Current atmospheric CO2 concentration is known to be higher than it has been during the past ~800 k.y. of Earth history, based on direct measurement of CO2 within ice cores. A comparison to the more ancient past is complicated by a deficit of CO2 proxies that may be applied across very long spans of geologic time. Here, we present a new CO2 record across the past 23 m.y. of Earth history based on the δ13C value of terrestrial C3 plant remains, using a method applicable to the entire ~400 m.y. history of C3 photosynthesis on land. Across the past 23 m.y., CO2 likely ranged between ~230 ppmv and 350 ppmv (68% confidence interval: ~170–540 ppm). CO2 was found to be highest during the early and middle Miocene and likely below present-day levels during the middle Pliocene (84th percentile: ~400 ppmv). These data suggest present-day CO2 (412 ppmv) exceeds the highest levels that Earth experienced at least since the Miocene, further highlighting the present-day disruption of long-established CO2 trends within Earth’s atmosphere.

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