If you’re worried about climate change and recent weather events like cyclonic snowstorms in the Midwest, hurricanes, droughts and such everywhere in the world, then you’re not alone. Recently, the National Weather Service, using data from core samples and fossilized plants, traced the levels of carbon dioxide (the most common greenhouse gas) in the Earth’s atmosphere going back almost one million years. They found, as you might expect, significant fluctuation during that time period, from the warm interglacial period 700,000 years ago to the ice ages of 650,000 years ago, and the peaks and valleys never fell below around 160 parts per million or above 300 parts per million.
Until recently. In the past few years, the total carbon dioxide levels blew past the 300 level and now stand at an unprecedented 405 parts per million, putting global climate in uncharted territory. Nobody knows for sure what effect this will have; only that it will change the world’s climate dramatically. There are some obvious predictions—higher average temperatures, rising sea levels flooding the coasts, more severe weather events—but how this will impact any particular place on Earth at any given time is hard even to speculate on. All we know is that the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide was this high, more than three million years ago, the sea levels were 50-80 feet higher than they are today.
An interesting question is: which country is contributing most to the rise in carbon dioxide emissions? You probably know the answer, but the Our World in Data researchers recent mapped out per capita carbon dioxide emissions for different countries and continents, going back to the Industrial Revolution.
Early in the era of steam engines and industrialization, the United Kingdom was the clear leader, but it was overtaken by the U.S. around 1900, and America has been the leader ever since. Interestingly, the emission level has been decreasing since the start of the century in the U.S., Europe, and the UK, but is still rising in Japan, China, and India. However, when compared with the pristine air before the 1750s, when it is said that you could see the planet Venus in the sky during the daytime, our total contribution to the atmosphere today is still alarmingly high, and the graph will be charting even more unprecedented levels and global scientists will be looking at even more impacts in the future.