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It looks, at first glance, like a doodle, a zig-zag pattern squiggled absent-mindedly on a notepad during an uninspiring meeting. In fact, it has been called one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century and its emergence in the 1950s offered one of the first key readings of the health of planet Earth.
The seemingly innocuous squiggle of the Keeling Curve is actually a meticulous record of the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the result of daily readings that have continued almost uninterrupted for more than 60 years. Its importance lies in the fact that, over those six decades, the zig-zag has trended steadily upward.
Science historian Spencer Weart describes the Keeling Curve as “the central icon of the greenhouse effect.” It was, he writes in his book, The Discovery of Global Warming, “not quite the discovery of global warming. It was the discovery of the possibility of global warming.”
READ MORE: Climate Change History
WATCH: How the Earth Was Made on HISTORY Vault.
Its origins can be traced to a campsite in Big Sur, California. In 1953, Charles David Keeling was a young postgraduate geochemist embarking on a study to compare the relative abundances of carbon dioxide in water and air. To do that, he first had to measure the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, which, to that point, nobody had done to any great precision. And because nobody had done it, there was no off-the-shelf equipment readily available to do so. So, Keeling made his own instrument, working from instructions for a prototype he found in a 1916 journal article, and he undertook the day’s drive to Big Sur. Unsure whether the CO2 even in pristine air next to the Paciﬁc Ocean would be constant, he decided to take air samples every few hours over a full day and night, a meticulousness that would characterize his career.
“He lived by a kind of moral code that looked at there being a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the right way was always the thorough way,” explains Ralph Keeling, his son and the Director of the Scripps CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Rising CO2 Levels Point to Global Warming
Keeling soon determined that the level of atmospheric CO2 was approximately 310 parts per million (ppm)—that is, for every million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 310 of them were carbon dioxide. That figure remained the same whether he was at his campsite in Big Sur, in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest or the mountain deserts of Arizona. At the time, this was considered primarily an answer to a question that not too many people were asking, but his efforts would soon assume greater significance.
The young geochemist's work attracted the attention of other scientists, and in 1957, Roger Revelle, the head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, approached Keeling with a plan to measure CO2 concentrations from a series of locations around the world. Revelle’s initial idea was to conduct a “snapshot” of CO2 levels and then to come back and do it again in, say, a decade. But Keeling insisted on a more thorough approach: taking measurements not once a decade but daily.
“Keeling’s a peculiar guy,” Revelle later said. “He wants to measure CO2 in his belly. And he wants to do it with the greatest precision and the greatest accuracy that he can.”
The U.S. Weather Bureau had recently built an observation station in the clear air atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, and its Director of Meteorological Research, Henry Wexler, proposed it as the perfect spot from which daily measurements could be made. In the end, Keeling would conduct two projects in parallel: he would work out of Scripps and lead Revelle’s global effort, while simultaneously running daily monitoring at Mauna Loa under the direction of Wexler.
Data Captures Earth 'Breathing'
The first Mauna Loa measurement, in March 1958, produced a reading of 313 ppm. But, to Keeling’s surprise, the following month it increased by 1 ppm, and increased again in May, before declining steadily until October, at which point it rose again. The same thing happened in the first full year of measurement, in 1959. The reason? There is far greater land mass, and thus much more vegetation, in the northern hemisphere than the southern. And so, as the trees above the equator grew their leaves in spring and summer, they drew carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the level increasing anew with the return of northern fall and winter. The Keeling Curve had, in effect, captured Planet Earth “breathing.”
But there was more to come. Although the seasonal variation created a zig-zag, it soon became clear that the zig zag was trending upward. Year-on-year, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing.
Several 19-century scientists had established that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet—creating a “greenhouse effect.” The greenhouse effect is essential for life on Earth; without it, Earth would be a frigid, barren place. But those same scientists speculated that burning fossil fuels such as coal (which contain carbon from ancient plants) might increase CO2 levels and cause global temperatures to increase. Such concerns had, however, largely remained hypothetical. But now Keeling’s work established that the first part of that theoretical equation—an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—was real.
The clear and vivid illustration provided by the Keeling Curve spurred other researchers to begin looking at the possible impacts. By 1967, a team led by Syukuro Manabe of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had devised the first comprehensive model of the response of climate to an increase in atmospheric CO2 extrapolated from the Keeling Curve. It predicted that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause an increase in global temperature of around 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I do have the impression that Manabe was motivated to jump in on this because of the evidence from my father that CO2 levels were actually changing,” says Ralph Keeling. “My father was shaping the agenda in a way that influenced people. I know that there were researchers, perhaps half a generation older than me, who were attracted to the field because they saw this curve.”
Further studies and modeling over the years refined the predictions and confirmed the underlying theses. By drilling deep into polar ice sheets and examining tiny pockets of air that had been trapped hundreds and even thousands of years ago, scientists were even able to measure CO2 levels from far before Keeling. By the time the Mauna Loa measurements began, those levels had already increased by almost 12 percent since preindustrial times, and they have continued to grow. By 2016, the annual low was above 400 ppm for the first time in several million years.
Keeling Curve Followed by the 'Hockey Stick'
The Keeling Curve has since been joined by another iconic climate graph: the so-called “hockey stick,” first published by Michael Mann of Penn State University and colleagues in 1998, which presents relatively stable global temperatures from the year AD 1000 and a sharp spike upward during the 20 century that closely tracks the Mauna Loa measurements.
“Like the ‘Hockey Stick’ curve that my co-authors and I published two decades ago, the Keeling Curve is truly iconic because it tells a simple story,” Mann says. “You don’t need to understand the complexities of climate science to understand what either of these curves tell us: that human activity is having a profound impact on Earth’s environment.”
As humanity grapples with how to respond to the changes on Earth’s environment, the curve continues to tick upward.
“He was cognizant that the curve would be looked at and scrutinized into the future,” says Ralph Keeling of his father, who died in 2005. “And the curve is almost like an oracle speaking. It’s the oracle on the mountain.”
The Keeling Curve is a graph of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere based on continuous measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii from 1958 to the present day. The curve is named for the scientist Charles David Keeling, who started the monitoring program and supervised it until his death in 2005.
Keeling's measurements showed the first significant evidence of rapidly increasing carbon dioxide ( CO
2 ) levels in the atmosphere.  According to Dr Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, the Keeling curve is one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century.  Many scientists credit the Keeling curve with first bringing the world's attention to the current increase of CO
2 in the atmosphere. 
This graph illustrates the change in global surface temperature relative to 1951-1980 average temperatures, with the year 2020 tying with 2016 for warmest on record (Source: NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Learn more about global surface temperature here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth&rsquos climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth&rsquos atmosphere. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human- and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. It is most commonly measured as the average increase in Earth&rsquos global surface temperature.
Since the pre-industrial period, human activities are estimated to have increased Earth&rsquos global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a number that is currently increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade. Most of the current warming trend is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) the result of human activity since the 1950s and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate over decades to millennia.
Landmark Lesson Plan: Climate Change & the Keeling Curve
The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school chemistry lesson planning, but they apply to all science subjects. Some middle school teachers may also find the lesson outline helpful. The lesson plan will help students recognize how scientists came to understand global warming using evidence collected over decades.
The lesson plan is designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or his/her substitute to supplement a unit of study. Students will practice critical reading and writing skills as they develop a deeper understanding of how scientists found evidence for climate change. The final activity in particular integrates writing as students are asked to explain our current understanding of climate change and relate what they have learned to their lives.
- Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
- Handout: “Climate Change & the Keeling Curve”
- Student activities: Include the five activities described below.
While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.
Timeline: How the world discovered global warming
(Reuters) - U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, from November 28-December 9 are aimed at agreeing new measures to stem rising emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Following is a look at how the world discovered global warming and international steps to try to address it:
300 BC - Theophrastus, a student of Greek philosopher Aristotle, documents that human activity can affect climate. He observes that drainage of marshes cools an area around Thessaly and that clearing of forests near Philippi warms the climate.
17th century - Flemish scientist Jan Baptista van Helmont discovers that carbon dioxide is given off by burning charcoal.
