Aussie Accords: Australian scientist lead way on climate change 85+ years ago

Making The New York Times’ Headlines Since 1932

Tannett Edgeworth David — Professor of Geology and Physical Geography, photo: University of Sydney Archives

SALT water will sweep over the continents, leaving only the higher land dry. The Sahara Desert will be a great inland sea. In an inundation which would thus change geography and be accompanied by a rise in temperature, the climate would return to what it was when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. What will become of man if climatic conditions are changed? Winds, storms, weather that changes from day to day are the result. No one can tell what will happen if a new carboniferous era should follow.

No, you’re not reading from Al Gore’s latest movie script. And you won’t find it in a Tim Flannery thesis. Not even the soothsayers of global warming doom can claim to have penned these ominous predictions.

It may be old hat now, but when published in 1932 the warnings of a changing world made headlines in The New York Times. Splashed across page four, the banner says it all — ‘‘Next great deluge forecast by science: Melting polar ice caps to raise the level of seas and flood the continents’’.

What is more remarkable than this first example of climate change entering the public consciousness, however, is the all-but-forgotten Australian scientist who inspired it.

As The New York Times introduced him to readers: ‘‘How the change is slowly taking place and what the result will be has been considered by such able geologists, physicists and meteorologists as Professor Sir Edgeworth David of the University of Sydney’’.

The New York Times — May 15, 2932

David was not an Australian of the year. He was the Australian of an age. At the end of the 19th century, Tannatt William Edgeworth David was already one of the country’s most respected geologists and explorers. But after his exploits in the early 1900s on Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to Antarctica and World War I heroics with the Australian Tunnelling Corps, he became a cult hero.

From his studies of geology, fossils and Antarctica, David concluded there were a number of different Ice Ages, and that the last Ice Age — the Quaternary — was only about half over. According to David, glacial sheets once covered 12 million miles (19.3 million km) of the North and South Poles. Over 700,000 years they have reduced by half, releasing a ‘‘stupendous volume of water’’ into the ocean. He ‘‘conservatively’’ estimated that if it continued unabated, the sea level would rise 50 feet (15m) within 30,000 to 40,000 years.

When The New York Times published the story — two years before David’s death — he had finally settled down to finish his life’s work, The Geology of the Commonwealth.

Granddaughter Anne Edgeworth was only a child at the height of David’s fame but still has vivid memories of how much it troubled him. Mrs Edgeworth, now an *85-year-old poet living in Canberra, said her grandfather often spoke of global warming.

(*I interviewed Anne Edgeworth, also known as Anne Godfrey-Smith, for this story a few years before she passed away in 2011.)

‘‘He was deeply worried because he couldn’t think of what we could do to prevent it — but he felt that we should be ready for it,’’ she said. ‘‘They were not the sorts of ideas people wanted to hear.’’

Yet David was not the first to spark the global warming debate — or even coin the term ‘‘greenhouse effect’’. That honour belongs to French scientist Joseph Fourier, who in 1827 likened the way the Earth was warming to the way a greenhouse traps heat for growing plants in cold weather.

Or, for the believers, it was Nostradamus in the early 16th century who first warned of the scorched Earth scenario. In quatrain 5/11 (2011): ‘‘The sea, chastened by the sun, will no longer pass . . . The heat of Venus will harry all of Africa.’’

David was, however, one of the first Australians to make inroads in spreading the message. And when he spoke, people listened. David Branagan, a retired geologist and author of 2005 biography TW Edgeworth David: A Life, said David’s scientific work has been overshadowed by adventures that, in his day, made him more famous than Sir Donald Bradman.

Yet in scientific circles David is still respected by those who continued his work, like Australian of the year Flannery. Dr Flannery, winner of the 1990 Royal Society of NSW Edgeworth David Medal for Outstanding Research, wrote in Branagan’s biography that David was one of his heroes: ‘‘His work and discoveries continue to influence all Australians, yet this great man has been all but forgotten.”

And he was a generous grandfather to the girl who visited his Hornsby home, in what is now Edgeworth David Ave. ‘‘All he could do was say to watch out for global warming,’’ Mrs Edgeworth said. ‘‘I think what he said back then is worth repeating today — and that’s all anyone can do.”

(This story originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph)