A Brief History of Climate Change

by Alice Bell

I don’t want to alarm you, but earlier this summer, the North Pole melted. Here’s a picture taken from North Pole Environmental Observatory of a buoy floating on water there. Floating, because it melted. You might have seen headlines about it. But you probably didn’t. There were a few reasons for that. I’ll explain later.

First, some history. Because although it wasn’t until 1975 that we really got the term "global warming" - US scientist Wallace Broecker used it in the title of a scientific paper - we’ve had a sense of the phenomenon the term describes for a lot longer. We’ve also been making social changes and political statements about related issues for years too. Way before Thatcher did her 1989 speech to the UN, a 1965 US President's Advisory Committee panel warned that the greenhouse effect is a matter of "real concern". And we’ve been dealing with challenges of pollution for much, much longer than that.

It was in 1824 that scientists first started talking about the earth’s “greenhouse effect” (or at least French physicist, Joseph Fourier did). The existence of this thing we called an atmosphere which protected us from the sun was already established, and Fourier argued the composition of that atmosphere could change and lead to warming, similar to that one might experience sitting in a greenhouse on a hot day. In 1861, Irish physicist John Tyndall identified particular gases which might causes such an effect; he’s remembered today with a research centre named after him. By the end of the 19th century, with the industrial revolution in full swing across much of Western Europe, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded the key gas involved was CO2.

In the 1930s, Guy Callendar - a professional steam engineer, but keen meteorologist as a hobby - used weather stations’ records to show that temperatures have risen over the previous century. He also notes the increase in CO2 concentrations over the same period, suggesting a link. Although largely dismissed by meteorologists at the time, in hindsight, scientists now see this work as fundamental. Fast forward to the 1950s, and people are gradually putting themselves back together after the war and worrying about the newer, Cold one. There’s a lot of money poured into geophysical work in this period, partly because scientific work was seen as a way people from different countries could peaceably work together. There was Geophysical Year in 1957, a significant post-war event in the interaction of scientists between East and West. The Antarctic Treaty followed in 1959, declaring a special bit of the world as space for scientific research, keeping a resource war off it in the process, or at least delaying one. As Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book outlines, there was also a fair bit of interest in environmental science from the US military (and not just when they thought about nuking the ice caps to raise sea levels, though that totally was a thing for a while, and the Soviets had some plans up their sleeves too).

New equipment, including early computers, allowed physicists to see further and in more detail. There was an increasing amount of interdisciplinary work. This wasn’t always easy, but allowed geologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists and more to share ideas, techniques and approaches making what we now still slightly loosely consider the field of “Climate Science.” Using some of these speedy new computers, American physicist Gilbert Plass concluded doubling CO2 concentrations will increase temperatures by 3-4C, and oceanographer Roger Revelle, working with chemist Hans Suess, argued that the initial hope that seawater would absorb excess CO2 was probably unrealistic. Revelle wrote slightly haunting line: "Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment." That was 1957.

In 1958, a Dr Charles D. Keeling began a regular measure of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from an observatory in Hawaii. Today, his son Ralph works on the same research project; a nice example of multi-generational science of environmental change. The full graph (above) shows the long sweep from 1958 – when it was around 317 parts per million – till today’s readings skirting around 400. That’s what graphs show: change. They are stories in a way. If you want empirical evidence from further back, no one has a time machine to start a new monitoring station in 1650, but we can use natural time capsules. Drill deep into the Antarctic ice and look at the bubbles of gas left in ice decades ago, and see what the CO2 concentration in these are. There’s an ice core on display at the Science Museum if you want to see one.

And then there was the "hole" in the ozone layer. I love this bit of history most of all. I love it because they nearly didn’t find it. As Joe Farman - co-discover of the hole - told the British Library’s Aural History of Science project, the British Antarctic Survey gradually started to get unexpected observations of ozone in the early 1980s and at first assumed the instruments were faulty. Even when they did realise there was something up, it was hard to connect that data with the chemists and other analysts who could work out what it meant. Even when they did put it all together and sent off the now iconic 1985 paper– on Christmas Eve - the head of Farman's division tried to suppress the work, writing to the Met Office to say it shouldn't be published in case it was wrong and caused embarrassment. I also love this story because it’s not quite as simple as a ‘hole', or at least (again according to Farnman) no-one ever really owned up to coining the phrase. The idea of a hole in the ozone layer - as opposed to something more complex - seemed to have appeared somewhere between a NASA press office and a journalist at the Washington Post looking for a way to explain what was going on.