18th century - The Industrial Revolution starts, bringing rising use of fossil fuels.
1820s - French mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier suggests something in the atmosphere is keeping the world warmer than it would otherwise be, a hint at the greenhouse effect.
1830s - Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz presents evidence of past changes in Alpine glaciers, pointing to ancient Ice Ages and showing that the climate has not always been stable.
1860s - Irish scientist John Tyndall shows that molecules of gases such as water vapour and carbon dioxide trap heat. He wrote that changes “could have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal.”
1896 - Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius becomes the first to quantify carbon dioxide’s role in keeping the planet warm. He later concluded that burning of coal could cause a “noticeable increase” in carbon levels over centuries.
1950s - U.S. scientist Charles Keeling sets up stations to measure carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at the South Pole and at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The measurements have shown a steady rise.
1965 - U.S. President Lyndon Johnson tells Congress: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
1988 - British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tells the United Nations: “The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay.”
1988 - The United Nations sets up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the scientific evidence.
1992 - World leaders agree the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets a non-binding goal of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions by 2000 at 1990 levels, a target not met overall.
1995 - The IPCC concludes for the first time that humans are causing global warming, saying: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
1997 - The Kyoto Protocol is agreed in Japan developed nations agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions on average by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. The United States stays out of the deal.
2001 - The IPCC concludes it is “likely,” or at least 66 percent probable, that human activities are the main cause of recent warming.
2001 - President George W. Bush notes the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says greenhouse gases are rising “in large part due to human activity.” He adds: “Yet, the Academy’s report tells us that we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming. We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future.”
2007 - The IPCC says it is “very likely,” at least 90 percent certain, that humans are to blame for most of the observed warming trend of the past 50 years. It also said warming of the planet was “unequivocal.”
2009 - A conference of 193 countries agree in December to “take note” of a new Copenhagen Accord to fight climate change, after U.N. talks in Denmark. The accord is not legally binding and does not commit countries to agree a binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol when its first stage ends in 2012. The conference did recognize “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius” and “deep cuts in global emissions are required.”
2010 - A deal among 190 nations to slow climate change throws a lifeline to U.N.-led talks.
2011 - More than 190 nations meet in Durban, South Africa, to try to agree what to do after the first stage of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and on a Green Climate Fund to channel billions of dollars to poorer nations to green their economies and help them protect against the effects of climate change.
(Sources: Reuters/Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Why We Disagree about Climate Change” -- book by Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Center, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Svante Arrhenius writings)
Writing by Alister Doyle, David Fogarty and David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit
Iconic Keeling Curve Designated a Landmark
Landmarks are generally thought of as tangible, physical things, usually involving plaques and lots of marble. But a newly named landmark recognizes something more amorphous: the steady rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that envelops the planet and that is steadily heating the globe.
The American Chemical Society has named the graph that charts that rise &mdash called the Keeling Curve, so named after the scientist who began the CO2 measurements &mdash as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.
&ldquoThe Keeling Curve is an icon of modern climate science,&rdquo Thomas J. Barton, the most recent past president of the ACS, said in a statement. The recognition that CO2 levels were building in the atmosphere thanks to human activities underpins the science of global warming.
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Carbon Dioxide Passes Global 400 ppm Milestone
May CO2 Peak Shows Trend Is Up, Up, Up
Before Charles Keeling began his measurements atop Hawaii&rsquos Mauna Loa volcano in 1958, accurate, continuous measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere had proved difficult to get. But Keeling&rsquos measurements elegantly revealed both the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2 &mdash driven by the collective exhale and inhale of Northern Hemisphere plants &mdash as well as a steady year-after-year rise.
Keeling&rsquos program continues today, run by his son, Ralph Keeling. Since the measurements began, CO2 levels have risen from about 310 parts per million to 400 ppm (preindustrial levels were about 280 ppm). That benchmark was first reached in May 2013, and each year since the 400 ppm mark has been passed earlier and earlier in the year, and CO2 levels have stayed over that mark for longer and longer. It will likely be only a couple year until CO2 levels are permanently above 400 ppm.
The amount that carbon dioxide levels have risen since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has caused Earth&rsquos average temperature to rise by 1.6°F since the beginning of the 20th century. That temperature rise could nearly double by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions aren&rsquot curbed, according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
&ldquoThe Mauna Loa CO2 record changed how we view the world,&rdquo Ralph Keeling said in a statement. &ldquoIt proved for the first time that humans were altering the composition of air globally, and it thereby legitimized the concern over human-caused climate change.&rdquo
The importance of the Keeling Curve is now recognized with, yes, a plaque, placed at the site of Keeling&rsquos lab on the San Diego campus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
The Keeling Curve: Carbon Dioxide Measurements at Mauna Loa
Dedicated at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Mauna Loa Observatory on April 30, 2015, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, on June 12, 2015.
Charles David Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography was the leading authority in establishing the global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) record. In 1958, Keeling began measuring atmospheric CO2 concentrations from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory. Using rigorous analytical procedures, he revealed new information about natural and man-caused carbon trends. The precision, accuracy and continuity of Keeling’s research over the span of decades provided one of the most important scientific linkages between fossil fuel combustion and global climate change due to the greenhouse effect.
Keeling’s legacy includes a measurement program that endures to this day, providing an authoritative record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that is a cornerstone of modern climate science. The Keeling Curve, the iconic graph that presents these data, is a powerful symbol of the human impact on the environment and the role of fossil fuels in global climate change.
Early theories and research on greenhouse gases and climate change
The concept of the greenhouse effect was first proposed in the 1820s by the French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier (1768–1830). Fourier’s calculations showed that the Earth should be much cooler than it is, given the amount of energy it receives from the sun. One explanation he proposed was that the Earth’s atmosphere might provide an insulating effect, retaining some of the heat that would otherwise be reemitted into space. Fourier’s proposal is considered the earliest hypothesis tied to the greenhouse effect.
For the next century and a half, scientists debated the connection between the composition of the atmosphere, greenhouse gas emissions (including CO2), and Earth’s temperatures. While some believed that the rapid emission of CO2 resulting from fossil fuel combustion tied to industrialization could eventually lead to a small increase in global temperatures (Svante Arrhenius, 1859–1927, first proposed this connection in 1896), others argued that natural physical processes such as the absorption of CO2 by the oceans would easily negate any increases.
Attempts to measure atmospheric CO2 concentrations showed wide variations that were difficult to interpret. By the 1950s, what researchers needed was a precise, accurate and continuous measure of atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
At about this time Charles David Keeling (1928–2005), a postdoctoral fellow in the department of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), began a research project that coupled his academic background in chemistry with his interests in geosciences and the outdoors.
Keeling began taking air and water samples every few hours throughout the day and night at remote locations in the Western states. He returned with his samples to Caltech for analysis, using a specially constructed instrument to measure CO2 amounts. The instrument, called a gas manometer, controlled for temperature, pressure and volume, down to a precision of 0.1%. Keeling was surprised to see that CO2 concentrations increased at night and decreased during the day, with a nearly constant afternoon concentration of 310 parts per million (ppm), regardless of location. These results contrasted with earlier published research that estimated much greater variability—ranging from 150 to 350 ppm.
International Geophysical Year, 1957–1958
In 1956, the U.S. Weather Bureau (now a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) and other organizations in the United States and abroad were preparing research programs for the International Geophysical Year, a multinational scientific collaboration organized for the years 1957 and 1958. The Weather Bureau was planning to measure atmospheric CO2 at remote locations to establish a baseline of CO2 concentrations.
Keeling presented his findings to Harry Wexler (1911–1962), director of the Weather Bureau’s Division of Meteorological Research. Wexler was impressed by Keeling’s methods and offered him the job of leading the Weather Bureau’s proposed CO2 program. Shortly after, Keeling received an offer from Roger Revelle (1909–1991), director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to conduct his Weather Bureau research from the Scripps campus in La Jolla, California.
