I was reminded of this when I recently spoke with Aidan Colton, an atmospheric scientist at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island. The first things I heard when he picked up the phone were roosters crowing in the background. Sounds like home, I told him.
“I love the aloha spirit,” he said, laughing. “But I’m not a huge fan of the roosters.”
Colton, who was born and raised in Hawaii, spoke to me from his house, located near an old sugar plantation. Many of his current neighbors, he said, still were Filipinos.
“I don’t have any plans of leaving,” he said. “This is home.”
Colton’s job at the Mauna Loa Observatory is to monitor the atmosphere for dozens of different kinds of gases, including carbon dioxide, or CO2, the main driver of climate change and a key byproduct of the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. Pioneering scientist Dave Keeling set up the lab in 1956 and developed a new technology to use infrared radiation to gauge atmospheric gases. The team started recording CO2 levels two years later.
They were the first to do it and, to date, the site has the longest-running record of CO2 levels in the world. It’s a perfect spot, located more than 11,000 feet above sea level, on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano.
The data has become essential to understanding what’s happening today with climate change.
“If you don’t know where you start, then you don’t know where you are at any point in history,” said Colton.
And what the data is telling us is clear.
“Since we started measuring CO2 in 1958, it’s actually increased by 28 percent,” said Colton. “That really means something.”
For perspective, Colton puts it this way: For 800,000 years, the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases had remained relatively constant. That created a stable environment; one that gave rise to human civilization and allowed for the delicate balance of agriculture and biodiversity that sustains life, as we know it.
But that started to change in the 20th century.
Readings at Mauna Loa in the late 1950s and into the 60s show a steady increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.
But what’s significant is how fast that change ramped up.
“What we’re seeing now is an increase that’s at least a hundred times faster than we’ve seen in the history of CO2, going back those 800,000 years,” said Colton. “It’s much higher than we’ve ever seen.”
So what happened to unleash this unprecedented level of CO2, and other greenhouse gases, into our air?
If you stack the Mauna Loa data side by side with the timeline of industrial technology, you’ll have your answer: the explosion of modern society demanded ever more cheap and accessible fossil fuel energy and, in turn, the inevitable product of combustion filled our air.
At first glance, the appeal of fossil fuels makes a lot of sense. Think about it, one barrel of oil provides the same energy as about 11 years of manual labor. The average American uses about 60 barrels per year. That’s a high demand. How many hours, even years and decades, of back-breaking work, are saved or redirected to other pursuits?
But that ease on our time and labor has a cost. And, throughout the decades, not everyone benefitted from that rush of cheap energy.
Put another way, what made the rich nations of this world rich and what fueled a lifestyle that many of us Filipinos (and others around the globe) admire and aspire to, also sent our planet hurtling toward a permanently altered climate.
That fact has also influenced how we come to think of solutions.
I recall speaking with Meena Raman, a climate policy expert with the Third World Network, as she attended the U.N.-backed talks in Stockholm in September of 2013.
“The developing nations can change the way they are producing energy, can move away from the old types of energy systems,” Raman said at the time. “But what is worrying is that the money is not on the table.”
Raman was referring to a Green Climate Fund, created by U.N. countries in 2010, so that the richer nations of the world could make sure that the poorer nations had the means to adapt to climate change and provide much-needed energy and development for their citizens through renewable technology, such as wind and solar.
Yet, by 2015, the U.S. and other wealthy countries had sent less than half of the money promised to the fund. In other words, a program designed to address the historic gap in climate change responsibility was falling short.
So where does this leave our atmosphere today?
As international policy talks stall and the Trump Administration in the U.S. – still the top per capita CO2 emitter in the world – strips what little progress has been made in recent years, more fossil fuels are burning and more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Aidan Colton and his colleagues at the Mauna Loa Laboratory continue to rise in the morning to reach the 11,000 feet up the volcano to monitor our air. Those samples are compared with readings from three other stations around our globe – one in Alaska, another in Samoa and a fourth at the South Pole. Together, they are showing us, with ever greater clarity, the dire consequences of our modern gamble.
And once again, places like Hawaii and the Philippines are in the line of fire. Colton points to one sign from 2015, when three Category 4 hurricanes formed over the Pacific Basin at the same time. If you see the satellite image, it looks like giant, whirling triplets rampaging across the ocean.
“That’s never been seen before,” said Colton. And that’s a direct result of the heat-trapping
gases in the atmosphere that he tracks day by day, as warm air gathers water vapor, triggering more intense weather.
“These storms have more fuel to get larger and larger,” he said.
For all the importance and precision of climate data, however, even Colton concedes that there are limits to what it can tell us. That leaves the rest of us to ask the questions: How much larger will the storms get? And how much more can our world’s atmosphere – and our cities and villages – withstand?
Dorian Merina is a writer and journalist currently based in Los Angeles. This is part of a multipart series exploring climate change and the Filipino diaspora. Future articles will address the future of the world’s oceans, food production and migration.
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