This past Thursday the Scripps Institute confirmed that monthly levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have surpassed 400 parts per million, not only for the first time in human history, but for possibly in more than a million years. Annual measurements taken since 1958 show that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by about 40 percent since humans began burning fossil fuels more than two centuries ago, and that there've been more greenhouse emissions in just the last forty years than the previous two hundred. Interviewed in Slate, Ralph Keeling of Scripps explains the significance of 400 ppm: "People like round numbers. When you hit a milestone you realize how far you've come. It's a little bit surreal. You think, 'Whoa, OK, not quite used to this one yet.' It's like having a round number birthday. It takes a while to identify with the new era you're in."

Yes, round numbers have clarifying effects, and I think Keeling's birthday analogy sits interestingly alongside something Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga said in his remarks opening the Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility conference now underway at the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of the Sciences: "[M]an finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child." For all the scientific and mathematical complexities we can comprehend, obvious milestones still seem necessary for us to think about things, well, more thoughtfully.

"The power of men over the means to their goals is incontestable," the cardinal continues,

both in terms of technological capabilities and with respect to the potentialities of scientific knowledge. However, this prowess is displayed in a difficult context where the goals may get fuzzy. The capacity of the 'how' collides with the lack of clarity of the 'for what,' as not everything that is possible is necessarily convenient for man. 

The purpose of the Vatican gathering isn't to focus specifically on climate change, but "to view Humanity’s interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs – Food, Health, and Energy – and ... to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature’s ability to meet them.” Thus global economic inequality – not to mention unequal exposure to the effects of, and burdens imposed by, environmental degradation – are also big parts of the discussion. As reported by Dan Misleh at Catholic Climate Convenant, participants have talked about "the extraction of non-renewable resources often by distant corporations unwilling to recognize the impacts on low-income people," and have called for corporations to be reigned in while eliminating tax havens abetted "by governments like the United States, Great Britain and a few others." There was also this other passage from Cardinal Maradiaga's presentation:

In the face of the all-too-evident destruction of Nature, the current capitalist system cannot, on account of its very essence, attain sustainable development, as it engenders and feeds on inequity and social injustice, and is based on the unbridled and predatory use of natural resources, the anarchic production of goods and the encouragement of consumption with the goal of obtaining and concentrating profit.

Those words also have a clarifying quality, and with the conference continuing through Tuesday, maybe we'll hear more like them – thoughtful, inspiring, and impassioned language to consider alongside the hard round numbers of milestones. Or, to paraphrase yet another passage from the cardinal's remarks: Maybe our "'software - i.e., our ideas and values" can begin to catch up with our "'hardware,' which has focused for centuries on maximum growth and productivity."

(Andrew Revkin at the New York Times and Dan Misleh are blogging daily from the conference.)

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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