We’ve been talking about climate change for a long time

Why I collected some newspaper articles on climate change from the 1800s onwards

News from 1953: “Industries warm the world”

On Friday I Tweeted a few snippets of digitised newspaper articles on the subject of fossil fuels, the atmosphere, and climate change. The earliest was from 1912, titled “Coal consumption affecting climate”. I collected them in preparation for a BBQ at which I knew there would be some older, country conservatives (not particularly partisan conservative, but fairly fixed views, and mistrustful of expertise on such matters). I knew there was a good chance of climate change coming up in conversation because of the UN COP 21 talks in Paris, and because I’m helping edit Tony McMichael’s posthumous book on the history of human population health and changing climates.

Telling the country conservatives about climate change, rattling off facts and figures, speaking about the long history of the development of climate science, or appealing to the authority of NASA, the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO, and more, wasn’t going to help. Their experience and opinions trump those authorities, and they’re certainly not going to listen to me. In their view these are natural changes, or the science is too new, and variations of those.

So I thought I’d show them. Most people love history. A lot of people read popular histories. There are also a lot of people who don’t read much. For them, history is on TV, or in family photo albums, or at the local library. This was my audience at the BBQ. I figured the newspaper clippings would work well. They’re similar documents, or objects, and the way they look — with the extra small print and noisy reproduction — creates a stereotypical ‘historic’ aesthetic. They also appear more neutral than a government website, or a book by an academic. These are the publications of the people, the ordinary folk.

1904:

1904, Dr Van Hise, University of Wisconsin, “A Treatise on Metamorphism”. It was discussed in newspapers around the world.

1912:

This was printed in many papers around the world.

I could just show them on the iPad — have a look at this, isn’t this interesting, and so on. This avoided an argument. It seemed to open up possibilities for a conversation. These articles weren’t from left-wing, elitist, science conspirators, like the “bloody hopeless UN”, but respectable, late nineteenth and early twentieth century “Men of Science” theorising and experimenting on the relationship between atmospheric carbon and the earth’s temperature — a “greenhouse” or “blanket” effect.

We even ended up talking about past perceptions of weather in a civil way.

We even ended up talking about past perceptions of weather in a civil way. I don’t know why — perhaps the old articles sparked an interest in finding out more, perhaps it was just the manner of the conversation, which didn’t start with telling people they’re wrong or ignorant — but the conversation remained relaxed and even jovial. When one of the older women said “I remember summers were much worse than they are now”, we pointed out you didn’t go from your air conditioned home to your air conditioned car to the air conditioned shops back then. We didn’t need to go into anything else that might influence perceptions. That was enough — they agreed! They said, well, humans are pretty hopeless at remembering those sorts of things. One of the men said, “At our age, we’re lucky to remember what happened yesterday.”

1953:

Dr Gilbert was off by about half a degree.

So that’s how I ended up with screenshots of newspaper articles. I wasn’t trying to say “Hey, we’ve known about this for over a hundred years, why haven’t we done something?” In the early twentieth century scientists had little idea about just how much fossil fuels we’d burn (some thought it would take centuries or a thousand years to cause significant warming), others thought the CO2 fertilizing effect would be good for crop yields, and some Europeans thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the winters were a little milder. The articles from the 1970s onwards, however, are sad: they warn of the consequences of rapid climate change, and urge governments to agree to do something to avoid it.

1979:

In Australia were have more sunlight than anywhere else!
A little vague on the benefits, specific on the costs.
Unusual alliance…

Lots of interest in old newspaper articles about understandings of CO2 and climate.

I tweeted some of the articles from a few decades for fun and they received a lot of interest. A lot of people replied with “Really?” and “I had no idea”. I like the newspaper articles as a way of showing the history of the development of climate science because it’s not locked away, special knowledge. This was in the popular newspapers, and reprinted in all the tiny village newspapers (they republished syndicated content, just as now).

However, by 1859, thanks to John Tyndall’s experiments, the world had a better understanding of how CO2 warms the earth, and how the oceans absorb it, and how the burning of fossil fuels could lead to more intense weather.

Some of the speculations were pretty wild. In the mid-1800s one person theorised the combustion of coal would increase carbon dioxide levels so much that all animal life would suffocate by 1900. However, by 1859, thanks to John Tyndall’s experiments, the world had a better understanding of how CO2 warms the earth, and how the oceans absorb it, and how the burning of fossil fuels could lead to more intense weather. The science continued to develop, but it’s amazing how early people had worked out the basic principle that burning of fossil fuels leading to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide would cause climate change.

A note: I stopped my Tweets at 1913 because the earlier ones were a bit speculative — something those with an agenda to do nothing on climate change would have seized on — with no sense of context or imagination for history, they would say, “See, we didn’t run out of air in 1900! All your predictions are false! You alarmists!” Indeed, someone has searched through the National Library of Australia’s magnificent digitised collection Trove and tagged all the articles to do with climate and fossil fuels with the words, “global warming hysteria”, all the way back to the 1880s. It would have taken a lot of time, and now there’s a convenient way of finding interesting articles that tell us a lot about the development of climate science and the historical context of environmental policies.

Another note: I spent about 5 to 10 minutes searching Trove. No doubt someone could spend more time and find lots more.

Yet another note: why do people cite obscure small town newspapers from Trove? A lot of those are articles republished from the majors such as The Sydney Morning Herald or international wire services. Trove digitises work that is out of copyright or for which they have agreements with the copyright holders. For some years Trove doesn’t have the major papers because they don’t have the rights — so that’s why everyone cites the smaller papers.

By the way, the BBQ was great and the food was delicious!

Read more about the history of climate science in Tom Griffiths’ essay ‘A humanist on thin ice’ in Griffith Review.

Cameron Muir is a historian in Canberra, Australia. His book The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History was shortlisted in the 2015 NSW Premier’s History Awards. More writing…