The Story of Co2: NYT Feature of Charles Keeling

Justin Gillis, writing in yesterday's NY Times has a captivating profile of Charles David Keeling, the American scientist who first designed methods for measuring atmospheric Co2. It's a fascinating glimpse of the meticulous man whose observatory -- perched high up on the edge of a Hawaiian volcano -- has made our understanding of the earth's changing climate possible.

Gillis uses Keeling's personal and professional life as the foundation for a larger review of the science and politics of climate change. There are also brief moments of insight and sadness that put the dry numbers of atmospheric Co2 levels (currently at 390ppm) back into their broader context. What emerges is a picture of a man with a passion for precision - not for precision's sake -- but because he understood what those rising numbers said about our relationship to the ecosystems that make our lives here possible. 

The full article is here, I've posted some of my favorite excerpts after the jump.

Perhaps the biggest reason the world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality of a single American scientist. Charles David Keeling’s son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the sidewalk and the grass.


The essence of his scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.

Some of the most important data came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom over the Big Island of Hawaii.

He quickly made profound discoveries. One was that carbon dioxide oscillated slightly according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of the world’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the winter.

He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.

A more ominous finding was that each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before. Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding electrified the small community of scientists who understood its implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others, proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.

Throughout much of his career, Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record that would withstand scrutiny.
In later years, as the scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling’s interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In an essay in 1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring that the real myth was that “natural resources and the ability of the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless.”

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

“He was a registered Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political issue at all.”

Many countries have, in principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions need to fall to nearly zero.

“It took 250 years to burn the first half-trillion tons,” Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist, said in a briefing. “On current trends, we’ll burn the next half-trillion in less than 40.”

Unless more serious efforts to convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will increase that global warming could spiral out of control by century’s end.

As he watches these difficulties, Ralph Keeling [an atmospheric scientist himself, managing the Co2 measurement program] contemplates the unbending math of carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that increase.

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “ ‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”

Cancun Climate Wrap Up

Now that the Cancun Climate Negotiations are over, you might be wondering exactly what went down. Over at the Green Party Blog, party leader Elizabeth May has posted a good summary of the events and the final agreement.  I've posted a few excerpts after the jump.  The full entry is here

From: "Copenhagen to Cancun: what just happened?"

The documents do not by themselves obligate governments to take any new steps.  What they do is build a strong foundation for agreements to be reached at COP17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

The language is strong and unequivocal.  In the LCA decision it is stated “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties.” (Kyoto Protocol text)

The decisions confirm that the science and IPCC advice is compelling.  It commits to find ways to avoid allowing global average temperature from increasing to 2 degrees C, but recognizes the need to consider that the high point should be 1.5 degrees C. For the first time in a UN decision, it mandates that all nations should immediately determine the year by which GHG emissions should peak and begin to fall. It states all parties agree “that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”  It states that industrialized countries should reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Further it states that “addressing climate change requires a paradigm shift towards building a low-carbon society that offers substantial opportunities….

It deals extensively with the need for adaptation (creating a Cancun Adaptation Framework and Adaptation committee), for financing, it creates a new Green Climate Fund, as well as funding to help arrest deforestation.  There are many detailed elements.  Not all were great. Many were disappointed to see Carbon Capture and Storage added  to acceptable technologies for the Clean Development Mechanism.

New and welcome elements were language recognizing the importance of human rights in implementing climate policy, respect for indigenous peoples, women, and gender-related issues, and a clear victory for labour in the reference to the need for a “just transition.”  Cities and sub-national governments finally get the respect they deserve as partners.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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