Early warnings of climate change

While climate change resulting from human activities might seem a new-fangled concept, there have been on-point predictions dating back many years. For instance:

Eunice Newton Foote’s pioneering experiments from the mid-1800s

Though insufficiently recognised, it seems Eunice Newton Foote was a pioneering scientist, whose experiments led her to hypothesise the earth would have been warmer in the past if the CO2 levels were higher

Using glass cylinders, each encasing a mercury thermometer, Foote found that the heating effect of the Sun was greater in moist air than dry air, and that it was highest of all in a cylinder containing carbon dioxide. She wrote, “The receiver containing this gas became itself much heated—very sensibly more so than the other—and on being removed [from the Sun], it was many times as long in cooling.”

Happy 200th birthday to Eunice Foote, hidden climate science pioneer

Svante Arrhenius in 1896

In developing a theory to explain the ice ages, Arrhenius, in 1896, was the first to use basic principles of physical chemistry to calculate estimates of the extent to which increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will increase Earth’s surface temperature through the greenhouse effect. These calculations led him to conclude that human-caused CO2 emissions, from fossil-fuel burning and other combustion processes, are large enough to cause global warming.

Svante Arrhenius

Popular Mechanics in 1912

In the March 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics, an article on the balmy year of 1911 and the ability of humans to change the climate includes a single line that has shocked some modern readers. The caption for a photograph of a coal plant explains that:

The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

Article from 1912 warns the world about climate change

The first estimate of climate change due to rising carbon dioxide levels, in 1938

By fuel combustion man has added about 150,000 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air during the past half century. The author estimates from the best available data that approximately three quarters of this has remained in the atmosphere.

The radiation absorption coefficients of carbon dioxide and water vapour are used to show the effect of carbon dioxide on “sky radiation.” From this the increase in mean temperature, due to the artificial production of carbon dioxide, is estimated to be at the rate of 0.003°C. per year at the present time.

The temperature observations a t zoo meteorological stations are used to show that world temperatures have actually increased at an average rate of 0.005°C. per year during the past half century.

The artificial production of carbon dioxide and its influence on temperature

Callendar presented real evidence for a long-term connection between anthropogenic (that is, human-produced) atmospheric COand a warming trend occurring in the present, not the far future; then he explained the trend with a scientifically sound theory. And despite his initial poor reception, he pressed on with more research to support his conclusions.

… The claims in Callendar’s daring paper have been borne out in the subsequent eight decades of science. He was the first to find real evidence that the human burning of fossil fuels had already increased atmospheric CO2 (by 6 percent over that past half century)—and to determine the parallel increase in temperature over the same period. His calculations were the first analysis that demonstrated how much the rise in COhad actually changed temperatures. Callendar also determined that most of the human-added CO2 would not be removed by the natural cycle that transports carbon through the Earth’s systems, so he thought anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 would continue rising. 

The Part-Time Climate Scientist

Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1969

In 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent a one-page memo to a top Nixon advisor on “the carbon dioxide problem.”

It begins:

“As with so many of the more interesting environmental questions, we really don't have very satisfactory measurements of the carbon dioxide problem. On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change. 
This government memo warned of climate change in 1969

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