I also love the story of the “hole” in the ozone layer because we actually did something about it: the Montreal Protocol. 50 years ago CFCs were seen as miracle chemicals, safe at least in terms of immediate use. Then we found the hole in the ozone layer, and realised it was CFCs which had been causing that. So we banned them. As a world we collected together and said nah, this is really dumb, let’s find other ways to make fridges and hairspray. We’ve made steps towards this on climate change, but only steps. In 1972, there was the first UN environment conference. It might have been more interested in whaling than climate, but it was a start, and the United Nations Environment Programme is set up. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change. In 1992 there was the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments agreed the United Framework Convention on Climate Change, aiming to stablise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that’d prevent dangerous warming. And in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was agreed. OK, so the US Senate immediately declares it will not ratify the treaty and we’re nowhere near the vision of Rio 1992 (read Monbiot’s eulogy and weep). But we put something in place. We have done things before, we can do things again, and build on what we have, if we let ourselves see it.

Running alongside the story of discovering climate change is a history of humans causing it. In some ways, it is only recently that we’ve really started using fossil fuels. Recently, certainly, in terms of how long they’ve been around, but recent in human terms too. The industrial revolution of the late 18th century onwards marks a point where our uptake of coal and then oil and gas really took off.

Our current energy system wasn't always the case. Petroleum was once used to paint canoes. It was later sold in small quantities for medical purposes (for this, and more, see Yergin's The Prize). It took a while before anyone thought of burning it, though whale oil had been used for lamps before that. It wasn’t always this way. For example, did you know Shell are called Shell because they started off selling seashells? Back in the 1830s, Marcus Samuel, an East London antique dealer, realised there was a market for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil.

The history of coal can be especially useful in telling us something of how we’ve reacted to problems involved in fossil fuels before. As Barbara Freese's book, Coal: A Human History describes, as London grew, it craved energy and soon sucked up the forests surrounding for fuel and space. Still hungry, it found coal and shipped it into the capital instead. Except coal is poison. You don’t need modern chemistry and ideas about climate change to see that. The smoke is just nasty. By the 1660s, London was not pleasant. The rich people still used wood, and would leave the city when it got smoggy, but the poor coughed on. Or died. Then we started building houses with chimneys and the smoke went up, so people could use coal without such immediate pollution in their homes. It still polluted the city, but that was less immediate. Because this was more of a collective problem of composite emissions, it needed a collective answer. This came in the form of the 1956 Clean Air Act which made parts of the county ‘smoke free’, a response to the great smog of 1952 which had people falling over in the street.

Next time you’re on the top deck of a bus or train going through the older bits of a town, with all its chimneys, think about what they did for people, and how now they are a bit redundant. They are artefacts of other energy ages. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”. We could probably be a bit more proactive about this kind of decision making.

Today, there is a way in which these grubby, smelly, powerful fuels are increasing discussed in the almost immaterial terms of economic abstractions. In 2006 the Stern Review concluded climate change could damage global GDP by up to 20% if left unchecked and this financial framing has been a powerful one. There has been some sense that carbon emissions have dropped because of the recession, but more recent research argues that the long-standing consequences of the recession will really be quite bad for the environment, as politicians make more short-term decisions. Activists have also thought about the economy as a way to campaign, cutting off the financial lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry. Much of this recent work has been inspired by the idea of “unburnable carbon”. In the 1990s we’d often talk about running out of gas and oil, compared to “renewables” of solar or wind. But we can’t burn the fossil fuels we’ve got, and yet we keep finding more. This is why fracking is such a big deal, and drilling the Arctic -it would let us access fuel we couldn’t get to before. “Keep it in the ground” has become a mantra of environmentalism, with activists, following Bill McKibben’s lead, looking to financial systems as a way to leave them "stranded". 

I gave a talk about all of this at Demand the Impossible earlier in the summer. At the end, one of the participants asked when I thought the point would come when climate change would be so bad the politicians would start to take notice and do something. But the thing is that point happened long ago. We just don’t notice. Or if we do, we somehow managed to dismiss them. Maybe we’re all “deniers”.

I’ve occasionally heard climate activists get a bit carried away and talk wistfully about how maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a really cold winter here during a shocking heatwave in Australia, and then a hurricane will hit a rich city in the US along with some devastating floods elsewhere and this will manage a tipping point for actual action on climate. I hate this. It sounds like they are wishing for people suffering. Also, we can't wait. Climate change isn't an instantaneous process. We’re already likely looking at quite horrific consequences of the warming we’ve set in motion with the carbon we’ve already pumped out (see the recent World Bank report, for one version of this). What we did in the past has already made the future worse. What we do now can only limit that damage. By the time there is that "event" it will be way, way too late.

