Monday, May 13, 2013

The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve

This time it made the headlines.  Something as vague and intangible as an invisible, odorless gas is encapsulated in a concrete number.  400 parts per million, a level of carbon dioxide not seen for the past three to five million years.

The number is in fact not intangible.  It is very real, real because sea levels are rising millimeter by millimeter, submerging island nations such as the Maldives and heavily populated coastlines.  The number is real because the summer of 2012 was the hottest summer on record in the United States.  The number is real because of the acidification of oceans and coral bleaching; because of drier forests fueling larger fires; because of the ever-shrinking amount of polar ice; because entire villages in Alaska are needing to be moved because of thawing land, to the tune of $380,000 per person.  

In spite of all of this very real evidence of the effects of climate change, nothing new is being said that can wash away the line that have been drawn in the sand that divides the "believers" from the "skeptics".  (If you don't "believe" in climate science, perhaps you might question your beliefs in most any science that you rely on in your daily life.)  Perhaps it is time for a new story about climate change, a new story that connects old facts.  Perhaps our sole focus on the emission of greenhouse gases as a technological deficiency is distracting us from the real issues; framing climate change as a “carbon” problem is “possibly the greatest and most dangerous reductionism of all time: a 150 year history of complex geologic, political, economic, and military security issues all reduced to one element.” [1]

As a postdoctoral researcher, I wonder if Charles Keeling thought about the symbolism of his scientific endeavors in the thin air of Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai'i.  The jagged edges of the Keeling Curve are symbolic of the sharp divides and fractures in our politics, and under our feet in the fracked Marcellus Shale.  The jagged edges show how cruelly we continue to cut and lacerate this earth, just as is being done in the forests of Canada to access tar sands.  The curve is symbolic because not only does it show that carbon dioxide levels are rising, but that also our hubris is, too--the hubris of thinking that we may be able to engineer ourselves out of this problem.
From The Scripps Institution of Oceanography
[1] Thomas Princen, “Leave It in the Ground: The Politics and Ethics of Fossil Fuels and Global Disruption” prepared for the International Studies Association International Conference, Montréal, March 16-19, 2011; to appear in State of the World 2013.  

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