EGEE 102
Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection

CO2 and Temperature Fluctuations


Unanswered Question

We have seen that there have been fluctuations in both temperature and CO2 emissions in the past 400,000 years. This leads to an important question:

  • Did the atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperatures change prior to the pre-industrial period or only after it?

Or more specifically:

  • If we attribute the mean global temperature increase of 1ºF over the past century to human activities, how do we explain the mean global temperature fluctuations between +4ºF to -17ºF that occurred thousands of years ago, when there was no human activity?

Possible Answer

Some argue that temperature change is natural and cyclical. Thus, since it is cyclical, we, the humans, might not be influencing the current change in the climate.

The most important difference between now and then that we have to keep in mind is the human species. More than six billion people live on this planet now, who were not there during those earlier natural temperature cycles, and any chances that jeopardize the existence of this humankind must be taken seriously. The reasons for concern are discussed next.

More than 6 billion people live on this planet now who were not here during the earlier natural temperature cycles, and any chances that jeopardize the existence (land and food supply) of this humankind must be taken seriously.

The significant temperature fluctuations shown in the earlier graph of the ice core samples led to the glacial and inter-glacial ice ages. The temperature increase over the last 150 years, however, is not significant compared to the changes in the past known history. Let’s take a closer examination of the CO2 profile.

From the graph above, we know that CO2 concentration did not rise above 310 ppmv at any time from 400,000 years ago to the year 1950, even though the temperatures continued to increase. Based on this information, we can conclude that this increase is something that the atmosphere did not experience earlier, which means that the increase is the result of human activity.

Now let’s look at how CO2 concentration and temperature have changed in the last 50 years, since 1960.

Graph showing temperature changes from the 20th century average superimposed on CO2 concentration (ppm) 1960-2008. The data shows a positive correlation  between variables with an increasing trend.
CO2 concentration versus temperature change graph.
Click to expand to provide more information

The table below represents the temperature changes from the 20th century average and the C02 concentration (ppm) since 1960. When the information is plotted on the same graph, it shows a strong positive correlation.

CO2 and Temperature Changes from 1960-2008
Year 1960 1964 1968 1972 1976 1980 1984 1988 1992 1996 2000 2004 2008
CO2 (Parts Per Million) 318 320 322 326 332 338 345 350 355 359 368 375 383
Temperature Changes From 2oth Century Average 0.05 -0.1 0.02 0.05 -0.08 0.25 0.13 0.3 0.25 0.3 0.44 0.57 0.5

Based on your observations of the above graph, reflect on the questions discussed below:

  1. In the past, 310 ppm of CO2 increased the temperature by about 4 degrees F, so how do you think the current CO2 concentration of 370 ppm is impacting the temperature?
  2. How long will it take for the temperature to come to a level that corresponds to the CO2 concentration of 370 ppm? Or are we already there?
  3. What will the consequences be if the concentration of CO2 increases to 550 ppm (double the pre-industrial concentration), or even to 70 ppm (both of which are proposed to be likely scenarios with the increased fossil fuel consumption?)

You may want to post your opinion on the message board.

If the temperature already reached the maximum temperature corresponding to 370 ppm, then some other factors are cooling the planet that were absent in the previous cycles.

Now, let’s examine the reasons or causes for the natural fluctuations.