The Parrot and the Igloo Notes

The Overwhelming Desire

80   measurable, and: Again, the digital version of Spencer Weart’s indispensable and readable Discovery of Global Warming is a great way to spend some online time.

Spencer Weart, “Money For Keeling: Monitoring CO2 Levels,” American Institute of Physics.

Accessed 9-15-22.


Revelle’s co-writer and Scripps colleague Hans Suess had some CO2 calculations. “But his estimate was highly uncertain. He and Revelle knew that. That’s why they hired Dave Keeling.” Wallace Broecker, Robert Kunzig, Fixing Climate, Hill and Wang | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008. Chapter Five, “Carbon Dioxide and the Keeling Curve,” 73.


The fifty percent COnumber comes from Dave Keeling’s research memoir “Rewards and Penalties of Monitoring the Earth,” 39, 53. “Indeed, Revelle and Suess had already estimated in this way that about half of the CO2 from fossil fuel production was being absorbed by the oceans”; “Revelle distrusted these data because he thought that the oceans must be absorbing somewhere near half of this CO2 from ‘fossil fuel.’” Charles D. Keeling, “Rewards and Penalties of Monitoring the Earth,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 1998 23:1, 25–82. Per Spencer Weart, Revelle could put that in-the-atmosphere number higher: at eighty percent. Spencer Weart, “Global Warming, Cold War, and the Evolution of Research Plans,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 1997, 27:2, 319–356, 347. 

80   growing every year: Weiner: “Having proved that carbon dioxide might be rising, Revelle wanted to know if it really was rising.”

Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Chapter Three, “Keeling’s Curve,” 31.


80   he preferred to be called: “He calls himself Dave.”

Spencer Weart, “Oral History Interview with Donald H. Pack, 1991 April 25,” American Institute of Physics.

Accessed 9-15-22.


80   Keeling’s big ambition: Jonathan Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Bantam 1990, Chapter Two, “Minute Particulars,” 15.


He was twenty-six. Nine out of ten of his classmates were taking work in the chemical industry, where they would be paid, in Keeling’s words, to “make breakfast cereals crisper, gasoline more powerful, plastics cheaper, and antibiotics more expensive.”

Keeling had discovered camping and backpacking in college. He decided that he wanted to work outdoors, where the horizon is wider than the meniscus in a test tube. Although his degree was in chemistry, he wrote brash letters to the deans of ten geology departments (“all west of the Continental Divide,” he says, “on account of the scenery.”)


80   as long as he was measuring: Jonathan Weiner has some neat facts, in his The Next One Hundred Years. The book makes for thrilling reading because Weiner (a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer) got to interview many of the climate principals while they were still above the ground. Our word gas comes from “the Flemish pronunciation of the Greek word chaos.” The Flemish alchemist who in the early 1600s coined that term wanted to call CO2 gas sylvestris, “spirit of wood, because it arose from burning wood and charcoal.”

Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, 17.


80   Instead, wind, the sun on his hands: Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press 2003. Chapter Two, “Discovering A Possibility,” 20.


Charles David Keeling—Dave to his friends—loved chemistry, and he loved the outdoors. As a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s, he was committed to the sterile stinks of the laboratory, but he spent all the time he could spare traveling mountains and woodland rivers. He chose research topics that would keep him in direct contact with wild nature. Monitoring the level of CO2 in the open air would do just that. Keeling’s work was one example of how geophysics research often rested on love of the true world itself.


80   He chased down a deer: Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Chapter Two, “Minute Particulars,” 20-1.

This is Keeling: “I rummaged around, grabbed my flashlight, looked out, and the flashlight was just like a policeman’s apprehending a suspect. Two big eyes, looking right at me! It was that darn mule deer (or another one just like it) and he had my research notebook between his teeth. And as soon as I got him started he ran off into the woods with the notebook.”


80   He was up on the roof: Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Chapter Two, “Minute Particulars,” 20-1.

Keeling, narrated by Weiner: “ ‘After all,’ he says, a little defensively, ‘there is absolutely nothing a husband can do.’”


80   “Keeling’s a peculiar guy”: The interviewer being Jonathan Weiner. Quoted in Broecker, Kunzig, Fixing Climate, 77. And Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, 31.

Revelle did not intend this as entirely a compliment. Dedicated people can be a problem; they see you as either aid or obstacle between themselves and their dedication. Weiner again:


“He wants to measure it in his belly. Measure it in all its manifestations, atmospheric and oceanic. And he’s done this all his life,” Revelle says, somewhat incredulously. “Very single-minded, and very, I suppose, narrow in his views, thinking only about this one problem. His overwhelming focus makes him rather difficult to deal with, as you can imagine.”


Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, 31.


81   the islands of Virginia: Wallace Broecker, Robert Kunzig, Fixing Climate, Hill and Wang | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008. Chapter Five, “Carbon Dioxide and the Keeling Curve,” 75. The islands have musical names: Chincoteague, Assateague. Lands purloined from the First Peoples by treaty and conquest. Chincoteague means “beautiful land across the water”; Assateague, “swiftly running water.”


81   The Weather Service: The New York Times, “Mauna Loa Unit Sets Air Study,” June 24, 1956.


81   if there’d been a Eureka moment.: Jonathan Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Bantam 1990, Chapter Five, “A Slow Eureka,” 80–81.


81   an amateur archeologist: This was the archeologist George Smith—like G.S. Callendar, a weekender. His day job was banknote engraver.

It’s fascinating to read about. Here’s a cite from the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”: a one-hundred episode joint production of the British Museum and the broadcaster that aired in 2010.

Episode 16, “Flood Tablet,” BBC.

Accessed 9-15-22.


81   tearing off his clothes in the British Museum: Archimedes and George Smith are both in Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, Chapter Five, “A Slow Eureka,” 80–81.


81   It took Keeling four years: In answer to Weiner’s question, Keeling gives a sense of the scientist’s day-to-day. Just like anyone else: requests, phone calls, paperwork. Life being a kind of videogame too—dashing down halls and around bureaucratic corners, trying to stay a few pixels ahead of the day’s chores, hazards, and setbacks.


“But when did it hit you?” I asked him. “What was the atmosphere like in this laboratory when you knew?”

Keeling remembered no particular moment of joy, dismay, or reflection. “I didn’t have time. I was just up to my ears trying to keep this experimental program going. It was all kinds of logistics, and communicating, repairing. . . . It was such an enormous effort to keep that program going. I almost decided to quit measurements at the end of ‘63.”


Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years, 82.


81   that’s the tiny number: At the way back, Arrhenius noted the tininess of this figure; the scientist ruminates on it in Worlds In the Making.


I have calculated that if the atmosphere were deprived of all its carbonic acid—of which it contains only 0.03 per cent. by volume—the temperature of the earth’s surface would fall by 21° [C]. This lowering of the temperature would diminish the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, and would cause a further almost equally strong fall of temperature. The examples, so far as they go, demonstrate that comparatively unimportant variations in the composition of the air have a very great influence.


Arrhenius, Worlds In the Making, 52-3.


81   Keeling measured: Wallace Broecker, Robert Kunzig, Fixing Climate, Hill and Wang | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008. Chapter Five, “Carbon Dioxide and the Keeling Curve,” 77.


82   “it was higher the fourth year”: A colleague of Keeling’s (who assures historian Spencer Weart about Keeling, “You will find him a most interesting individual”) put things with a little more blatancy: “Then it became so obvious that it was pitiful.”

Spencer Weart, “Oral History Interview with Donald H. Pack, 1991 April 25,” American Institute of Physics.

Accessed 9-15-22.


82   the Weather Channel: Businesswire, “Warming: Heading Into Earth Day, Biggest Weather Moment’s Significance Is Captured and Articulated by Pre-eminent Scientists and Climate Experts,” April 19, 2007.


Biggest Weather Moments takes us back to the discovery of global warming in 1958 by Dr. Charles David Keeling, professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, on the island of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Since then experts have been obsessed with the dramatic changes in climate, melting of the polar ice caps, rise of sea level, continued vulnerability to the earth’s coasts where more than half of the world’s population lives within 50 miles.


Warming as a whole is then discussed as the weather topliner.

Accessed 9-15-22.


82   The BBC: Helen Briggs, “50 Years On: The Keeling Curve Legacy,” BBC News, December 2, 2007. “‘It wasn’t until Keeling came along and started measuring CO2 that we got the evidence that CO2 was increasing from human activities,’ says Professor Andrew Watkinson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK.”


“Dave Keeling suffered many sleepless nights, even as late as in the 1990s, being forced again and again to justify continued funding of his programme,” recalls Dr [Andrew] Manning.

“The fact that we are celebrating 50 years now is due purely to his incredible perseverance, courage and optimism.”

He says the technical, analytical and logistical challenges of the work are enormous.

“To measure such tiny changes in the composition of the air, high on a remote mountain top in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is extremely challenging even today in the 21st Century,” he explains.

“That Dave Keeling was able to successfully begin and continue such highly demanding measurements in the 1950s is a tribute to his brilliance.”

Accessed 9-15-22.


82      his son Ralph: Jonathan Weiner, “Winter Forecast: Frigid. But Don’t Be Fooled. Global warming is still hot. Ask the Keelings, first family of the greenhouse effect,” The New York Times, October 23, 1994.

