Carbon Cooperation: Birch Aquarium Looks Forward to Annual Keeling Lecture

1958. A very important year for science.

Along with launching the first American satellite into orbit and celebrating Frederick Sanger’s Nobel Prize for describing the protein structure of insulin, 1958 was the year Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Charles Keeling began daily measurements of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Keeling’s discovery of rapidly increasing carbon dioxide concentrations caused by burning fossil fuels became the foundation for today’s profound concerns about climate change. He passed away in 2005, but ongoing carbon dioxide measurements are continually added to the renowned “Keeling Curve.”

Birch Aquarium recently updated the Keeling Curve display in its award-winning Feeling the Heat exhibit. Creeping increases in carbon dioxide show how levels of this gas are straying farther and farther away from the safe upper limit of 350 parts per million. In spring 2014, monthly carbon dioxide concentrations consistently remained above 400 parts per million—conditions Earth has not experienced for three to five million years.

The relentless rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere shows that humans are changing Earth’s climate at an accelerated rate.


On Tuesday, May 13, as part of the Jeffrey B. Graham Perspectives on Ocean Science Lecture Series, Birch Aquarium will host its fifth annual Charles David Keeling Lecture, an event to highlight a UC San Diego researcher’s work on climate change. This year, we welcome Professor David Victor, an internationally recognized leader in research on energy and climate change policy and director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.Faculty_David Victor Headshot_2012

Victor’s interests were first sparked in the 1980s when international treaties were written to counteract ozone depletion. Victor was fascinated by the negotiations and, during graduate school, driven to understand why the treaties were so effective.

Then came concerns about climate change. Victor realized that to unravel the political aspects of climate change, he needed to understand energy markets and energy technologies. Over a decade, he educated himself on energy issues to discern the underlying structure of energy markets.

Finding diplomatic solutions to compel action by countries that emit the most carbon pollution—industrialized countries such as the United States and Japan and emerging countries such as China and India—is crucial. But how do you get countries with different interests to work together? It helps to bring political scientists into the climate conversation. “Political scientists help you understand how things that are politically difficult can be put into practice,” says Victor.

Victor cites his collaboration with Scripps scientists Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Charles Kennel to reduce soot emissions in Asia. Wood and manure-burning stoves emit carbon pollution including carbon dioxide and methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Substituting no- and low-emission cooking appliances will reduce soot emissions by as much as three or four times the current levels. “It’s not going to stop global warming,” Victor says. “But we’re very excited because soot is a pollutant that lines up better with the underlying interests of India, China, and other big emitters. Because even when they don’t care about climate change, they might care a lot about local air pollution.”

This project underscores the need to couple diplomatic solutions with cultural innovation and deployment of no- and low-emission technologies.

The United States faces a similar problem. What technologies do we put our resources and budgets behind: advanced renewables, advanced nuclear, capturing and containing carbon underground, etc.? Victor warns that the United States should not embrace a particular technology. “We really need to avoid picking winners at this stage. We just don’t know what’s going to work best.” Instead, Victor recommends that the United States embrace competition.

“The [climate] problem is much more dire than even five or ten years ago. It’s deeply disturbing. It’s going to be hard and difficult, but over several decades, there are pretty clear strategies for fixing this problem.”


Kate Jirik

Join our climate conversation during Tuesday evening’s lecture. More information and to RSVP.

Learn more about David Victor’s work.

Keep tabs on Scripps’ Keeling Curve

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego