A fateful milestone for our planet was recorded recently: The proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now reached 400 parts per million.
"The last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago," states the New York Times. "Billions of people are in harm's way."
As climate activists like Bill McKibben argue, such a level of CO2 in the atmosphere is quite certainly setting us on a path of irreversible climate change -- with catastrophic consequences for all of us. (Indeed, McKibben's organization is named 350.org for the acceptable upper limit of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.)
The new "number is a reminder that ... we are altering the composition of our atmosphere at an unprecedented rate," writes Al Gore at Huffington Post. "Indeed, every single day we pour an additional 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the sky as if it were an open sewer."
And we are living in a society that is the biggest culprit in this mess.
"China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level," reports the New York Times.
Or, as Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told me: "The problem has been caused not by today's emissions or the last twenty-five years of emissions; it's been caused by cumulative emissions beginning with industrialization. The role of the industrial countries is paramount in having contributed to human-induced climate change."
But the approach of the industrialized nations, led by the United States, has been to evade responsibility. The latest round of climate change talks in Qatar ended in December on a disappointing note, with the Western promise of compensatory funding for poorer nations lacking teeth, in large part due to American intransigence.
"U.S. negotiators made certain that neither the word 'compensation,' nor any other term connoting legal liability, was used, to avoid opening the floodgates to litigation," The Guardian reported.
Since his election, President Obama has rhetorically taken a stronger stance on global warming, warning during his second Inaugural Address that failure to engage in swift action "would betray our children and future generations." Activists have held massive rallies to make sure that he does the right thing, by nixing the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance. (Jason Mark's cover story in the April issue of The Progressive chronicles their efforts.)
"With the Arctic melted and the Midwest parched, it's pretty clear we're not going to solve the crisis one twisty lightbulb at a time," McKibben writes in the winter issue of The Progressive. "Of course one should do that work -- but the real work is political and structural. If we can't beat the rogue fossil fuel industry, which is bent on warping our democracy so it can alter our atmosphere, then we have no chance."
In these efforts lies our only hope.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of the recent book "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).