Re Ralph Keeling, then age 37: “The last time I had spoken to him he was working on a new kind of gas analyzer. Now he has finished it and has gone into his father’s line, so to speak.”


Ralph has figured out how to measure the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere in parts per million. He has repeated the measurement year after year since 1989, and has found that the level of oxygen in the air is falling, tracing a descending squiggle, a mirror image of his father’s.

You don’t need much chemistry to understand these curves. The carbon dioxide level is rising because we are burning things. The oxygen level is falling because when we burn things, we turn oxygen into carbon dioxide. We’re not about to run out of oxygen; but there is no question that carbon dioxide is piling up in the atmosphere, or that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas.


82      died after a Montana hike: Kenneth Chang, “Charles D. Keeling, 77, Who Raised Global Warming Issue, Dies,” The New York Times, June 23, 2005.


82      “Scientists are preparing to study”: Walter Sullivan, “Texans Use Earth As A Laboratory: Scientists Covering A Wide Area To Solve Mysteries of Carbon Dioxide,” The New York Times, December 8, 1957.


82      “Every time you start a car”: Robert C. Cowen, “Are Men Changing The Earth’s Weather?”, Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 1957.


82      “We’re changing the earth’s atmosphere”: The Washington Post, “40-Foot Ocean Rise Forecast,” April 7, 1957.


83      “U.S. Is Urged to Seek”: John W. Finney, “U. S. Is Urged to Seek Methods To Control the World’s Weather,” The New York Times, January 1, 1958.


83      The first network science program: Broadcast out of Baltimore’s WAAM, starting 1948; as of the sixties, it was the second-longest running network show, lagging only behind CBS’ “Meet the Press.”

Introduction, with march-of-progress horns: “Scientists are constantly probing into the basic, still unknown secrets of science which, when discovered, are translated into benefits to be enjoyed by You, the people of America.”

“Is Our Weather Changing?” was first broadcast February 6, 1955.


83      Frank Capra: Frank Capra, Leland A. Poague, Frank Capra: Interviews, Conversations With Filmmakers: University of Mississippi Press 2004, 62.


83      phoned by the president of AT&T: Capra expanded on this in his memoir The Name Above the Title, quoted in Gregory Allen Schrempp, Science, Bread, and Circuses, University Press of Colorado 2014.

And comes off sounding the teeniest bit like Nikola Tesla: that is, a series of episodes with himself as the indispensable cast member.

AT&T’s president told Capra, “After you there is no second choice.”

At a big AT&T table with the company president and his impressive Scientific Advisory Board: “Finally Dean Harrison, the physicist from M.I.T., spoke up. ‘Frank Capra, scientists feel there is a gulf, a widening gulf, between science on one side and Mr. Average Citizen on the other. We have become members of this Advisory Committee in the hope that we can help build a bridge across this gulf . . . You build such a bridge, Frank Capra, and you will accomplish much for yourself and the Telephone company, but much more for the nation and perhaps for the world.’” (440 of the memoir)

Funny, because the dialogue in his movies is usually pretty good.


83      a chemical engineering degree from Cal Tech: Frank Capra, Leland A. Poague, Frank Capra: Interviews, Conversations With Filmmakers: University of Mississippi Press 2004, 146.


83      The Unchained Goddess: The Unchained Goddess premiered on February 12, 1958, a Wednesday.


84      “a gradual increase in the mean temperature”: “As man is now changing the composition of the atmosphere at a rate which must be very exceptional on the geological time scale, it is natural to seek for the probable effects of such a change. From the best laboratory observations it appears that the principal result of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Callendar writes, “would be a gradual increase in the mean temperature of the colder regions of the earth.”

G.S. Callendar, “The Composition of the Atmosphere through the Ages,” The Meteorological Magazine 74, March 1939.

This sharp bit of pre-digital climate modeling also serves as the headpiece to Chapter 9, “Global Warming?”, of James Fleming’s Historical Perspectives on Climate Change.


84      “dramatic change”: Walter Sullivan, “Climate Warming In The Antarctic,” The New York Times, May 31, 1958.


84      warming at both poles: The New York Times, “A Warmer Earth Evident At Poles: Arctic Findings In Particular Support Theory of Rising Global Temperatures,” February 15, 1959.


84      a climatologist told Newsweek: Sharon Begley, Bruce Shenitz, William Underhill, “Ice Cubes for Penguins,” Newsweek, April 3, 1995.