Keeling had proposed to both Wexler and Revelle that he could deploy a new analytical tool called an infrared gas analyzer to perform continuous measurements of CO2 in air samples. The analyzers, designed by the Applied Physics Corporation, would be calibrated using the manometric technique that Keeling had employed earlier in his career to obtain highly precise data. The Weather Bureau offered to support analyzers at locations in Hawaii and Antarctica, and a third aboard a research ship. Additional samples would be collected in glass flasks at remote locations and onboard research aircraft and returned to Scripps for analysis.
Keeling moved to La Jolla in August of 1956. He immediately began the difficult task of preparing the equipment and protocol and hiring staff needed to implement the CO2 program, which was scheduled to begin the following July.
The first analyzer was sent to the Little America station in Antarctica in late 1956, but equipment problems rendered it unusable until the following year. The first of the remote flask samples was collected at the South Pole in early 1957 and sent back to Scripps for analysis, providing the earliest data from the program. A second analyzer was prepared for installation aboard a Scripps research ship, set to launch in the fall of 1957. Sampling by U.S. Air Force aircraft was the next priority.
Establishing the Keeling Record at Mauna Loa
In March 1958, an analyzer was installed at the Weather Bureau’s Mauna Loa Observatory. The observatory is located on the remote north slope of the Mauna Loa volcano, one of several volcanoes on the Island of Hawaii (commonly known as the Big Island), and it is an ideal location for collecting pristine air far from human influences. Weather Bureau employees were responsible for the difficult work of obtaining measurements and maintaining the instrument, and they relayed data to Keeling in California for further analysis. The first reading from Mauna Loa, dated March 29, 1958, measured the atmospheric CO2 concentration at 313 ppm.
Daily averages were recorded until power failures interrupted the equipment between May and July. These data from the first three months showed a progressive increase in CO2 concentrations. When testing resumed in July, a decrease was registered. Additional equipment failures resulted in lapses in the records for September and October. By November, CO2 levels showed a new low, only to increase in the following months. In 1978, Keeling recalled, “I became anxious that the concentration was going to be hopelessly erratic.”
When a full year of measurements was completed in 1959, a pattern emerged that began to make sense. The appearance of seasonal oscillations of CO2, with peaks in May and lows in November, reflected the impact of vegetation cycles that prevail across the northern hemisphere: Plants take in CO2 during the growing period lasting from April through August in a process called photosynthesis, thus reducing atmospheric CO2 levels during these months. In the winter when plants lose their foliage, carbon stored within plant tissues and soils is released to the atmosphere, increasing CO2 concentrations.
Keeling reported his initial findings in the geophysics journal Tellus in 1960, describing the seasonal pattern of CO2 variations. The pattern, never before observed, is now known as Earth’s breathing cycle. Near the end of his report, Keeling pointed out that “[w]here data extend beyond one year, averages for the second year are higher than for the first year.” He went on to say that Antarctic data suggested that the increase could be associated with fossil fuel combustion. Although Keeling refrained at this time from drawing conclusions about the source of the increasing portion of CO2, it is clear that he recognized the role that CO2 measurements could play in understanding the linkage between fossil fuel emissions and atmospheric change.
Although Revelle intended that the CO2 measurements taken during the International Geophysical Year would obtain a baseline measurement, to be repeated again after a decade or longer for comparison, Keeling’s data offered results that led to the program becoming a long-term study. Given what Keeling and other scientists knew about the effect of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, there were strong reasons to continue the monitoring program, uninterrupted.
Climate Milestone: Earth's CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm
Today, greenhouse gasses in the Earth's atmosphere are at their highest since the Pliocene Era, when sea levels were higher and the Earth was warmer.
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On May 9, 2013, an instrument near the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii recorded a long-awaited climate milestone: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere there had exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 55 years of measurement&mdashand probably more than 3 million years of Earth history.
The last time the concentration of Earth's main greenhouse gas reached this mark, horses and camels lived in the high Arctic. Seas were at least 30 feet higher&mdashat a level that today would inundate major cities around the world.
The planet was about 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer. But the Earth then was in the final stage of a prolonged greenhouse epoch, and CO2 concentrations were on their way down. However, the May 2013 reading represented something different. This time, 400 ppm was a milepost on a far more rapid uphill climb toward an uncertain climate future.
Two independent teams of scientists measure CO2 on Mauna Loa: one from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the other from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The NOAA team was the first to post word on its web site: The daily average for May 9 was 400.03 ppm. The Scripps team later confirmed the milestone had been crossed.
The Scripps team was led by Ralph Keeling, son of the late Charles David Keeling, who started the Mauna Loa measurements in 1958. Since then the "Keeling curve," showing the steady climb in CO2 levels caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, has become an icon of climate change.
When the elder Keeling started at Mauna Loa, the CO2 level was at 315 ppm. When he died in June 2005, it was at 382. Why did he keep at it for 47 years, fighting off periodic efforts to cut his funding? His father, he once wrote, had passed onto him a "faith that the world could be made better by devotion to just causes." Now his son and the NOAA team have taken over a measurement that captures, more than any other single number, the extent to which we are changing the world.
Setting the Record Straight
The CO2 level had been hovering above 399 ppm since late April, 2013. The Scripps lab opened the vigil to the public by sending out daily tweets (under the handle @Keeling_curve) almost as soon as the data could be downloaded from Mauna Loa, at 5 a.m. Hawaii time. NOAA took to updating its website daily. The two labs' measurements typically agree within .2 ppm. Both measure the amount of CO2 in an air sample by measuring how much infrared radiation it absorbs&mdashthe same process by which CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat and warms the whole planet.
The measurement NOAA reported for Thursday, May 9, 400.03 ppm, was for a single day. Each data point on the Keeling curve, however, is actually an average of all the measurements made at Mauna Loa over an entire month. Just under a year later, April 2014 marked the first time the monthly average CO2 level was measured at 400 ppm at Mauna Loa. In 2016, an even more significant milestone was reached: the global annual minimum levels of CO2 in the atmosphere measured above 400 ppm.
To understand the significance of this milestone, it is necessary to understand that atmospheric CO2 levels are cyclical, with annual maximums and minimums. CO2 peaks in May every year. By June the levels begin falling, as spring kicks into high gear in the Northern Hemisphere, where most of the planet's land is concentrated, and plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to fuel their new growth. By November, the CO2 level is typically 5 or 6 ppm lower than its spring levels
Then the curve turns upward again: In the winter, plants stop making new carbohydrates but continue to burn the old, respiring CO2 back into the atmosphere.
This seasonal sawtooth&mdashthink of it as the breath of northern forests&mdashis the natural part of the Keeling curve. The man-made part is its steady upward climb from one year to the next. Both were discovered at Mauna Loa.
Dave Keeling, as he was known, chose the Hawaiian mountain for his measurements because, at over 11,000 feet and in the middle of the Pacific, it is far from forests or smokestacks that might put a local bias on the data. But even Mauna Loa is not perfectly representative of the whole planet.
NOAA also monitors CO2 at a global network of stations, and the global average consistently lags the Mauna Loa number by a few parts per million&mdashfor a simple reason.
"Mauna Loa is higher because most of the fossil fuel CO2 is emitted in the Northern Hemisphere," says NOAA scientist Pieter Tans. It takes about a year, he says, for northern pollution to spread through the Southern Hemisphere.
On the other hand, Mauna Loa lags the Arctic, where CO2 levels are higher. A year before the historic measurements were recorded at Mauna Loa, NOAA reported that the average of its Arctic measurements had exceeded 400 ppm for the entire month of May, not just for a single day.
The rest of the planet soon caught up with Mauna Loa&rsquos measurements. By 2015, the annual global average CO2 levels exceeded 400 ppm. What does passing this threshold mean?
Back to the Pliocene?
In a way, 400 ppm is an arbitrary milestone, like a .400 batting average in baseball. But the fact that no one has batted .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 still says something important about baseball. The same goes for CO2 in Earth's atmosphere.
The last time the concentration of CO2 was as high as 400 ppm was probably in the Pliocene Epoch, between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago. Until the 20th century, it certainly hadn't exceeded 300 ppm, let alone 400 ppm, for at least 800,000 years. That's how far back scientists have been able to measure CO2 directly in bubbles of ancient air trapped in Antarctic ice cores.