Instead of waiting for the environment to enact some terrible moment to galvanise us into action we need to construct a shock of our own, a social shock where we collectively take action. We are already doing this, but we need to do more. The people need to rise before the seas do.

But back to the North Pole. And that buoy floating on a lake where you might expect to see ice. Why wasn’t that on every front page? One answer is because the media doesn’t like to talk about climate change much. That’s undoubtedly part of it. But it’s also because it’s not really news. It does it every year. It’s summer. Ice melts. In a way this is normal, or at least it's not a sudden big deal (and according to The Atlantic this actual picture was a bit south of the actual pole anyway). If you look closely at the data over time, you can see it’s melting more than it was and is likely to melt more. The “balding Arctic” crept up on us. It won't be some big iconic moment that will inspire us, but simply more of the incremental action, observation, anaysis, imagination and debate by scientists, engineers, politicians, writers and activists. Isn't that enough?

Alice Bell is a co-editor at New Left Project.

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First published: 27 September, 2013

Category: Environment

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17 Comments on "A Brief History of Climate Change"

By geoff Chambers, on 30 September 2013 - 02:35 |

Very interesting history of the science of climatology, at least in its earlier section. But you leave out the big discovery of the past fifty years, which is that, despite the sudden increase of manmade greenhouse gas emissions from around midcentury, the rate of temperature rise has hardly changed. Temperatures in the past sixty years have continued to zigzag upwards precisely as the did in the previous sixty years, before significant CO2 emissions. Predictions of temperature rise are falling, and the IPCC is no longer able to give an estimate for climate sensitivity. These facts represent important advances in our knowledge, and surely deserve comment.

By Alice, on 30 September 2013 - 10:45 |

There’s a lot that’s missing here. That’s what writing is about, picking what to include. Please stop telling me what to write Geoff. It may well frustrate you a lot that NLP doesn’t take a similar to line to your friends at Bishop Hill, but this is our space and those are our choices.

On climate sensitivity, if you want a comment, I don’t really have one of my own. Better to go with someone who has studied it in more detail:

(ref: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_27-9-2013-15-14-9)

What is climate sensitivity and what are the current estimates for it?

Professor Hoskins: “Climate sensitivity gives a measure of the increase in surface temperature associated with a doubling of carbon dioxide. The IPCC’s new estimate is that the long-term increase in surface temperature in response to CO2 doubling is likely to be between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, consistent with estimates first made in 1979. The lower bound is smaller than the value in the IPCC’s previous assessment in 2007, but this should not distract us from the concern that we may well be on track to exceed three degrees warming by the end of the century on current emissions trends.

Does this mean we don’t need to worry about climate change?

Professor Hoskins: “The case for action on climate change does not rest on hoping for the best, but on the potential scale of the climate risks and reducing those risks, which depend on the trajectory of global emissions over the next few decades and the whole range of estimates of the climate sensitivity.

“If we continue at current rates of emissions and if the upper limit of the IPCC’s estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity is right – which is unchanged from their last assessment – then we really are entering extremely dangerous territory.  So the message to governments is clear: we need to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions, whatever the real value of the climate sensitivity is.”

By Reiner Grundmann, on 30 September 2013 - 10:48 |

Sherwood Rowland actually coined the metaphor ‘ozone hole’. He told me so when I interviewed him, see my book Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone (p.206, you can read it on Google books). I think the metaphor was used by him first when talking to a student newspaper.

Rowland read the whole manuscript of my book before publication (as did Lovelock). So this piece of history should be uncontroversial.

By Barry Woods, on 30 September 2013 - 10:50 |

one interesting observation made recently is that Guy Callendars CO2 model seems to be outperforming the models referenced by the IPCC


By Reiner Grundmann, on 30 September 2013 - 11:05 |

There is an actual reference to the student newspaper (and to the New York Times) on p 102-3 in my book.

By Alice, on 30 September 2013 - 11:10 |

Re: Barry’s comment above. People reading this are welcome to follow his link to Climate Audit, but probably worth noting that Steve Mcintyre is a climate sceptic.

If you know the science and politics of all of this well enough to weave through it yourself, you may well find it interesting. But if you are still learning about the topic, that’s probably not the best place to start.

Thanks for the note about Sherwood Rowland Prof Grundmann!

By Barry Woods, on 30 September 2013 - 11:15 |

Steve Mcintyre is also on the record as saying, that if he were a politician he would have been following the IPCC advice. Sceptic Health warnings, do you trust your readers that little.?

Is what Steve McIntyre more or less right/wrong about Callendar’s model, depending on what label is stuck onto him? 

