The possibility that rising levels of carbon dioxide could alter the Earth’s temperature balance has been known for more than a century, but it wasn’t until 1987 and the release of a major United Nations report on sustainable development, “Our Common Future”, that global warming was identified as one of the most serious challenges facing humanity.

This explainer on CO2 and the greenhouse effect was produced by ABC TV’s Quantum program the following year. It’s interesting to watch it again today, because even then, people had begun to suspect that something unusual was happening to the world’s climate. Some of the questions posed in the story still seem very familiar.

How much of the changes to the climate are due to natural variation and how much are to do with human activities?

In 1992 an international treaty was drawn up with the goal to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous effects on the world’s climate systems. The 196 parties who signed it have since meet regularly to assess progress.

The goal now is not to prevent global warming, but to limit it to less than 2 degrees Centigrade. According to the OECD, in order to have a 50 per cent probability of reaching that goal, CO2 levels need to be limited to no more than 450 parts per million.

When this video explainer was made 26 years ago, CO2 levels were 351 parts per million. Today the level is just over 400 parts per million.

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