The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation,
Climate change: the state of the debate
A warmer world? Climate change from the 19th century to the 1950s
You could be forgiven for thinking that climate change was a relatively recent discovery. After all, the First World Climate Conference was held in 1979, and the Second not until 1990; and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was only set up in 1988, producing its first report two years later.
But you would be wrong about the history of climate change. French scientist Jean-Baptiste Fourier identified the greenhouse effect in 1827; and the idea that the planet was warming had entered the public imagination as early as the 1930s.Time magazine wrote in 1939 that “gaffers who claim that winters were harder when they were boys are quite right … weather men have no doubt that the world at least for the time being is growing warmer”.ii
Yet as the climate historian Spencer Weartiii notes, most people then would still have scoffed at the idea that humans could exert an impact on the Earth’s climate. When climate catastrophes occurred – Noah’s flood, say– they were seen as divine acts. Nature itself was essentially stable. When, in1938, the scientist GS Calendar presented evidence that fossil fuels could influence the climate through CO2 emissions, he found that“the idea that man’s actions could influence so vast a complex is very repugnant to some”.iv
Even if human activity could have such significant impacts, the general assumption was that this would take a very long time, and more over that the effect of increasing technological innovation would be benign. As the scientist Svante Arrhenius–who had proposed as early as 1896 that human-caused CO2 emissions could affect the climate, even if the process would take millennia–suggested in 1908:
Yet the first half of the 20th century also offered a dramatic image of humanity’s capacity to influence its environment. Keen to publicise the fear some power of its nuclear strikes on Japan, the United States war department released an eye witness account of the attack on Nagasaki, by the ‘embedded’ New York Times journalist, William Laurence. The explosion, he wrote, was “a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.” He described a giant mushroom, 45,000 feet high, that was“seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam,sizzling upwards and then descending earthward.” After that,man’s potential power over nature could never again be in doubt.vi
By the 1950s, there was increasing public awareness of the dangers of pollution, at least at the local level. The 1953‘killer smog’ in London showed that man made emissions could cause over ten thousand deaths in just a few days. This same realisation hit the United States when a similar event took place in New York – a national media hub – in 1966. Smog also showed the potential for environmental disasters to be insidious in their impact. “There weren’t bodies lying around in the street and none really noticed that more people were dying,” recalled a London eye witness. “One of the first indications was that undertakers were running out of coffins and florists were running out off lowers.”vii
But it was the continuing shadow of atomic weapons thatreally captured the public imagination during the 1950s. Fears were seared into popular consciousness by the media. Movies like1959’s On the Beach presented nightmarish images of the aftermath of an all-out conflict. As We art observes, such visions presented a new set of ideas and stories that challenged the old view of nature as stable, and beyond humanity’s capacity to influence:
“The new threats awoke images and feelings that most people had scarcely experienced outside their dreams and nightmares. Humans were introducing unnatural technologies, meddling with the very winds and rain, spreading pollution everywhere. Would we provoke retribution? Would ‘Mother Nature’ pay us back for our attacks on her?”viii Soas the history of climate change shows, it is not new.
ii Time (1939).”Warmer World.” Time, 2 Jan., p. 27.
iii To whose work this section of the paper is greatly indebted–Weart, Spencer (2003). The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge:Harvard University Press. See alsohttp://www.aip.org/history/climate/Public.htm
iv Callendar, personal notes, Nov. 1960, Schove-Callendar Collection,Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, quotedby Peter Brimblecombe and Ian Langford, “Guy Steward [sic] Callendarand the increase in global carbon dioxide,” paper presented at meetingof Air & Waste Management Association, San Antonio, Texas, June1995 (paper 95-WA74A.02, available from AWMA)
v Arrhenius, Svante (1908). Worlds in the Making. New York: Harper& Brothers, p. 63
vi Eye Witness Account: atomic bomb mission over Nagasaki, 9 September1945, available from Trinity Atomic Web Site athttp://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/atomic/hiroshim/laurenc1.html
vii Historic smog death toll rises, BBC News Online, 5 December 2002,available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2545747.stm
viii Weart (2003).