But tens of millions of years ago, CO2 must have been much higher than it is now&mdashthere's no other way to explain how warm the Earth was then. In the Eocene, some 50 million years ago, there were alligators and tapirs on Ellesmere Island, which lies off northern Greenland in the Canadian Arctic. They were living in swampy forests like those in the southeastern United States today. CO2 may have been anywhere from two to ten times higher in the Eocene than it is today.
On April 18, 2017, Mauna Loa observatory recorded a new record. For the first time, CO2 level were measured at over 410 ppm.
This graph visualizes data from the Scripps carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory.
Rob Monroe February 7, 2014 Daily Measurements
Question submitted to Scripps Oceanography science magazine explorations now by Ruben M., Watsonville, Calif. Great question Ruben! The surface temperature we experience every day is not expected to perfectly track CO2 because CO2 isn’t the only factor driving climate change. Still, it is quite an important factor, and the overall rise in temperature does roughly follow the overall rise in CO2. … Read More
Global Warming Is Crap!
This is unexpected because Steve trained as an environmental engineer at UC Davis.
But he’s serious. “There are 100,000 scientists out there who are saying it’s total crap too, but they get shunned, swept under the carpet because all this ‘global warming’ stuff is just money-making scare tactics. They prevent the opposing view from ever getting a fair hearing.”
Steve. What a contradiction. I thought he’d be a global-warming shoo-in, a great first interview on my mission to find out what green San Diegans are doing, post-Copenhagen, to save the world. To undo — uninvent — global warming. Because it turns out (who knew?) that San Diego invented global warming, or at least discovered a way of understanding it.Just over 50 years ago, in March 1958, Charles Keeling of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography set up camp on the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. His idea was to take daily measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to see if that number was increasing as a result of humanity’s use of fossil fuels.
And over the course of 50 years, the figures tell us it was. Keeling’s graph does one sexy curve up, up, and up. Each notch equals more CO2 in every molecule of air. The Keeling curve “marked a key moment in American science history,” says Scripps, commemorating the anniversary in an article on its website. It’s “become one of the iconic images of science, rivaling the double helix, or Darwin’s sketches of finches…. It turned speculations about increasing CO2 from theory into fact.”
So the question is: With all the urgent calls from Copenhagen, can San Diego help lead the world back from the brink? It turns out that our fair city bristles with experts and activists, from Keeling’s son Ralph, also a climate scientist at UCSD, to Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who discovered the “ABC” — atmospheric brown clouds — clouds loaded with industrial soot that cause a reduction in solar radiation at the ocean surface.
The problem is, all the UCSD/Scripps people involved with Copenhagen are apparently too busy to talk. Or, as in the case of Ralph Keeling, too apparently elitist. He didn’t think the Reader a newspaper worth speaking to (and we wonder why UCSD can’t shake its town/gown image problems).
Which started me thinking. We need people who are actually doing something, not just forever analyzing the problem. From the Maldives drowning, to the crows invading San Diego (until recently, their southernmost limit was Carlsbad), to some pretty wild fire seasons, there is plenty of evidence that it’s roll-up-your-sleeves time.
So here are a half-dozen San Diegans who decided not to wait for the arguments to end.
The man who has looked into the abyss: “For years, I was a voice in the wilderness,” says Walter Oechel, a distinguished professor of biology at San Diego State. “I warned of this coming crisis.” He doesn’t hold up much hope for planet earth on its present trajectory. “The tipping point, our chance to avoid damaging change, passed in 2002, 2003. Now it’s a question of damage control.”
We’re sitting in the old (1941) Faculty Staff Center on campus, one of the original buildings of San Diego State, during a noisy lunchtime. The place is filled with staff members, eating, chatting, heading over to give orders to a chef who stands by the well-stocked buffet. The chef slices slivers of roast beef, serves up healthy sides. If Earth is the Titanic, SDSU staff are going down in style.
I’ve come to see Oechel because he’s a legend in green circles. Long before most, he was studying the tundra in Alaska and Iceland for signs that it was about to begin defrosting. He’s also known for resisting corporate pressures to play ball and stay quiet. He’s authored pioneering papers detailing how a few degrees’ warming is causing the Arctic tundra to change from a reliable frozen carbon sink to a potential carbon bomb, releasing thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon in short order. After he published that, he says, the Department of Energy cut $500,000 from his research grant in 1992. Two years later, when he published a paper demonstrating that higher CO2 levels don’t stimulate ecosystems long-term, a second $500,000 was taken away. The last $300,000 of his D.O.E. grant was withdrawn after another paper on carbon and global warming came out.
But he has hung in there, all the while training another generation of ecophysiologists like himself.
“The poles are the radiators for the planet,” Oechel says. “They radiate energy to outer space because of the reflections from snow, the clear sky, the low humidity. They’re net exporters of energy to space, while the mid-latitudes and the equator are net importers of energy. The Arctic has become our canary in the coal mine.”
But his contribution to the Copenhagen debate boils down to one word: population.
“I’m unaware of anyone dealing with this double-edged sword of an increasing population and an increasing resource use.” We are approaching the Perfect Storm, he says: Just as Earth reaches her limits of tolerance for carbon emissions, the developing world is about to explode in fossil-fuel-driven consumerism, led by China and India. “Over the 30 years I’ve been involved in climate-change research, China has gone from a per capita CO2 emission of 1/32 of that of America to about 1/3. I’m not picking on China. Most of the developing world wants to develop, and if the developing world reaches just 1/3 the U.S.’s resource use — and if you apply that to the current population of almost 7 billion, let alone a likely future population of 13 billion or more — it just explodes in terms of CO2 emissions and resource use.”
Oechel is part of the first generation of eco-academics who’ve had to muscle their way into an academe (along with their corporate backers) not ready for them.
“My formal training is as an ecophysiologist,” he says. “Since the late ’70s, the focus of my research has been on the impact of increasing atmospheric CO2 on natural ecosystems. For instance, the new estimates for the Arctic now are that there may be 1.7 thousand gigatons of carbon in the upper three meters of soil. If any significant fraction of that came out as CO2 and methane, it would have a huge perturbation on existing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Because the total atmospheric CO2 now is less than 800 gigatons. So there’s a huge potential impact of that organic matter being oxidized and released to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.”
Oechel believes we’re doing “more poorly than the worst emissions scenario we could imagine. It doesn’t take much math to say, ‘We’ve got an increasing population and an increasing per capita consumption.’ It just doesn’t pencil out. If we started draconian reduction scenarios now, we would still see 600 to 700 ppm [of CO2] in the atmosphere or more [up from 380 ppm now]. So, it really is misleading and cynical to talk about switching out lightbulbs and carpooling. Somebody’s got to step back and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem which goes well beyond these issues on the surface.’ And it’s not that we couldn’t do something. It’s just that there appears to be no political will to do it and very little education and information, so people don’t even realize where we are and where we’re headed.”
Oechel once met with Al Gore for a couple of hours, long before Al released his movie. “In the lecture, he had nothing on [the effect of a burgeoning world] population and nothing on increasing global consumption. I talked with him — argued with him — for a couple of hours, and with his staff. He really thought technology was going to solve everything. I was astonished, someone as intelligent as Al Gore missing the big picture.”
So what should San Diego do? “In addition to the things on the table at Copenhagen, I think we need a big analysis like the IPCC [the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] but to include population and economic growth as well as analysis of the best available and emerging technologies. So far, people steer clear of anything that looks like population control. I believe that can’t continue. For instance, I haven’t seen anyone calculate the thermal output of humans. I think every person puts out heat the equivalent of a 75-watt incandescent lightbulb. So you take 7 billion people, you’ve got 525 billion watts in heat. That’s not trivial [when you’re calculating]. Just from human metabolism.
“Let’s say San Diego adopted the [San Diego Foundation Regional Focus] 2050 report, and we reduced our carbon output by half, and that’s doable. It would make San Diegans feel good, but then what? It would only be of use if it became a model for other communities and governments to pick up.”
It’s the population explosion, he insists, that is key but not popular — not politically correct — to talk about.