By Alice, on 30 September 2013 - 11:23 |

Just noting Barry, you can take it as a “health warning” if you want.

I don’t know if McIntyre is wrong or not. I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. Yet again I find people in comment threads of climate pieces trying to get me to say one thing or another, and I find it a bit objectionable.

By geoff Chambers, on 30 September 2013 - 14:13 |

AliceI don’t think I told you what to write. I made a comment on something that’s happened which is directly relevant to the factual part of your article. I don’t see what having friends at Bishop Hill has to do with anything. I may have friends at New Left Project (it’s a small world) but it’s not relevant to anything here.In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that Steve McIntyre is on record (at the July 2010 Guardian debate) as saying that he is not a climate sceptic. He’s a statistician with strong opinions on the way science should be conducted, and as such his views are of interest to anyone involved in the history or sociology of science.As Professor Hoskins points out in the extract you quote, the IPCC estimates climate sensitivity as being in the range of 1.5-4.5°C. Most Bishop Hill readers would tend towards the former figure. Possibly most NLP readers would tend towards the latter. Presumably we have some common ground here in finding the IPCC’s range of figures (and their failure to agree on a best estimate) an important and interesting fact in itself. (It apparently provoked lively discussion in the secret seccions at Stockholm. Perhaps this common ground could be a basis for debate.

By geoff Chambers, on 30 September 2013 - 19:23 |

AliceFrom your replies to Barry Woods and me, I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding as to why we sceptics come here. I can’t speak for Barry or anyone else, beyond saying that I don’t think any of us are under the illusion that we are going to convert NLP fans into BishopHill fans with a few comments. Nor would I want to.I’ve been thinking about what it is that separates us and makes dialogue so difficult. It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between the thinking of Greens/”warmists” and sceptics which has nothing to do with the traditional left/right cleavages. I’ll try  to explain without being offensive. What strikes us sceptics most is the passive acceptance on the warmist side of the authority of scientists, or rather of “The Science” - a passivity which sits oddly with the traditional libertarianism of the green movement and a major part of the left (at least in Britain). Sceptics, on the other hand, are only too willing to pick quarrels across the front lines, between “official” and contrarian scientists, between conservatives and “liberals”, between private sector entrepreneurs and ivory tower academics, between “old white males” and tree-hugging hippies, etc. Most of these quarrels are banal and unenlightening. Most of my “colleagues” at BishopHill are happy with a vision of the world in which the BBC and the Guardian are nests of Trotskyists, warmists are watermelons, etc. I’m not.In my opinion, nothing could be worse for the political decision-making process, and for our society in general, than for the debate to degenerate into a sterile left/right ,treehugger/Big Oil slanging match. To avoid that, it is important that contact be made across the front lines. If academic bloggers can’t facilitate that, who can? There needs to be a profound reflection on the history and sociology of this socio-political cleavage. I note the presense of Reiner Grundmann on this thread, who once quoted a principle of sociological analysis (I think in his paper on Climategate, but I’m not sure) to the effect that any analysis of beliefs and attitudes must start from a postion of neutrality. It is not for warmists to analyse the psychology of deniers or vice versa. Perhaps his presence here could facilitate the kind of contact I’m talking about.I repeat: I’m not particularly interested in the science of global warming. I wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep if I learned tomorrow that  Hansen was right and Lindzen was wrong, and I’d join in to man the lifeboats like anyone else. In the meantime, I plead for a discussion, debate, or at least a space outside UKIP and the Daily Mail where where we can air our differences.

By Alice, on 30 September 2013 - 20:21 |


You may not intend to, but not for the first time, I felt you were pushing me to say a particular thing and I didn’t like it. You may not intend to come over as concern trolling, but you do.

You may think “such his views are of interest to anyone involved in the history or sociology of science” and pompously say so (and it does sound pompous, ever so pompous, even if you don’t mean it to) but I will decide where to place my own energies thank you. There are many, many things that interest me, and many more that maybe should. But time is limited.

And I apologise if I appear over-sensitive to your comments, but having not published several comments from you in the past due to sexism and racism (as well as being part of what can only be described as cyber bullying of the most childish kind) I think I have reasons to be more than sceptical of your desire to find “common ground”.

As to my assumptions over why you and Barry and others come here, I don’t assume it’s for the same reason, and am sure I’m wrong about it. What I can say is that in reading Bishop Hill and a few other places to try to understand why you do try to engage here, I find a lot of really quite crazy make believe and willful assumptions made about me, the Guardian and NLP. So you might want to think about that too, before pointing fingers.

On the point about academic bloggers and your ref to Prof Grundmann discussing neutrality (he maybe meant the tenants of the strong programme?) you maybe misunderstand my role here, which isn’t as an academic. It’s hard to divide work and non-work on this area, but this is something I do in my spare time. I don’t see it as academic work. It’s sometimes informed by it, but it’s not it.


By geoff Chambers, on 30 September 2013 - 21:41 |

AliceYou accuse me of sexism, racism and “cyber bullying of the most childish kind”. Could you explain? 
You say: “you maybe misunderstand my role here, which isn’t as an academic.” 
Does that mean you are not to be held to the normal academic standards of rational debate? Or what?

By Alice, on 30 September 2013 - 23:18 |


question 2) I don’t think there is such thing as “normal academic standards of rational debate” nor should there be as such admonishments are usually used to silence people.

question 1) the main strand of bullying including several fanciful and offensive comments from you has been taken down by its instigator, but there are traces if people want to find them. I’m not linking. As for the racism and sexism, I nearly put “light” but I don’t feel the word light is appropriate for sexism and racism. You may not have meant them as such, but I have felt uncomfortable about publishing several of your comments before, not just because I felt personally offended but because I worried it would offend others. I knew that was an inflammatory thing to say, but equally I don’t see why I should keep these sorts of things quiet just because it’s not polite. You should think more about how your language might offend.

Can we end this childish debate here? It’s very off topic.


By Barry Woods, on 01 October 2013 - 12:29 |

Alice it it helps, I get called names at Bishop Hill, and Watt Up With That, from ‘sceptics’ in the comments that are on the more extreme (which resulted in lots of moderation’) end, much like their are those on the extreme end of the climate concerned side of thing. I also get called things’ and receive abuse form the extremes of the climate concerned ‘side’ of the debate.

I would suggest that those extremes are not on my or your ‘side’ but a distraction from adults that disagree from debating and understanding each other. Anyone that discusses anything publically, will have to (sadly) suffer this, and grow a thicker skin. but of course we each have our own red lines’ on abuse, and nobody can judge others red lines, without being that person.

if people want to talk to you, I would see that as one of your strengths, as you are percieved as someone that might be prepared to listen. In a similar way - Dr Tamsin Edwards gets all any ever-bodies opinion thrown at her, as somebody who is intelligent, adult and prepared to discuss (robustly, but civily)  Robust discussion is good, usually better face to face, where everyone can get to know each other as people first, not an idea or ideologue or cliche.

I think there are elements of generational attitudes at work, Tamsin mentioned ‘Professor syndrome’ in response to an academic at one point (following THAT Guardian article)  coming from her own science community. I find it far easier to talk to scientists like Ed Hawkins, Doug McNeall, R Betts, Warren Pearce, Tamsin Edwards etc who have a very different perspective of academias relationship to the public, compared to the older (more ivory tower, arrogant, closer to retirement) generation

Sadly anybody, like Judith Curry  initially(a few years back) that starts talking to the other ‘side’ tends to get everything thrown at them, including all the perceived sins of their colleagues (that don’t talk) . Quite what side Judith is on now, is anybodies guess, I imagine she might think on her own side, with friends and acquaintances has got to know across the spectrum of opinion.

she is a spreader of climate disinformation to some (Michael Mann, recent tweet/facebook), and an apologist for the climate scientists to some others!

Alice I’m sure Geoff would be horrified to be perceived as sexist and racist, perhaps as you felt able to put that in print! for all to see, you could have an offline chat with him, to explain why you felt he might be perceived like that, giving examples…

we have a difference of opinion on an important topic, i look at the same evidence as you, but I do not feel horrified about likely climate catastrophes to come.
I think they are extremely, extremely unlikely, more so with AR5, but that current climate policies have current and future dire consequences for the poorest and least able to express a voice in dissent. (which I am aware there are those on the so called left and right politically  that have similar views)

By Paul Matthews, on 01 October 2013 - 16:12 |

An interesting general point in the history of climate change is that until fairly recently the view was warm=good,  cold=bad. At the end of Callendar’s 1938 paper he writes 
“In conclusion it may be said that the combustion of fossil fuel .. is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power. For instance the above mentioned small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.”
Similarly, in a climate textbook from the 1960s it is stated that “unfortunately the latest evidence suggests that the warm period of the 1930s has come to an end”, a sentence that was deleted from later editions of the book.  And  Geoff and I are old enough to remember the ice age scare of the 1970s…

By Anand Rajan, on 03 October 2013 - 04:13 |

Hi Alice
Your comments about Geoff Chambers are incredibly unfair.

By Alice, on 03 October 2013 - 13:40 |


I appreciate I haven’t published the offending pieces here, but there is reason for that. They offend.


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