Rodolfo Del Valle was conducting research at a scientific base in Antarctica this January when his radio crackled. Colleagues at an Argentine camp on the nearby Larsen Ice Shelf, rattled by nonstop ice quakes, yelled, “Rudy, something’s happening, the ice shelf is breaking,” recalls del Valle, director of geoscience at the Argentine Antarctic Institute. Riding in a light plane, del Valle flew over the Larsen shelf, as thick as 1,000 feet in places, and saw that it was in little pieces that “looked like polystyrene that had been broken by a little boy,” he reported last week. A 40-mile crack, 30 feet wide in places, had torn the ice shelf from the Weddell Sea to the mountains. “I was astonished,” says del Valle. “And then I cried. We know that the first step in the melting of the west Antarctic ice sheet could be the destruction of the ice shelf.”


Journalist Ross Gelbspan notes two more giant chunks of the Larsen shelf cracking into the sea as of 2002.

“The latest,” Gelbspan writes, “collapsed in just thirty-one days in the spring of 2002. For years, researchers had been watching pieces of the Larsen Ice Shelf B slowly break away, but the speed of disintegration was ‘staggering,’ according to David Vaughan, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey.”

Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster, Basic Books 2004. Chapter One, “Snapshots of the Warming No. 1,” 20.

(With a dedication that’s slightly depressing: “To Tottie—who never bargained for this kind of heaviness when we married thirty years ago and who has responded with . . . ”)


84      “The ice sheets are shrinking”: The scientist—we’ll see more of him—is Dr. Richard Alley. Alley is responsible for one of this reader’s favorite quotes about climate. It’s from early February 2007, when the IPCC finally removed the is-it-us? question from doubt.


“Policy makers paid us to do good science, and now we have very high scientific confidence in this work — this is real, this is real, this is real,” said Richard B. Alley, one of the lead authors and a professor at Penn State University. “So now act, the ball’s back in your court.”


Elisabeth Rosenthal, Andrew Revkin, “Panel Issues Bleak Report on Climate Change,” The New York Times, February 2, 2007.

And, again, Alley is the scientist (paleoclimatologist) here quoted. Jeff Goodell, “Can Doctor Evil Save the World?”, Rolling Stone, November 3, 2007.


84      “Man is moving and shaking”: Time, “Ocean Frontier,” July 6, 1959.


84      “We just get hotter and hotter”: Roy Gibbons, “World Flood Threat Seen By Scientist: Tree Planting Urged In Auto Gas Crisis,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 1, 1960.


84      “one of the chief concerns”: Walter Sullivan, “Scientists Agree World Is Colder,” The New York Times, January 30, 1961.


84      “They excrete no carbon dioxide”: “On the Way: Genuine Fusion,” Time, April 4, 1960. “Some scientists suspect that the ever-increasing amount of fossil fuel that is burned may be increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They fear that the added carbon dioxide will have a ‘greenhouse effect,’ trapping solar heat at the earth’s surface and raising its temperature. . . A cure might be a world agreement to use nuclear reactors wherever possible. They excrete no carbon dioxide.”

Nuclear power remains the available solution, to the (understandable) dismay of some environmental groups. (When I visited the Natural Resource Defense Council, I was treated to the sort of guild joke you quickly understand represents not a single person’s sense of humor but a community punchline: “Nuclear power is the most expensive way yet discovered to boil water.”)

Dr. Jim Hansen, America’s preeminent climate scientist, is in nuclear’s corner; for the simple reason Time explains. It’s all over his treatise Storms of My Grandchildren. An example:


When you learn of approval for plants to squeeze oil from coal, when the president advocates an ineffectual cap-and-trade approach for controlling carbon emissions, when our government funnels billions of dollars to support “clean coal” while treating next-generation nuclear power almost as a pariah, you can recognize right away that our government is not taking a strategic approach to solve the climate problem.


James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, Bloomsbury, 2009. Afterword.

And here’s Hansen being even more direct. Right there, first thing in the title.

James Hansen and Michael Shellenberger, “The Climate Needs Nuclear Power,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2019.


85      the Weather Bureau announced: “Scientists Agree World Is Colder,” The New York Times, January 30, 1961.


85      Pollution: A good easy summary is in the 2009 Presidential Address by the head of the American Academy for Advancement of Society James McCarthy (his day job is Harvard prof). McCarthy is speaking about G. S. Callendar.


He may well have been puzzled by the apparent leveling off or downward trend in the Earth’s average surface temperature during the 1940s and 1950s. It would be decades later before it could be shown that the anthropogenic release of reflective aerosols, in addition to natural processes, contributed to a slight cooling during this period even though the CO2 content of the atmosphere was continuing to increase.


James McCarthy, “Reflections On Our Planet and Its Life, Origins, and Futures,” Presidential Address, 175th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science, December 18, 2009.

The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky