We Understood the Scientific Basis of Climate Change in the 19th Century
In order to undermine efforts to address the problem, skeptics like to argue that man-made climate change is a new and unproven theory. Actually scientists understood the relationship between pouring billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the warming of the planet long before cars were invented.
French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier is credited with discovering the "greenhouse effect" in 1824, although he never referred to it as that. He discovered that Earth's atmosphere allowed the planet to be warmer than it would be without one and suggested that human activity could alter the earth's climate. And about 25 years later in 1859 an English scientist named John Tyndall discovered that water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2) trapped heat in our atmosphere.
These discoveries led to Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius's groundbreaking research in the 1890s. He published calculations in 1896 showing how much the temperature would increase for each unit of carbon dioxide introduced into our atmosphere. The few scientists who were paying attention, however, thought that the results of this warming would be far in the future and of no particular concern to humans. They had no idea of the population increases and new inventions of the 20th century.
By the 1930s scientists had noticed that the earth's temperature was beginning to rise, although many believed it might be a natural phenomenon. But English steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar argued that it was the result of greenhouse gas emissions and that the warming trend would continue. He was correct and by the 1950s climate scientists thought it might be wise to track warming in the atmosphere.
History.aip.org: "In the 1950s, Callendar's claims provoked a few scientists to look into the question with far better techniques and calculations than earlier generations could have deployed. This research was made possible by a sharp increase of government funding, especially from military agencies that wanted to know more about the weather and geophysics in general. Not only might such knowledge be crucial in future battles, but scientific progress could bring a nation prestige in the Cold War competition. The new studies showed that, contrary to earlier crude assumptions, CO2 might indeed build up in the atmosphere and bring warming. In 1960 painstaking measurements of the level of the gas in the atmosphere by Charles Keeling, a young scientist with an obsession for accuracy, drove home the point. The level was in fact rising year by year."
"During the next decade a few scientists worked up simple mathematical models of the planet's climate system and turned up feedbacks that could make the system surprisingly sensitive. Others figured out ingenious ways to retrieve past temperatures by studying ancient pollen and fossil shells. It appeared that grave climate change could happen, and in the past had happened, within as little as a century or two. This finding was reinforced by more elaborate models of the general circulation of the atmosphere, an offshoot of a government-funded effort to use the new digital computers to predict (and perhaps even deliberately change) the weather. Calculations made in the late 1960s suggested that in the next century, as CO2 built up in the atmosphere, average temperatures would rise a few degrees. But the models were preliminary, and the 21st century seemed far away."
We have understood the relationship between greenhouse gases and climate change for quite some time. Perhaps if more people understood that we could spend less time debating the causes of global warming and more time discussing what to do about it.
Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier
By: Don Lam, Curated Content