On August 14, 1912, a publication in New Zealand, the Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette, ran a very small article. The title: Coal Consumption Affecting Climate.
This article speaks of how burning billions of tons of coal will add plenty more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. “This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature,” it explains, adding that “the effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
As pointed out by Snopes, this story has its origins in a piece published in a March 1912 issue of Popular Mechanics. Contrary to what you may think, it’s not that extraordinary that the bare essentials of anthropogenic climate change were known about more than a century ago. As it so happens, this isn’t even the oldest example of a news story of this kind.
Quartz’s quest uncovered a letter in Nature from 1882 that speaks of “carbonic oxide” and its effects on the atmosphere, referring to an even earlier letter regarding the subject. Sure, not all animal life ceased by 1900, as predicted, but the topic was clearly in the public eye by then.
That 1912 article, and others like it, crop up online from time to time. Every time they do, they remind us of something that many probably aren’t aware of.
These articles chronicle when the notion of greenhouse gases and humanity’s influence on the climate first started creeping into the public eye. What has been unquestionably clear for nearly two centuries now, however, are the bare essentials of atmospheric warming.
The science of climate change is an ever-evolving, complex beast. Calculations, models and nuanced understandings of how the atmosphere interacts with the surface world, and how we influence it, are getting increasingly accurate month-by-month. Uncertainties still exist, of course: how will positive feedback cycles, like permafrost carbon and methane stores, react as the world warms, for example?
Saying that, the underlying physical and chemical drivers of warming is more rudimentary than you might suspect.
We have known that different atmospheric compositions trap heat better than others ever since French scientist Joseph Fourier pondered on the concept in 1824.
In 1856, Eunice Foote, an American scientist and women’s rights campaigner published a paper that, for the first time, suggested that carbon dioxide was vital to keeping a sunlight planet warm. Sadly, her ideas were ignored at the time due to institutionalized sexism.
That aforementioned Nature letter was in fact responding to the work of John Tyndall, an Irish physicist that showed in 1859 how only small quantities of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and others could dramatically change the planet’s temperature.
The Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to demonstratively, quantitatively link carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect in a paper back in 1896. Titled On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, he doesn’t explicitly link the burning of fossil fuels to climate change. He does, however, know that they are carbon-rich, and the link is directly made in future work of his.
At one point, he remarks: “I should certainly not have undertaken these tedious calculations if an extraordinary interest had not been connected with them.” Arrhenius then talks about major climatological changes in Earth’s history, foreshadowing the realization of what was starting to pass.
The acceptance of climate science is a dramatic story, featuring pioneers that convinced an initially skeptical scientific community and, of course, later climate denial villains. Throughout, though, the basic facts have not changed, and climatology has its roots far back into the past.
It’s such a shame that we’re still doing nowhere near enough to seize upon this and change the future.