“I’m a great one to piss in the wind,” he acknowledges. “But we have a crisis. They say it would require five-plus Earths to sustain us if the whole world wanted to live at Western standards. It’s physically not doable. So we have to decide: do we want fewer people, educated and living in a fairly appropriate manner, with enough to eat and shelter? Or do we want 14 billion living like cockroaches? Right now, we’re going for the 14 billion cockroaches.”
The inspirers: Not all teachers at State are as pessimistic as Oechel, but they recognize how heavy the subject is. “Given the enormity of the challenge,” says Geoffrey Chase — he’s the dean of undergraduate studies at State and leads a program that pushes sustainability in higher education — “people can take just so much of it, and then they say, ‘I need to get in my car and go get a beer!’ So we have to talk about how we manage that in terms of our sense of self, our own lives. To say ‘it’s too late’ sends a message that it doesn’t matter what we do. We have to strike a balance. How do we prepare students to think differently about how they occupy their place on the planet, so that when they take positions in companies, schools, law firms, community agencies, here and around the world, how are they better able to deal with it?”
Chase’s colleague Al Sweedler, who’s a professor of physics, partially agrees. “What we — San Diego — must do,” he says, “is turn ourselves into a model city. We’ve made a good start. We are the most solar city in the United States. We were voted top public-transportation system nationwide last year. We are a center for biofuels. I moved to California 40 years ago, and we could never have had this conservation push, this smart development, back then, never. And remember the threat of CFCs and the ozone holes over Antarctica? The Montreal Protocols licked that problem. So we can do it. I’m an optimist.”
“Just look at what our students [at State] are doing,” says Chase. “We just received a $2.4 million grant to put solar panels on campus. The students had a lot to do with that. They are ahead of faculty on this. Go ask Grant Mack and Erica Johnson.”
I head on over to the ’60s-era student union building, Aztec Center, with its multiple giant columns that make it feel like Egypt’s ancient Karnak or the temples at Luxor. I pass a scattering of people thrusting pamphlets and Bibles and petitions at you. The post-sunset sky has turned a deep, velvet blue, and the student union building shines golden within its vertical lighting.
A booth at the top of the steps says “Associated Students.” I ask one of the guys behind the stacks of literature if he knows Grant Mack or Erica Johnson. Grant, I’m told, is the green commissioner for Associated Students, the students’ organization. A moment later, a 20-year-old…kid, a junior-year student, comes up and introduces himself. Mack is one of the student executives who run Associated Students, a — get this — $23 million, student-controlled corporation that owns eight of the campus’s main buildings, including Aztec Center. He’s just completed negotiations to tear the center down and build a new one.
“It’s going to be green,” he says, “very green: a LEED-certified building. That stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a green-building rating system set up by the U.S. Green Building Council. And not just LEED, but LEED Platinum, the most strictly regulated sustainable building possible. This is a first on any campus in the U.S., and, we think, the world. And guess what? It was the students who voted to tax themselves an extra $45 per year to pay for a very green replacement. We don’t get big-buck grants like UCSD. This is a bottom-up campus. We prefer it that way because this is ours. We students are the ones making it happen.”
Not that it wasn’t a battle to persuade the campus bigwigs — who have to sign off on maxi-projects and pass them through the university architects — to approve the two percent more that Mack estimates a LEED Platinum building will cost. “Erica and I made that happen,” he says proudly. “I was the fixer, she was the scrapper, the voice, the speechifier on the soapbox. She bullied the university to create this symbol of our green future. You really should ask her about it.”
True (solar) grid: You can see right away that Erica Johnson, the girl racing up to the deck outside Starbucks, here beside the Euclid trolley station, is always in a hurry. She is all vivid movements, and her speech sounds like a tape recorder on fast playback. She has an hour away from Sullivan Solar, where she works as a publicist and as their lobbyist at City Hall. Until this year, she was completing a degree in environmental studies and public relations at San Diego State. And by now, she should have been starting work on her master’s in PR and business at UC Berkeley. But the battle for the new student union building changed that.
“The fight for our LEED Platinum building? Oh boy,” she says. She sits down and takes a gulp of coffee. She has fighting, playful eyes. “When I first got involved as a student leader at SDSU, it was through this progressive organization named Enviro-Business Society — usually known as E3, because it seeks to bring together ecology, ethics, and economics. This was 2005. People said, ‘Environment and business? That’s an oxymoron.’”
As president, Johnson turned E3 into the largest student organization on campus. “And that’s when they started to take us seriously.”
Like with the Bike Crusades.
“People were being ticketed up to $250 for riding bicycles or skateboards on campus. So students who lived within a mile of the university started driving to school every day. Unnecessary pollution! We tried to get a bike lane on campus. On Bike Crusade Day we would walk our bikes on campus, in long lines. We said: Think of all the carbon emissions. Eventually, they agreed to establish bike lanes throughout campus. It’s a passion-driven organization. I had no idea we would be so successful.”
She became a green commissioner. “The Green Love Board — it allocates funds for green actions, like solar installations at the pool — made us the most environmentally progressive student government in the nation. It institutionalized sustainability at SDSU.”
The student union building was a challenge of a different magnitude. “Students voted a long time ago to increase the fees they paid to make this new building a reality,” Johnson says. “I just wanted it to be green. I started talking about LEED certification, which guarantees sustainable building and design practices. Nobody knew what it was. But I kept turning up to the meetings, kept saying, ‘Well, what if we incorporated renewable energy, a building that will produce its own energy for 50 to 60 years…’”
Johnson wanted the highest-rated LEED Platinum building, which meant asking students to shell out more money.
“You have no idea how nervous and scared I was. I was about to graduate. I had exams that I was supposed to be studying for. I had to convince the council. I stayed up for, like, two full days writing a resolution.
“At the council, people said, ‘Why are we spending more money?’ And I said, ‘This is the most responsible decision you guys are going to make. This is going to be your legacy.’ But the [University] architect — and especially the developer — they were saying, ‘This is going to cost millions and millions of dollars. It’s not even possible to have a LEED building.’
“Then I found Drew George. He founded the United States Green Building Council LEED San Diego chapter. He helped develop the LEED certification. He lives right here in Pacific Beach.
Drew George confirmed that “Platinum will definitely cost more.”
“Drew met with me for six and a half hours. He told me developers are against LEED because it’s checked by third parties. There’s no cutting corners. There’s a certification process. Contractors want to make money. They don’t like that someone is coming and checking that the wood is from 50 miles away, max. That they’re using recycled materials. That they’re covering every single thing at night, and there’s no chemicals being put in.
“We went through the costs. The architect, the manager, they were all sitting around. This is the final day, when I’m going to the AS council for a vote. And it’s 30 minutes before, and we’re trying to cost this, top university officials and Drew and me, 22, a student struggling to pass her final exams.
“I said, ‘I need everybody to agree that we can do a LEED Platinum building with the LEED premium [extra costs].’ Some said those costs would be 3 percent, others 7 percent. So I said, ‘How about 5 percent?’ And they agreed. I included that clause, went to the council, told them LEED could be had for 5 percent premium, and it passed!
“I was so nervous, the whole time I was doing it. I had all these fears about failing my classes. Because I really wanted to go to Berkeley for grad school. I told myself, ‘Berkeley’s not going to happen if I do this.’ And that’s what happened. My grades definitely suffered, my last year of college. But it was an opportunity to make an impact for future generations. I hope this building does.”
This summer Johnson graduated from SDSU, although not summa cum laude. That was the price she paid to get her building. That, and no acceptance into UC Berkeley. Fortunately, Sullivan Solar, a solar-power company based in San Diego, snapped her up to become its lobbyist and PR person. She is 23. The average age at Sullivan Solar is 27. “I like to think that the green boom is driven by this young generation,” she says. “We are the green generation, definitely, unless you happen by a fraternity house on a Friday night. There’s nothing green about that.”
The gardener: “Karibu!”
Sitey Mbere waves goodbye to her friend.
Sitey Mbere is a Bantu woman from Somalia. Right now, she could be back home, in the gardens she had to abandon when disintegration of the central government made life impossible. Sitey is hoeing around her kundai — black-eyed peas. To her taste, they’re not perfect here. East Africans eat the leaves of the plants more than the peas. The strains available in San Diego are mean on the leaves and push out peas early.
