The Unchained Goddess

One fact of climate change not widely recognized even by environmentalists is just how long ago the basic science and implications of the greenhouse effect were established. Victorian scientists were fascinated by the ice ages, and named carbon dioxide as a possible cause in the mid-1800s. At the end of the 19th century, chemist (and future Nobel Prize winner) Svante Arrhenius performed the first calculations to predict the effects of fossil fuel use on the earth’s temperature.

Then the theory fell out of favor until being revived in the middle of the twentieth century. This past week, a few gems from this era have received new attention. These old articles and film clips are mostly worth checking out because they’re a lot of fun, but also notice how startlingly modern the science is. Climate research has come a long way way in the last few decades, but the basic mechanism of climate change is fairly simple and has been understood in broad outline for more than half a century.

Andy Revkin highlights an educational video — The Unchained Goddess — produced by Frank Capra in 1958 and featuring voice work by Mel Blanc:

Revkin also links to a New York Times article from 1956 that represents the first time in that newspaper that global temperatures were linked to carbon dioxide (“the gas that fizzes in ginger ale”).

The article highlights the work of pioneering scientist Gilbert Plass, who made startingly accurate predictions about temperature and emissions trends. Modern-day climate scientist Gavin Schmidt grades Plass’ work with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight:

> Some of the intriguing things about this article are that Plass (writing in 1956 remember) estimates that a doubling of CO2 would cause the planet to warm 3.6ºC, that CO2 levels would rise 30% over the 20th Century and it would warm by about 1ºC over the same period. The relevant numbers from the IPCC AR4 are a climate sensitivity of 2 to 4.5ºC, a CO2 rise of 37% since the pre-industrial and a 1900-2000 trend of around 0.7ºC. He makes a lot of other predictions (about the decrease in CO2 during ice ages, the limits of nuclear power and the like), but it’s worth examining his apparent prescience on these three quantitative issues. Was he prophetic, or lucky, or both?

Schmidt’s conclusion is basically “both.” Plass had a knack for getting the big picture right, grasping the basic interactions between the oceans, the atmosphere, and manmade emissions. He also got lucky in his calculations; several of the educated guesses he made were wrong in opposite directions, effectively canceling each other out.

Plass’ work triggered a lot of early media interest in climate change, including the New York Times article that Revkin unearthed (pdf). The whole thing is worth a read, particularly for the last graf:

> Even if our coal and oil reserves will be used up in 1,000 years, seventeen times the present amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be reckoned with. The introduction of nuclear energy will not make much difference. Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world, and there is every reason to believe that both will be consumed by industry so long as it pays to do so.

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  1. Don - January 6, 2010

    I thank you for posting this article. Am I the only reader who remembers learning in elementary school (1970’s for me) about how the greenhouse effect, well understood even at that time, keeps the planet warm and livable by trapping some of the heat that would otherwise radiate out? And the implication, if not outright statement, that the balance of those gasses was important to maintaining a stable temperature?
    Are the US schools really so bad now that basic facts like this are seen as “new” to our voting public?
    Well, anyway, it’d be nice to see some more news outlets remind us of how venerable this science really is.

  2. Chad - January 6, 2010

    I always like to point out to my conservative friends that if we liberals are so darned smart that we started this conspiracy well over a hundred years ago just so we could launch our plans of world economic control today, then we simply DESERVE to be their overlords.

  3. Spinoza - January 7, 2010

    And you know what? In 30 years the Webzine Terrapass Plus will write on article looking back at this article, citing it as evidence that even as far back as 2010 people recognized the effects humans were having on the planet. Why didn’t Americans, if they actually *knew* of the damage their lifestyle was wreaking on the planet, do anything about it?
    The truth is one can find plenty of material going back to the 19th century (I’m thinking of some of the writings by John Muir, for example), warning of man’s destructive effect on the planet. The tragedy is that the John Muirs and countless others writing about this phenomenon have had little or no effect on what goes on in the world. Just as in 1970, powerful forces in American society (conservative politicians working for their uneducated heartland electorates, who in turn are funded by irresponsible corporations) are doing all they can to push back any attempts to reduce consumption. By the time Jimmy Carter asked Americans to set their thermostats to 68, Americans were primed and conditioned to laugh at him for being so silly. The exact same forces are at work today, and I see nothing that would indicate a change in how the broad mass of Americans think and act.

  4. Bob - January 7, 2010

    Looking for feedback:
    1) Last week I saw a statement that indicated that there is a correlation between temperature and CO2 but that CO2 levels were a 600 year lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator — a warmer world increases CO2 levels — coments ?
    2) I have seen it suggested that mankinds contribution to CO2 is about 3% of annual WW volumes which seems small but at the margin and uni-directional it makes a meaningful contribution over time — comments ?

  5. Adam Stein - January 7, 2010

    Bob, these are well-known misdirections from climate change deniers. You say you “saw a statement.” Where, exactly? From a reputable source?
    In response to 1:
    I don’t really understand 2 (does WW stand for World War?), but this seems relevant:

  6. Bob - January 7, 2010

    Comments on comments
    1) I saw this in a Linkedin IBM group discussion on climate change — I know I should have clipped it when it went by but I can’t find it now — it was attributed to a ‘scientist’ who had studied temperature and CO2 levels over a long period and reasched this trailing indicator conclusion
    2) WW stands for world wide — I saw this in the ECO center near Tuscon where they argued that WW natural product of CO2 was 190 units and WW natural consumption was 194 units for a net deficit of 4 units .. per year … but mankind was contributing 6 units per year or a net plus contribution of 2 units (where a unit is something like thousands of billions of tons) … on an annual basis — no big deal — but over 10-20-50 years this adds up … in the same Linkedin discussion I saw a set of numbers that again suggested that mankind was running about 3% of total CO2 production
    I will be more diligent in clipping and saving these along with their sources in the future.

  7. Adam Stein - January 8, 2010

    Maybe you needn’t bother. The first item is basically a hoax story. I can say with confidence that there’s no scientist who carefully studied the issue and came to this conclusion, because the temperature-CO2 lag was already widely known.
    Temperature and CO2 are part of a positive feedback loop — past warming trends were triggered by temperature rises and then sustained by CO2 rises. Thanks to industrialization, this time we’ve used CO2 as the trigger, but the end effect is the same.
    #2 is just the issue I sent you the link to.