Climate change has been in the news for the past 110 years. Are we finally willing to listen?

We should have acted on climate change in 1912. Linden Ashcroft of The Conversation explains.

On August 14, 1912, a small New Zealand newspaper published a short article stating that global coal usage was affecting the temperature of our planet.

This piece from 110 years ago is now well-known, and it is widely shared on the internet around this time of year as one of the first pieces of climate science in the media (even though it was actually a reprint of a piece published in a New South Wales mining journal a month earlier).

So, how did it happen? And why has it taken so long for the article’s warnings to be heard – and heeded?

For a long time, fundamental science has been understood.

Eunice Foote, an American scientist and women’s rights activist, is widely credited with being the first to demonstrate the greenhouse effect in 1856, several years before United Kingdom researcher John Tyndall published similar results.

Her preliminary experiments revealed that carbon dioxide and water vapour can absorb heat, which, when scaled up, can affect the earth’s temperature. As a result, we’ve known about the link between greenhouse gases and global warming for at least 150 years.

Svente Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, did some basic calculations four decades later to estimate how much the Earth’s temperature would change if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 levels were around 295 parts per million molecules of air at the time. We’ve reached 421 parts per million this year, which is more than 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.

Arrhenius estimated that doubling CO2 would result in a 5°C hotter world. This is, thankfully, higher than modern calculations, but not by much, given that he wasn’t using a sophisticated computer model! At the time, the Swede was more concerned about entering a new ice age than global warming, but by the 1900s, he was shocking his students with news that the world was slowly warming due to coal combustion.

Climate science began on the outskirts.

The snippet from 1912 New Zealand was most likely based on a four-page spread from Popular Mechanics magazine, which drew on the work of Arrhenius and others.

When climate activists point to articles like this and claim that we already knew about climate change, they overlook the fact that Arrhenius’ ideas were generally considered fringe, which means that few people took them seriously. In fact, there was some debate about how effective carbon dioxide was as a greenhouse gas.

When World War I broke out, the topic lost steam. Oil began its rise, pushing aside promising technologies like electric cars, which had a third of the fledgling US car market in 1900, in favor of fossil-fuel technological advancements and military goals. The notion that humans could have an impact on the entire planet remained on the fringe.

The Callendar Effect

Human-caused climate change did not resurface until the 1930s. Guy Callendar, a UK engineer, compiled weather observations from around the world and discovered that temperatures had already risen.

Not only was Callendar the first to clearly identify a warming trend and link it to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, but he also distinguished the importance of CO2 versus water vapour, another potent greenhouse gas.

Callendar, like the 1912 article, overestimated the rate of warming in the 80 years following his initial findings. He predicted that the world would be 0.39°C hotter by the year 2000, rather than the 1°C we saw. However, it drew the attention of scientists, sparking an intense scientific debate.

However, the world went to war again at the end of the 1930s. Callendar’s discoveries were quickly overshadowed by battles and rebuilding.

New hope dashed by doubt merchants

In 1957, scientists launched the International Geophysical Year, a year-long investigation of the Earth, its poles, and its atmosphere. This resulted in the establishment of atmospheric monitoring stations to track the steady increase in human-caused greenhouse gases. At the same time, oil companies became aware of the environmental impact of their operations.

There was little political polarization over climate during the postwar decades. During her tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, far from being a radical leftist, saw global warming as a clear threat. NASA scientist James Hansen delivered his now-famous address to the United States Congress in 1988, claiming that global warming had already begun.

The momentum was building. The Montreal Protocol, which effectively halted the use of ozone-depleting substances to address the growing hole in the ozone layer, inspired many conservationists. We could surely do the same to combat climate change.

We didn’t, as we now know. It was one thing to phase out a class of chemicals. But how do we wean ourselves off the fossil fuels that powered the modern world? Much more difficult.

Climate change became politicized, with conservative pro-business parties all over the world expressing skepticism about the issue. In the interest of “balance,” global media coverage frequently included a skeptic. As a result, many people believed the jury was still out, even though science was becoming increasingly certain and alarming.

Delays resulted from this skepticism. The Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1992 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was not ratified until 2005. Science, and scientists in particular, have come under fire. Soon, a vicious scuffle erupted, with loud voices – often funded by fossil fuel interests – calling into question overwhelming scientific evidence.

Unfortunately for us, these loud efforts slowed progress. People who refused to accept science extended the life of the fossil fuel industry by at least a decade, even as climate change continued to worsen, with supercharged natural disasters and intensifying heatwaves.

1912 was the best year to act. The next best time is right now.

After decades of setbacks, climate science and social movements are calling for stronger and more meaningful action than ever before.

The science is undeniable. While the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990 stated that global warming “could be largely due to natural variability,” the most recent report from 2021 states that humans have “unambiguously […] warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.”

We’ve even noticed a positive shift in previously skeptical media outlets. And, as the May federal election demonstrated, public opinion is on the other side of the planet.

National and international climate policies are stronger than ever, and while much work remains to be done, it appears that government, business, and public sentiment are finally moving in the same direction.

Let us use the 110th anniversary of this short snippet as a reminder to keep speaking up and, eventually, pushing for the change we need.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Posts