But Sitey Mbere says she’s thrilled to have a garden. To be able to grow her own spinach, long beans, cilantro, peanuts, mustard greens, eggplant, and soybeans makes her feel whole again. It saves on grocery bills. It teaches her grandsons that their grandmother has skills that can be useful after all.
“And,” says Ellee Igoe, the young Anglo mom who brought me here, “the plants help put oxygen back into San Diego’s air.”
We’re in City Heights, standing in the middle of what should be a big fat road, Chollas Parkway, near 54th Street. Luckily for the 80 gardeners and their families here, the City decided not to extend Chollas Parkway across 54th, while also never terminating its status as a right-of-way. “Basically, the City gave it to us,” says Igoe. She has her baby son Madix on her hip. Rows of everything from long beans to corn to unfamiliar greens radiate out in a large paddock-sized space that wedges between Chollas Creek and the hills. It’s a green swath for the houses nearby, and everything grown here, whether by Somali Bantu, Cambodians, Mexicans, or Anglos, is consumed.
It’s called New Roots Community Farm, and it’s Ellee Igoe’s brainchild. “I work for the International Rescue Committee,” she says. “And I’ve noticed that so many of the people we settle, from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, they all miss their plot of land, a place where they can grow their own food and where they can get together. Loneliness is the curse of newly settled refugees. We had a bit of spare money, so we went out and talked to folks primarily in the Somali-Bantu community and asked them, ‘In relation to food and health, what do you want?’ And they said, ‘We want access to land to grow our own food.’ So I and my coworker said, ‘Okay. Let’s look around for some land.’ This was one of the first parcels we identified. It was large, and it belonged to the city, so we didn’t have to purchase it.”
The farm has 2.3 acres, around 80 individual plots given out to families since the place opened last June. The only rule: no fertilizers or pesticides.
But how will 2.3 acres save the planet?
“We forget that we live in a desert,” says Igoe. “If we’re looking at how we should use our water, it makes sense to prioritize the things that we need to survive, like food. And to grow it locally, so we’re not adding to global climate change.”
We’re walking and talking, greeting people, older women mostly, with grandkids in tow, as they weed, pick, water, and hoe.
Igoe says two things drove the project. “First, giving people an opportunity to produce their own food and not have to ask for a handout is a huge boost to mental health.”
Also, she says, isolation is a big killer for refugee immigrants. “One of the coolest things about the garden is that it’s bringing the generations together. The young people…it’s, like, ‘Wow! Look, my parents have this specialized knowledge. That’s awesome.’ The elders come out and enjoy the scene as well. They get a new respect. And we have Cambodian, Karen, Somali-Bantu — people separated by language and background. But when you walk around this farm, you see similar crops. So they’re learning, like, ‘Oh wow! That’s great! You grow amaranth too.’ ‘What are you doing with your okra? Yours looks really beautiful.’ There are things to talk about. Reasons to reach across those language barriers. And they’re cleaning the air, plant by plant, creating food that doesn’t need to be transported hundreds of miles in polluting trucks to the consumer. It’s a model for San Diego’s future.”
But when will city policy catch up? Igoe says community gardens could be expanded big-time throughout the county, if the authorities only encouraged it, rather than throwing up bureaucratic barriers. Production ramp-up could be significant. She says a 1991 study claims you can grow $500 worth of produce per season on a 600-square-foot garden plot. “That’s what each of these families has,” she says. “In the odd angles, we’re going to plant fruit trees and blueberries and blackberries and olive trees — the Palestinians love that — also, we want to do an orchard back there. You know, the potential of this space is pretty fantastic.”
Are there examples elsewhere that we should be learning from? “Oh, yes. The gardens in San Francisco are integrated in the schools. They’re supported by the municipal government. The City of San Francisco just passed a composting ordinance, and they’re picking up everybody’s food waste from their house and composting it and then giving it free to their community gardens. That’s a beautiful vision. San Diego can’t even recycle every other week. We’ve got a long way to go, as far as thinking that way.”
Ellee grew up in Fallbrook. “I was surrounded by farms, but I wasn’t necessarily a farmer. I lived in Oregon for a long time and had a huge garden and grew all my own food. I learned that way and fell in love with being self-sufficient, the confidence it gives you, the amazing flavor of fruits and vegetables when you grow them yourself. We were able to produce enough in our own backyard to primarily feed six adults and two kids. But we’re vegan, so we’re used to eating vegetables. We would purchase lentils and beans and rice, but all the fruits and vegetables were ours. In Oregon, you grow year-round, but production slows down in the winter. But we would can and save a lot of things that we grew in the summer.
“I learned a lot in Oregon, but one of the things I missed was the diversity of people, the diversity of life experience that you have here in San Diego. In my opinion, communities of color, and immigrants, are really kept invisible [to the larger community]. That’s unfortunate, what with all the knowledge they bring and the vibrant contributions they make to communities. Despite Oregon’s liberal attitude, they’re missing the boat on that. It’s very vanilla.”
But surely, ordinary folk could never afford the time or money for this kind of organic food? The question lights Ellee up.
“The reason supermarket produce is cheaper is because the externalities are not included,” she says. “Shipping, road tax…
we’re not talking about all the things that are happening there. We don’t pay rent on this land. The city gives it to us free, which is amazing. If you had to pay rent on it, the only cost-effective thing would be to put up condos, which is our problem in the first place. Everything’s structured toward [building] structures and externalizing costs.”
She says that launching a “green” project like this — one that helps reverse pollution and creates green jobs, literally — can be a nightmare because the bureaucracy doesn’t know how to handle you. “IRC paid something like $15,000 in legal fees to get this [garden] up and running. Global warming, and the natural disasters it can bring, is scary. Like, what happens when we become unable to ship in our food? You can externalize for a long time, but someday the chickens are going to come home to roost.
“Another irony is that a local garden like this can be a disruptive element for poor locals, because having one can raise property values in the surrounding area. Long-term community members may have to move out as property values and rents go up. Because you’re taking vacant lots and making them vibrant, amazing spaces.”
But will a patchwork of gardens like this really help San Diego to breathe and slow global warming? “It’s a beginning,” Ellee says. “A group of people getting together and showing what’s possible. It gives other people ideas. Then the multiplier effect of that… Who knows if it can save the earth? But what’s really important is that the people who are here right now are doing their part. All we can do is act as an example, learn from each other, do the best that we can. At least our story, our personal story, won’t be one of destruction. It’ll be one of doing our darnedest to turn things around.”
The lobbyist: Marshall Saunders doesn’t look happy. “Don’t you just sometimes feel like crying?” he says. “We’re never going to stop this. Not in a million years. We’re cooked.”
We’ve met by chance here at the Cafe Madrid, outside Bay Books in Coronado. I’ve known Marshall as a do-gooder extraordinaire for a few years. He’s one of those people who quietly goes about doing, not preaching. Right now, he’s training people around the country to lobby Congress to adopt a carbon tax. But the fire he feels isn’t setting others alight, particularly politicians.
“No politician,” he says, “not even Bob Filner, who’s good, will be an actual champion, like Gandhi, or JFK, taking a stand for something and saying, ‘This will be!’ They just won’t go that far. And the president doesn’t seem as committed as he was.”
Saunders lives a comfortable life in Coronado with his wife Pam, financed in part by his family’s great success, Big Red, a soft drink line that’s still popular in his home state of Texas. It has allowed him to spend his own money setting up organizations like Grameen de la Frontera, a micro-credit organization that lends small amounts to the poorest of poor women in Mexico, to help them launch tiny businesses like sewing, or growing and selling fruit. “We were in the process of pushing up from 3000 to 10,000 active borrowers. Then I read that sea level is predicted to go up by one meter by the year 2039, and I remembered that Bangladesh is a very low-lying country, a delta of three rivers, and I thought, Lord. We’re going to gain 5000 borrowers in northern Mexico and lose 25 million in Bangladesh. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to work on this climate problem.’ This was at the beginning of 2007.”
The first thing he did was get training to give Al Gore’s famous slide show to as many audiences as he could. “I was trained by Gore himself, spent two days with him in Nashville in January 2007. I practiced up that talk, and I gave it to 43 groups over the next ten months.” Saunders traveled the country, urging people to change lightbulbs and swap their cars for more fuel-efficient ones. “But then I would sit down at the kitchen counter in the morning and read the newspaper, and it said that Congress had passed a law to give the oil and coal companies $18 billion in tax credits. I’d got people to change lightbulbs…and Congress gave oil and gas the green light and, almost in the same breath, let the tax credits for wind and solar expire! And I thought, ‘How wrong can the Congress get things?’”
He realized he had to be able to talk to power, to members of Congress. “I had been lobbying the Congress on hunger and poverty issues and funding for micro-credit for about 15 years. So the next step was ‘There’s got to be an organization that teaches ordinary people to lobby the Congress on environmental issues and climate issues.’”
He started making lists of people he thought would be interested. “I’d call them — I’m an old salesman — and tell them what’s up. But they wouldn’t have a frigging clue what I was talking about.”
He persisted, and somehow, over the last two years, he has created the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which has 15 chapters, from Coronado to Encinitas to Seattle to Atlanta to Tuscaloosa to Miami.
“We teach folks how to meet your senator, how to write a letter to the editor, write an op-ed piece, inspire them so their fear of the political process dissolves.”
Their goals: to persuade Congress that we must reduce the carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. “Look at it now. We have 380, 390 ppm, storms, droughts, pine beetles killing forests…how obvious does it have to become? You have to put a price on carbon consumption so it becomes cheaper to go green.”
He despairs at President Obama bending to Senate and House plans to reduce the emissions of CO2 by 17 percent in the House bill, and 20 percent in the Senate, by 2020. Then 80 percent by 2050. “You’re going to get to 2020, and the actual amount of carbon in the atmosphere is going to be greater than it is today,” he laments. “When you get to 2050, the earth is cooked. So 350 ppm is the magic number. As soon as we climbed above that, all this crazy stuff started to happen. The glaciers started to melt rapidly, the polar ice cap started melting rapidly… So, that’s what we have to haul back to if we are to have a chance. A goal like 20 percent of something at some time in the future is bullshit! There’s a time to compromise and a time not to compromise, and with the biosphere of the planet at stake, I can’t compromise. Not just man, but all of life depends on us. That’s why I want to cry.”
What the kids think: Maybe the most important scene was the one I missed — the one with the kids, mostly third and fourth graders at Bethune Elementary School in the Bay Terraces area, inland from National City. That’s where Andrea Cook told me she’d be on a Thursday night in November, kicking off her “green learning adventure.” Cook’s another of “Geoff’s kids,” a graduate from San Diego State whom Dr. Chase mentored. She received her Ph.D. (at UC Davis — SDSU doesn’t do Ph.D.s) in climate change, largely thanks to the tutelage of Walter Oechel. She now helps run the state-funded California Center for Sustainable Energy. On this night, she was going to show kids how to survive the environmental legacy our generation is leaving them to cope with.
I was late arriving. By the time I found the street and curled down into the glen where the school nestles, all was dark. One solitary car remained.
“You missed something pretty special,” Cook said when I later called her. “This was our first, a pilot. We showed the kids everything from how much energy they need to generate [on a bike, pedaling to create electricity] to power LED lights [the easiest because they’re the most efficient], CFLs [compact fluorescent lights], and the hardest [because they guzzle the most juice], traditional, incandescent bulbs. They can do the LEDs, they can light up one CFL, but when we turn it up to 2, then 3, then 4 CFLs, they start failing, though a really good pedaler can light all four. So that’s cool. Then we have them try to light up just one old-fashioned incandescent bulb — like the ones most people have at home — and none of the kids could create enough energy. So they can see, and feel in their legs, the comparison of how much energy it takes to illuminate different bulbs.”
Cook says that making this connection between human energy and the power we use is new to the kids, and to their parents. She’ll be taking her road show to 40 schools this year, starting this January. It includes dozens of challenges. “One has kids interacting with pizzas. We ask: fresh or frozen? Which has a bigger environmental impact? Is it better to buy frozen pizza or fresh pizza? We talk about the manufacturing process. Like, the frozen one gets made in Minnesota, then has to go on a refrigerated truck across the nation, and then gets put in a freezer in a store under a lot of lights, and then it goes home to your freezer. And then you have to [re-]cook it. It can take ten times as much energy to bring that frozen pizza to your plate as fresh pizza, which you just cook once.”
Getting through to kids about consequences can be tough. Cook tells the kids how U.S. consumers go through twice the packaging Europeans do, over ten times what their cousins in the Third World do. But the kids get it more easily than their parents, with girls strangely more receptive than boys.
This whole “green learning adventure” was Cook’s idea. It’s been uphill all the way. “I’ve had a lot of teachers call up and ask us [to come help them get going]. But to have them attend the training and then test if they can do it, that’s another level of effort — and funding. Right now, there aren’t even environmental education standards in California.”
If you look at her mentor Walter Oechel’s figures, isn’t all this belated activity just rearranging proverbial deck-chairs on the Titanic? A self-comforting illusion of fighting the unstoppable implications of global warming? Cook studied for years under Oechel, but she doesn’t share his gloom. “Dr. Oechel has given up, at some level,” she says. “This whole Titanic idea depends on your time scale. If you look at geologic time, yes, humans are going to go extinct. No species has lasted 6 billion years. [Of earth’s 4.5 billion years, humans have been around for 190,000 years, a blip.] But I have hope that we can still make steps in the right direction. We’re not going to get there to stop [global warming], but we can decrease it, and we can adapt to it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel. He’s ready to retire. He’s worked his life for it. It is tough. It’s a big one. But that doesn’t mean it’s the Titanic. My argument is, let’s at least take steps and quit arguing about what numbers we should aim for. Let’s start walking, not just stand here at the starting line.”
The unbelieving activist: And what of the unbeliever, Steve Wampler? We’re in his office in Coronado, staring at his computer screen. Above all, he says, don’t get swept up in the panic. The sky is not falling in.
“Look, right here,” he says. “This sea ice is no different than it was 30 years ago. They’re saying the Arctic ice sheet is going to be gone. Do you see anything disappearing there? No! A hoax pulled by Al Gore!”
We’re looking at a University of Illinois website called The Cryosphere Today. Satellite views of North Polar ice compare today’s overhead shot with one taken on this date in 1979. Sure looks as if the pink areas — ice — are about the same.
“In 2007, they were saying global warming was inevitable, it was coming, the polar ice cap would be gone in ten years, and it was the lowest point ever seen on record. Little did the American or world population [know] that there was an underwater volcano in the Arctic Ocean that was erupting during the summer of 2007. Then in 2008, there was ice again — 500,000 square miles more ice than 2007. I tell you, global warming is a media and governmental story that’s been blown way out of proportion. Because it makes money. It’s making billions of dollars. Al Gore is selling these stupid carbon credits. He’s investing in green technology. The government is changing the way factories, corporations are functioning today. Not that I’m saying it’s wrong, but we should be doing our part to lower pollution emissions, not greenhouse emissions.”
Wampler does recognize that pollution affects our quality of life. “Yes, it’s causing environmental degradation, as far as acid rain, cancer-causing plumes in the air. I believe in reducing that as much as possible. But when the government says it’s causing our planet to warm, they have no evidence whatsoever to substantiate that…. I studied this crap 25 years ago, before this even became an issue. And I knew it was bogus because all the data showed there was no difference whatsoever.”
So what’s the biggest contradiction in Steve Wampler? You have only to look outside his and his wife Elizabeth’s office at the rear of their house. These two are doing more than their part to save the planet. Steve has created a self-sustaining garden. He suffers from cerebral palsy, and his legs won’t do as they’re told. His speech is affected. Yet he has made an ecosystem that gives life to wild plants, animals, insects, and fish — and yes, it’s become a net creator of oxygen. “I don’t have to filter the water. I pump from one pond to another pond five feet up, and the water that flows from that is naturally filtrated through the roots of the plants in the water: water hyacinth, papyrus, grasses, other water plants. That’s why the water’s so clear. [The garden’s] got ferns, cattails, mosses, lichens, impatiens. I’ve got bullfrogs, and they feed on crickets. My only input is compost from the kitchen, crickets, which I buy, and occasional fish food for the goldfish.”
