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.