On August 14, 1912, a little New Zealand newspaper published a brief piece warning that humankind’s increasing reliance on coal was raising world temperatures.
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 each year (even though it was actually a reprint of a piece published in a New South Wales mining journal a month earlier).
How Then Did This Come to Pass? when Will People Finally Listen to The Cautions Laid out In the Article?
This brief paper from 1912 established a causal relationship between the use of coal in power plants and the rise and fall of average global temperatures. Australia’s National Library has a copy of The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal.
Basic 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.
Her elementary tests demonstrated that carbon dioxide and water vapour absorb heat, which, when amplified, can have an effect on the global climate. Therefore, we have known for at least 150 years that greenhouse gases raise global temperatures.
In the subsequent 40 years, Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius conducted some rough math to determine what would happen to Earth’s temperature if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere was about 295 ppm at the time. This year’s concentration is 421 ppm, which is more than 50% higher than it was in pre-industrial times.
When asked about the effect of doubling CO2, Arrhenius said the earth will get 5 degrees hotter. Thankfully, this is larger than today’s figures, but it’s still reasonably close when you remember that he wasn’t working with a complex computer model. When he was a teacher in the early 1900s, the Swede was more concerned with the possibility of entering a new ice age than with global warming caused by human activity.
Studies of Climate Change Had a Shaky Start.
The 1912 New Zealand article probably borrowed heavily from a four-page spread in Popular Mechanics, which itself depended on the research of Arrhenius and others.
Articles like this are used by climate change deniers to show that we were aware of climate change, but this ignores the reality that Arrhenius’ theories were deemed radical at the time. However, there was pushback regarding carbon dioxide’s effectiveness as a greenhouse gas.
The impetus of the discussion died down when World War I broke out. When the oil industry took off, it pushed aside emerging technology like electric automobiles, which made up one-third of the nascent US auto market in 1900, in favour of fossil fuel research and development and military aims. Humans’ ability to change the world was still considered radical.
As Induced by The Calendar
The concept of climate change caused by humans did not reemerge until the 1930s. British engineer Guy Callendar collated data on global temperature rises from several sources.
Callendar was the first to unambiguously link rising temperatures to fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and to distinguish between the roles played by CO2 and water vapour, another powerful greenhouse gas.
A comparison between Guy Callendar’s 1938 findings and the most recent calculations of the global temperature trend as revealed in the IPCC assessment report. Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Calendar, like the author of the 1912 article, failed to predict the rapid pace of warming that would occur in the eighty years following the publication of his initial findings. Instead of a 1°C increase in temperature by the year 2000, as was really experienced, he projected only 0.39°C. Researchers were intrigued, though, and the topic became a hot one in the scientific community.
Yet, the decade of the 1930s ended with another global conflict. Quickly, the wars and subsequent reconstruction overshadowed Callendar’s insights.
New Optimism Dashed by Peddlers of Pessimism
In 1957, researchers launched the International Geophysical Year, a comprehensive study of Earth’s polar regions and upper atmosphere. As a result, we now have atmospheric monitoring stations to keep tabs on the steadily rising levels of greenhouse gases created by human activity. The oil industry, meanwhile, was awakening to the environmental damage it was causing.
Over the decades following World War II, climate change was not a divisive issue in politics. Although she was hardly a radical liberal, Margaret Thatcher recognised the dangers of climate change as prime minister of the United Kingdom. NASA scientist James Hansen delivered his now-famous 1988 address to the United States Congress, in which he declared that the era of global warming had arrived.
The longest continuous record of greenhouse gas observations dates back to 1958 when the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii began monitoring carbon dioxide levels. Getty
We were gaining steam. The Montreal Protocol, which effectively banned the use of ozone-depleting compounds to address the ozone hole, gave conservationists hope. Surely we have the ability to do the same in order to halt global warming.
We didn’t, and that is now obvious. It was one thing to eliminate a category of chemicals. However, how do we gradually stop using the fossil fuels that the modern world relies on? Definitely not easy.
To the point where conservative, pro-business parties all over the world now espouse climate scepticism, climate change has entered the political arena. In the sake of “balance,” the world’s media outlets regularly featured a sceptic alongside the other side of the argument. As a result, many people continued to think the verdict was still out, even as scientific evidence grew increasingly conclusive and disturbing.
As a result of this scepticism, progress slowed down. Though it was signed in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol to cut down on greenhouse gases wasn’t adopted until 2005. Attacks were made against the scientific community and individual researchers. An immediate ferocious struggle ensued, with prominent voices (often supported by fossil fuel interests) casting doubt on the veracity of mounting scientific findings.
Unfortunately, the increased volume of our efforts served to impede progress. 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. Now is the greatest moment to do it.
Despite decades of setbacks, the voices of climate science and social movements are now louder than ever, pleading for decisive and effective action.
There is no denying the scientific consensus. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that warming “could be largely due to natural variability,” but in 2021, they reported that humans had “unequivocally […] warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.”
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Even formerly sceptical media have shown a welcome shift. And the results of the federal election in May showed that public opinion is on the side of the planet.
There is still a long way to go, but it appears that public opinion, businesses, and governments are all heading in the same direction thanks to the recent strengthening of national and international climate policy.
Please help us commemorate the 110th anniversary of this little passage by reminding us to keep raising our voices and working toward the change that is so desperately needed.
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