about two parts per million every year. The website says the “safe level” for carbon dioxide in the air is 350 parts per million.

If you’re not sure what the big deal is, expert Bob Ward of the London School of Economics and Political Science said it’s creating a “prehistoric” climate situation, in which “human societies will face huge and potentially catastrophic risks.”

According to the EPA, carbon dioxide accounted for 84 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. While naturally present in the environment, the majority of “problem” carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil). It traps heat, which is actually a good thing in small doses (it makes the planet, and particularly Los Angeles, pretty hospitable), but in these unprecedented levels, it contributes to global warming, impacting all life on the planet.

The continual rise in CO2 levels could lead to more melting of ice sheets and higher levels of methane gas from permafrost melt. Climate scientist Michael Mann told the Huffington Post that these types of CO2 levels haven’t been sustained in more than 10 million years (during the Miocene period). And while we may not care if a few species here or there die off (we lose about 0.1 percent of all species per year), many of them impact our own species as well. You see, all life is connected. And when we start killing off any one of us Earthlings, we inevitably create problems for all the rest of us, too.

We’re already seeing the consequences of greenhouse gases (despite what conservatives tell you). Like Krypton, we’re also becoming keenly aware of the issues we’ve created with digging too deep into the planet for energy. And, sadly, while the chances of a (really, really hot) superhero coming to save our planet are pretty slim, we could sure use some superstrength right now in helping us evolve out of our dependence on industry and mined energy. In that respect, we can all don our capes and adjust our energy consumption, seeing fossil fuels as the villains they truly are.

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Image: hiperterminal

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.