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The lignite-fired power station of Boxberg is pictured at night on April 28, 2018 in Klitten, Germany. Photo: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air exceeded 411 parts per million during the month of May, which was the highest monthly level ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Why it matters: Based on studies of historical levels of greenhouse gases in the air, this is also the highest level in human history.

The big picture: Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the most important long-lived greenhouse gas, and human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels for energy, are adding more of it with each passing day. Scripps and NOAA monitor CO2 levels at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii as well as other locations.

  • This year, the May average peaked at 411.31 ppm, according to Scripps researchers, the organization reported in a press release. NOAA’s reading was 411.25 for the month, according to a press release.

In addition, the growth rate of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, NOAA data shows.

  • The rate of growth averaged about 1.6 ppm per year in the 1980s, and 1.5 ppm per year in the 1990s, but it has climbed to 2.3 ppm between 2016 and 2017.
  • This was the sixth straight year-to-year increase above 2 ppm, scientists said.

“Many of us had hoped to see the rise of CO2 slowing by now, but sadly that isn't the case,” said Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps CO2 Program. Keeling's father, Charles, first began taking measurements of CO2 on Mauna Loa in 1958, and the now-iconic Keeling Curve shows the inexorable rise in CO2 amounts since.

“CO2 levels are continuing to grow at an all-time record rate because emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas are also at record high levels,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, in the press release.

Be smart: Climate scientists are particularly focused on carbon dioxide levels because each molecule of this gas can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, heating the air and sea for generations to come.

"Today's emissions will still be trapping heat in the atmosphere thousands of years from now."
— Pieter Tans, NOAA researcher

The uptick in CO2 cannot be blamed on the Kilauea volcano, which is erupting about 20 miles away. Volcanic gases, which are dominated by non-CO2 gases, are observed and removed from the analysis before figures are reported.

Why you'll hear about this again: “If the current rate of increase holds steady for another two decades, global CO2 will likely be well past 450 ppm in 2038,” Tans said.

  • To put that into perspective, at the start of the industrial revolution, and for most of human history, CO2 levels were stable at about 280 ppm.

Go deeper: A fork in the road for U.S. power

Go deeper

23 mins ago - World

Biden freezes U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official tells Axios.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Podcasts

Robert Downey Jr. launches VC funds to help save the planet

Robert Downey Jr. on Wednesday announced the launch of two venture capital funds focused on startups in the sustainability sector, the latest evolution of a project he launched two years ago called Footprint Collective.

Between the lines: This is a bit of life imitating art, as Downey Jr. spent 11 films portraying a character who sought to save the planet (or, in some cases, the universe).

DHS warns of "heightened threat" because of domestic extremism

Supporters of former President Trump protest inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday issued an advisory warning of a "heightened threat environment" in the U.S. because of "ideologically-motivated violent extremists."

Why it matters: DHS believes the threat of violence will persist for "weeks" following President Biden's inauguration. The extremists include those who opposed the presidential transition, people spurred by "grievances fueled by false narratives" and "anger over COVID-19 restrictions ... and police use of force[.]"