Then he waits for Nature, life, to come to him. Which it does. Next to the big, active compost heap is a huge man-high milkweed plant, poisonous to humans, nectar to monarch butterflies. And then you see them: monarchs in the dozens. Black-and-orange wings, with white-speckled black tips, flapping, coasting, shivering as they drink milkweed nectar from the yellow and red flowers. Some seem to swoop and collide and flap as though they’re in aerial combat.
“They are,” says Steve. “They’re fighting for breeding rights.”
One male breaks off and flutters down toward the milkweed, lands, unrolls its proboscis till it’s more than an inch long, and takes a long suck of energy from inside a flower. The trailing edge of its right wing has been shredded in the fight.
“He’s probably only got a day or two left,” he says. “But he has done his duty. See? There’s been a whole lot of breeding going on.”
He points to the milkweed, covered, I see now, in hundreds of bulging two-inch-long caterpillars, each a combination of yellow and black and white, munching away.
“I planted that for them,” says Steve. “It’s what they need to feed on, on their way south from Canada to Mexico. Milkweed’s invasive, so farmers cut it down, which means these fellows are losing feeding, breeding, and resting stations by the day. It takes four generations for them to reach Mexico. It’s the second generation that has started coming into my garden as a wintering spot to rest, breed, breed another generation, and then carry on. Five years ago, there were no monarchs that I knew of in Coronado, and now, as you can see, here it’s almost December and they’re flying around, and they lay eggs on this exact plant, the milkweed. About two months ago, 150 butterflies came out of their chrysalis. That’s these guys’ parents.”
That second generation, who arrive and reproduce, create a smaller, shorter-lived generation that never leaves the garden. They feed up and produce much larger offspring — the caterpillars we see here. This fourth generation lives about four months and makes the final stage of the trip, from Coronado to the Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico.
“In five years, I went from zero butterflies to a couple of hundred. Next year, probably 1000.”
A tall tree rising from his upper pond has a rope dangling from its highest point. “What’s that?” I ask.
“Oh, I climb that,” he says. “I want to be the first man with cerebral palsy to climb El Capitan.”
Steve runs Camp Wampler, which gives disabled kids a place in the woods to play and learn about nature. He’s planning a headquarters north of Tahoe, built on green principles. To pay for it, he’s training to make a sponsored ascent of El Capitan’s sheer face in Yosemite next summer. That means hauling himself up ropes by his arms for six days, with five nights sleeping on the cliff face. The man is beyond eco-hero.
He and his wife have two kids, Charlotte, aged ten, and Joseph, nine. Steve says he’s not worried about their future on Planet Earth.
“If I were telling a Martian about the state of the earth, I would say the earth is absolutely fine. Carbon [and CO2] can keep coming because we don’t know where that threshold is. I’m not anti-green. I’m just saying that the fear-mongering is coming from the president, the media, and scientists who refuse to see the real data. We need to get in touch with the world around us, maybe start recycling, paying a little more attention to what we’re throwing out and consuming. But overall, the health of the planet atmospherically is fine. As of last year, we’re going into a 30-year cooling cycle. That’s a fact. Because of fewer sunspots.”
It doesn’t bother him that most of academia’s conclusions are 180 degrees out from his.
“Academia is notoriously [composed of] Democratic, liberal, tree-hugging people, and one thing that bugged the living crap out of me when I went to UC Davis 25 years ago is that it was a very liberal, tree-hugging, democratic-society school — it made me more Republican, more conservative than I had been going in, because they were so out there.”
Man in the street: Main Street seems to back Wampler up, if casual questions to customers at the Cafe Madrid are anything to go by. Like Jeff and his buddy Rick. Jeff’s a lawyer. Rick’s a retired Border Patrol officer.
“Global warming?” says Jeff. “It’s a massive hoax. The science is uncertain. Thirty years ago, the same advisers who are advising Obama now about global warming were warning of global cooling. So I don’t believe it. Obama’s going to drastically increase the cost of energy, based on something unproven. Hoax? I think the scientists know it’s unproven, and they have a political agenda. My understanding is Al Gore has a company which profits from carbon credits. You wouldn’t want to put your faith in somebody who’s got a financial interest in the outcome, would you?”
“There is some agreement that the globe is warming and that it’s manmade,” says Rick. “But there’s no agreement that the solution would resolve the problem. The U.S. could stop spewing carbon tomorrow, but if China and India aren’t onboard, what’s the point? It’s like getting a flat tire and then, instead of fixing it, washing the car to make yourself feel good.”
Confused: I go home, sadder but no wiser. Yes, San Diegans are making efforts that could lead us to becoming a model city for a warming (or not) world. But I feel a bit like Voltaire’s 18th-century cautionary character Candide. After believing his friend Pangloss’s credo that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, Candide concludes that the only way to salvage any remnant of contentment is to go home and cultivate your garden.
Sun’s slanting in. I check the mini-garden in front of our cottage. It’s a little microclimate with banana trees, elephants’ feet saved from the garbage pickup in the alley, and avocados sprung from stones we’ve gouged out of luscious yellow flesh. Haven’t paid this little Eden much attention these fall-winter months. I walk among the big paddle fronds of the bananas. Green? No. Urgh. They’re splotted brown and black. So are the leaves of the umbrella tree. Pollution. It’s probably particles from those Navy jets that coast in overhead every day. I get a bucket of water and a big sponge. Start wiping.
Hey, did Voltaire say anything about washing your garden?
I start humming. The Mamas and the Papas. “California Dreamin’.” All the leaves are brown…
In 1958, Charles David Keeling began making daily measurements of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. These measurements were begun as part of a one-year initiative, the International Geophysical Year, but because of Keeling's persistence, the daily record has continued through the present, almost without interruption. The Mauna Loa record, now known as the Keeling Curve, continues to be collected under the direction of Keeling's son, Ralph.
The current climb in carbon dioxide started before Keeling started watching more recent research has shown that preindustrial levels of carbon dioxide (from 1000-1750 AD) ranged between 275 and 285 ppm. 1 All of this growth appears to stem from human activity, due to the use of fossil fuels, so that today, about one in four CO2 molecules in the atmosphere comes from us.
The small annual zigzag visible on the curve is timed with the seasons. Carbon dioxide levels drop during the northern hemisphere spring and summer, when plants are taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to grow. In the fall and winter, plants and leaves die off and decay, releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere and causing a small spike. Since most of the world's seasonal vegetation is in the northern hemisphere, as is the measuring station at Mauna Loa, the seasonal trend in the Keeling Curve record from Mauna Loa is based on northern hemisphere seasons. The detailed and logical &ldquobreathing&rdquo of the planet that the Keeling Curve shows is just one of many indicators of its sensitivity and accuracy.
The history of this finding is described by Earthguide.
Isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and at over 11,000 feet above sea level, the upper north face of Mauna Loa volcano is an ideal location to make measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide that reflect global trends, not local influences such as factories or forests that might boost or drop carbon dioxide within their vicinity. The CO2 sensors at Mauna Loa are positioned such that they sample an incoming breeze direct from the ocean, unaffected by human activities, vegetation or other factors on the island. (The Mauna Loa Observatory is high enough that the incoming breeze rides above the thermal inversion layer.)
Volcanoes are considerable sources of carbon dioxide themselves. However, the sampling location was chosen to be normally upwind of Mauna Loa's vent, and Keeling perfected methods for detecting and correcting intervals when the wind blew the wrong way.
Measurements at about 100 other sites have confirmed the long-term trend shown by the Keeling Curve, although no sites have a record as long as Mauna Loa. Monitoring networks include the global Fluxnet network, with sites concentrated in North America and Western Europe the AmeriFlux network, with 35 stations in Canada, Costa Rica and the United States and the EuroFlux network, with 18 sites in northwestern Europe. This international ground network is continuously being upgraded, and there are extensive inter-calibration efforts.