Our islands are home to the longest running dataset for measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide. The monitoring station started measuring in 1958, little more than half a century ago. The industrialization of humans began arguably over 200 years ago, although the enclosure of the commons, state dependency and factory style cities began appearing in the 1400s. Human population has not slowed since then but increased exponentially to greater than 7B today.

Carbon dioxide accumulation theories surfaced way back in the 1700s, built on the work of foundational scientists like Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and then Fourier, Tyndale and Svante Arrhenius. Svante theorized, in 1896 that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industrial society could heat the surface of the Earth. He stated in 1898, “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air.” Despite our best science, human political-economic institutions are still evaporating coal mines, oil fields and shale oils into the air at an average of 70-Million tons per day- measured since the beginning of industrial civilization.

So we see that atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide theories and observations are built on a solid century of science. Professor Roger Revelle was the head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Revelle wanted to measure levels out in the ocean away from civilization, but Keeling wanted to measure carbon dioxide levels on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, because the air at 11,000 feet is free from the belch of industry. So, they teamed up together to create measurement protocols.

Charles Keeling stands next to a plaque recognizing his work.

Because of his work, Charles David Keeling is recognized as the first to confirm the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide using very precise measurements that produced a data set now known widely as the “Keeling Curve.” Prior to his investigations, it was unknown whether carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities would accumulate in the atmosphere instead of being absorbed by the oceans and vegetated areas of land. He became the first to determine the fraction of carbon dioxide from human combustion that remains in the atmosphere. The Keeling record of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and at other “pristine air” locations, represents what many believe to be the most important time-series data set for the study of global change.

Recognizing this in a special message to Congress in 1965, then President Lyndon Johnson, had this to say after being briefed on the data, “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.” 

The most recent Keeling curve is shown here:


On 10 May 2013, we learned that human contributions to carbon levels in the atmosphere climbed to 400ppm, a level beyond which life on this planet has not been for 2-million years. The last time CO2 was at this level, it had risen to that level over 7000 years, while today we have risen from a pre-industrial level of 280ppm to more than 400ppm, in just 55 years.

Such a rapid change does not bode well for the survival of ecosystem services upon which humans depend. Earth’s history shows us that we cannot burn all the carbon in fossil fuels into the air, without producing a very different planet from the one to which humanity is adapted. We are in uncharted territory with our fossil fuel pollution experiment. And, our energy security is captive to a faith based economics. If we care about our children, we must stop stealing the future, liquidating it and calling this progress.

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My writing reflects my principles, purpose, values and vision. My passion for helping others, public speaking and influencing for good enervates my life. Change agent, system sustainability subject matter expert, and inspirational public speaker, I've coached diverse audiences: business, government, community, and educational sectors. Mixing a friendly approach, a unique curiosity, and downbeat humor, shift happens. At HawaiiReporter.com, I write about complexity, climate change, consciousness, meta-systems, and how these scale to social improvement.