In a brief article published on August 14, 1912, a local New Zealand newspaper reported that the increasing use of coal around the world was having an effect on global warming.
As one of the earliest media depictions of climate science, this article from 1911 has gained notoriety and is now widely circulated online around this time every year (even though it was actually a reprint of a piece published in a New South Wales mining journal a month earlier).
Whence then did this development take place? And what’s taking so long for people to listen to and respond to the article’s warnings?
The underlying scientific principles have been known for quite some time.
Several years before John Tyndall of the United Kingdom reported identical conclusions, American scientist and women’s rights activist Eunice Foote demonstrated the greenhouse effect in 1856.
Although her tests were simple, they did demonstrate that carbon dioxide and water vapour can absorb heat, which, when extrapolated to a global scale, can impact the Earth’s average temperature. Consequently, we have known for at least 150 years that greenhouse gases raise global temperatures.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius conducted some rough math to determine what would happen to Earth’s temperature if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. About 295 ppm of carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere at the time. At 421 parts per million this year, the concentration is more than 50% more than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
In his work, Arrhenius calculated that a rise in global temperature of 5 degrees Celsius would result from a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Thankfully, this is larger than today’s calculations, but it’s still really close, especially considering he didn’t have access to any kind of fancy computer model. The Swede was initially more concerned with the possibility of entering a new ice age than with the prospect of global warming, but by the turn of the century, he was shocking his students with the news that the planet was steadily warming due to the burning of coal.
The Field of Climate Research Was First Considered a “marginal”
The 1912 New Zealand article probably drew inspiration from a four-page spread in Popular Mechanics that drew on the research of Arrhenius and others.
When people argue that we always knew about climate change, they often reference articles like this one to back up their claims. However, this ignores the reality that Arrhenius’ ideas were deemed radical at the time. Actually, there was pushback over carbon dioxide’s effectiveness as a greenhouse gas.
When World War I broke out, interest in the subject waned. The advent of oil led to the demise of other promising technologies, such as electric cars, which made up one-third of the nascent U.S. auto market in 1900. It was still a minority opinion that people could have an effect on the entire world.
Affect named after Callendar
Not until the 1930s did concerns over climate change again emerge as a major issue for humanity. British engineer Guy Callendar compiled global weather observations and discovered warming trends.
Callendar was the first to distinguish between the relative importance of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour (H2O), another powerful greenhouse gas, in explaining the observed warming trend.
The rate of warming that we have experienced in the 80 years since Callendar’s initial results was similarly overestimated in the 1912 study. It was 1 degree warmer than he had forecasted by the year 2000. It did, however, attract the attention of researchers, which led to a heated scientific dispute.
However, global conflict resumed as the 1930s came to a close. Discoveries made by Callendar were quickly forgotten in the face of war and subsequent reconstruction.
New Optimism Destroyed by Peddlers of Scepticism
In 1957, scientists initiated the International Geophysical Year, an intensive study of Earth’s poles and atmosphere. As a result, air monitoring stations were set up to record the rising levels of greenhouse gases due to human activity. At the same time, the oil industry began to realise the global effects of its operations.
For many years after World War II, climate change was not a major political issue. Even though she was hardly a radical liberal, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recognised the dangers of climate change. NASA scientist James Hansen presented his now-famous speech to Congress in 1988, declaring that the era of global warming had arrived.
The tide was turning. The Montreal Protocol, which effectively ended the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals, gave conservationists reason for hope. No doubt we could employ the same strategy to avert climate change.
We didn’t, and that is now obvious. Removing an entire category of chemicals from use was one thing. But to gradually transition away from the fossil fuels that underpinned the industrial revolution? That’s a lot more difficult.
As a result of the politicisation of climate change, conservative pro-business parties in many countries began to express doubts about the science behind climate change. The media on a global scale frequently featured a sceptic for “balance.” That led many to doubt the science, even as it grew increasingly conclusive and dangerous.
Inevitably, this cautiousness caused setbacks. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement signed in 1992 to cut down on greenhouse gases, was officially put into effect. The scientific community and the scientists working in it were attacked. Early on, a violent battle erupted, with prominent figures, frequently supported by fossil fuel interests, casting doubt on the veracity of mountainous scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, the increased noise caused by our efforts has slowed things down. Climate warming has accelerated natural disasters and intensified heatwaves, but people’s refusal to embrace the truth has given the fossil fuel sector at least another decade.
A decisive move should have been made in 1912. We are currently in the best possible time frame.
Science on climate change and social movements have been pushing for decisive action for decades, and their voices have recently become more amplified than ever.
There is no room for debate in regard to science. The newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, from 2021, declares that people have “unequivocally warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” The first report, from 1990, indicated that global warming “may be largely attributable to natural variability.”
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Even previously suspicious media outlets have begun to show signs of transformation, which is quite encouraging. And the results of the federal election in May showed that the public is on our side.
Although there is still a long way to go, it appears that governments, businesses, and the general public are all moving in the same direction with regard to climate change, and national and international climate policies are at their strongest point yet.
Let’s use this little passage’s 110th anniversary as motivation to keep raising our voices and demanding the change that is so desperately needed.
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