While McCain and Obama chase the dream of "clean coal," carbon piles up in the atmosphere at a dangerous rate

The latest news on the climate front is alarming: According to an annual report released this week by the Australia-based Global Carbon Project, carbon emitted worldwide in 2007 from burning fossil fuels and producing cement increased 2.9 percent over the previous year, to a total of 8.47 billion metric tons. That brings the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to 383 parts per million -- significantly more than the 350 ppm considered the "safe line" for the climate.

This growth in atmospheric carbon concentration exceeds even the most dramatic scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- and could result in a global temperature rise of more than 11 degrees F. by the end of this century.

The IPCC has already warned that an increase of 9.7 degrees F. would set off drastic environmental changes by melting the Greenland ice sheet, Himalayan glaciers and summer sea ice in the Arctic. A rise of 11 degrees would be devastating for coastal communities and other flood-prone areas around the world, including the U.S. Southeast and Gulf Coast.

One place particularly vulnerable to rising seas is North Carolina, with its long and vulnerable coastline. A recent study (pdf) by the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research found that the state is at risk of losing billions of dollars in coastal real estate values, tourism, and crops if climate change is not halted. CIER has released similar reports for other states including Georgia (pdf) and Tennessee (pdf).

Commenting on the GCP findings to the Washington Post, James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, blamed the unforeseen rise in atmospheric carbon on increasing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries. But it's not as if the developed nations are blameless: The U.S. expects its own fossil-fuel consumption to continue to grow, while other industrial powers that unlike the U.S. have signed the Kyoto agreement to cut greenhouse gases have fallen short of their goals.

Meanwhile, both leading U.S. presidential candidates -- Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- are pushing for the development of so-called "clean coal" technologies to capture carbon from burning coal. Speaking earlier this month in the Virginia coal mining community of Lebanon, Obama urged the development of carbon capture, saying:

I believe in global warming. It is true that the planet's getting warmer, and we have to deal with it. But this is America -- we figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years.

American can-do spirit aside, a decade represents a highly ambitious goal. The Electric Power Research Institute has anticipated carbon capture technology could be in place by 2020, while the World Business Council on Sustainable Development has estimated commercial implementation could take as long as 20 years.

And unfortunately, given the shockingly rapid accumulation of carbon we're already witnessing, we might not have a decade to wait before we're faced with a climate gone haywire.