A Signal That Reflects the Whole World

The Keelings, Del Mar & Climate Change

Long before “Think globally, act locally” became an environmental mantra, Del Mar’s Charles David Keeling (1928-2005) was the personification of that concept, resulting in a scientific legacy of highest global significance, and a local political legacy of community autonomy. 


Keeling’s very precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, beginning in 1957, resulted in the “Keeling Curve” data set, the foundation for today’s understanding of global climate change.  On the local level, he was a primary author of the City of Del Mar’s Community Plan, giving Del Mar the tools to achieve greater control over its direction and governance. 


Keeling’s son, Del Mar native and San Diego resident Ralph Keeling, has made notable scientific contributions of his own as a scientist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, demonstrating a decrease in atmospheric oxygen that, along with the increases in CO2 demonstrated by his father, add to our understanding of climate change, and the role of oceans and land in absorbing CO2.  


Reflecting on his father’s work, Ralph Keeling sees its duality: “I look at my father’s work as a beautiful piece of science [as well as] a ringing alarm bell.”   Its beauty lies, in part, in its simplicity: the global rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, once thought to be measurable only through massively complex mathematical calculations, can be determined by very precise, relatively simple measurements from certain “clean places” such as Mauna Loa and the South Pole.   The result, as Ralph Keeling notes, is “a signal that reflects the whole world.”


Today, scientific consensus identifies climate change as the most critical global environmental issue.  For Del Mar in particular, this means facing not only the consequences of sea level rise, but also concerns relating to heat (warming), a likely increase in wildfire, and the impact on California’s water supply from the loss of Sierra snow pack and earlier snow melt.  


Ralph Keeling acknowledges a special urgency in working on problems of climate change.   The existing gaps in our scientific knowledge relating to climate change give no comfort to Keeling: “Where uncertainties exist, they have the potential to make the problem worse, not better.”  He adds, “Greenhouse gases have already had major effects on our climate, and the next century and beyond will see changes that are almost unimaginable unless we get off the ‘business as usual’ track.”


Keeling brushes aside the thinking that suggests the problem is so big we can’t solve it, so why bother?  That kind of thinking, according to Keeling, “says your children’s and grandchildren’s lives aren’t worth much.”  He adds, “I harbor a foolish optimism that this country can turn a corner fast.”   


Turning the corner means significantly reducing our use of fossil fuels, and making climate change an issue at the ballot box so this challenge is met not only individually, but nationally and globally.  “The only light at the end of the tunnel is weaning ourselves of fossil fuels – a huge challenge, but one that isn’t impossible,” says Keeling. 


Individual action makes a difference: change your light bulbs and take other steps to make your home more energy efficient; drive less, and more fuel-efficiently.  Local action makes a difference, including following through on then-Mayor Jerry Finnell’s 2005 action in signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing Del Mar to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  State action makes a difference; California has used its economic muscle in the past to lead on environmental issues, and can do so even more forcefully now.  Congressional action makes a difference: will Congress act on the scientific consensus, or will it adopt the course of denial represented by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s recent suggestion that climate change is naturally cyclical, perhaps caused in the past by “dinosaur flatulence”?


Whatever you’re already doing, individually and politically, ramp it up.  Act as though time is of the essence, because it is.  Be a foolish optimist that we can turn the corner fast, because the alternative is unacceptable.  That’s the best way to honor the legacy that Charles David Keeling left to Del Mar and the world.