A Brief History of Climate Change, Episode 1.
We’re having a collective argument about climate change. Maybe you’ve noticed (it’s in the news a lot). I’m concerned about it because I have kids, and due to that I find myself emotionally invested in the future of humans on Earth. Around New Year (as a resolution of sorts), I decided to become educated about the problem, in a deep way. As part of that, I’ve researched in detail the “story” of how climate change was hypothesized, how it’s been studied and measured, and what the evidence shows. My research has not involved Googling a bunch of information on partisan websites. Rather, I’ve been searching out and reading the original, peer-reviewed scientific papers in which the evidence was published. I’ve written the story down in what I hope is a readable and even entertaining way, with links to those scientific papers so you can see the original work for yourself. If you’re concerned about climate change and would like to understand the history of it, and you have 10 minutes to spare a handful of times, I’m offering you the well-documented CliffsNotes. I’m publishing them in short episodes designed to be read in around 10 minutes each. By the end of it, you’ll be able to engage in the climate change debate knowledgeably. This is Episode 1.
First, a quick introduction. I’m a scientist. Not a climate scientist. A polymer scientist. (Plastics.)
I develop fancy filters used to purify pharmaceuticals. They involve polymers that can separate proteins of different types from each other. I’ve invented some new polymers, of which I’m proud. I’ve additionally been a science fan-boy my whole life. Everything from velociraptors to Neanderthals to the Big Bang, I love it all. I’ve read a lot of science, both for fun and at work. In my daily job, I routinely search out and read technical papers and patents written by other scientists. It’s on account of this experience that I think I have something to offer in this debate. I’m confident in my ability to search out, understand, and communicate technical work published by other scientists. And I think that’s one of the things that’s sorely needed in this debate, since many of the politicians are routinely making statements having little or no relationship to our scientific knowledge.
I think the scientific method is among the human species’ very greatest achievements. It provides a way for thousands of people, widely separated by both geography and time, to systematically seek and find the Truth, rat out mistakes, and relentlessly increase our collective knowledge. In my own job, the scientific method enables me to benefit from experimental knowledge obtained by the labors of other polymer scientists in Japan, as well as the deceased scientists who created the periodic table. Collectively, it’s enabled us to solve complex and difficult problems. How to eradicate smallpox. How to find out what the surface of mars looks like. How to communicate with anyone else in the world using a little wireless device you can carry in your pocket. No small group of people, now matter how ingenious, could possibly have made any of those achievements by themselves, isolated in time and space.
Implicit in the scientific method is a forced responsibility to the Truth. Individual scientists are human and imperfect. Sure, a scientist can make a mistake, poorly interpret an experimental result, or even outright lie. But events and the scientific method will eventually find you out. When you go to publish your results, a peer reviewer will notice inconsistencies. When another scientist tries to reproduce your experiment, she will get different results and publish a paper refuting yours. Successful scientists generally end up being pretty honest people, at least professionally. I could falsify data in my own job (for a short time), but ultimately the filters we make will either work or they won’t. If they don’t, nobody will buy them and I’ll be discredited.
As any scientist can attest, science, and more generally the physical world, actually provide no long-term accommodation of “fake news.”
All of which is why the vapid lameness of our current public “debate” about climate change both exasperates and terrifies me.
“Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”
-Conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC 5th Assessment Report, 2014
Hmmm, sounds like we’re definitely causing climate change and it’s a problem.
“Whether governments continue to be so foolhardy as to allow or encourage development of all fossil fuels may determine the fate of humanity.”
-James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Gary Russell, and Pushker Kharecha, current and former scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a peer reviewed scientific journal article published in 2011
The “fate of humanity”?!? Whoa, sounds like it could be a big problem!
“We have nearly 100 years worth of natural gas and more than 250 years worth of clean, beautiful coal. We are a top producer of petroleum and the number one producer of natural gas. We have so much more than we ever thought possible. We are really in the driving seat…”
-President Trump, calling for loosening of environmental regulations in pursuit of a “golden era of American energy” in a June 29, 2017 speech promoting the White House’s “Energy Week”
Wow, that sounds like my government encouraging development of all fossil fuels! I’m confused…
“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
-EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, in a CNBC Interview, March 9, 2017
Huh, maybe we don’t know for sure. I mean, if anyone knows, surely it would be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency??
What? We’ve been tricked into believing in climate change by a Chinese conspiracy? I’m incredulous!
Like I said, the quality of our public debate is totally, thoroughly lame.
As my brief history will show, scientists have been thinking about the possibility of human-induced climate change since the 1800’s and making concerted measurements since the early 1900’s. During that period of time, our technological achievements in other areas have been impressive. We’ve replaced horses with motor vehicles and commercial flight. We’ve invented the radio, the telephone, televisions, and computers, then mashed those all together into little devices we carry in our pockets. We’ve explored other planets. Are you telling me, despite intentional study of Earth’s climate over that same period, we remain so confused about the subject that we’re not sure whether we’re causing it or not, or whether it’s an existential threat or a Chinese trick? I mean, my cell phone and my car just pretty much work, whether I believe in them or not. Those are products of science. Surely whatever science has to say about human influence on Earth’s climate is of similar practical value?
Well, let’s have a look. The story begins around 1900, travels forward from there, then (thanks to “time capsules” we’ve found) goes back 800,000 years and more. We won’t go back as far as the Big Bang, but there will be brief mention of Neanderthals. It’s a fascinating story, one that should be in our collective consciousness as we decide whether we should do something about it. The story involves some interesting and heroic people. Chinese hoaxters are conspicuously absent.
My storybook telling is not a comprehensive examination; other valuable histories of climate science are available (here, here, and here, for example). The “twist” I have chosen is to focus my brief history on the practical measurements. Prior to our story and beginning in 1824, Joseph Fourier (French mathematician), Claude Pouillet (French physicist), John Tyndall (Irish physicist), Svante Arrhenius (Swedish physical chemist), and Thomas Chamberlin (American geologist) had proposed and developed a hypothesis that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, could cause the surface temperature of the Earth to rise due to what we now know as the Greenhouse Effect. You can read about that elsewhere. Their assertions were disputed by other scientists, at the time, based on a number of arguments. That water vapor was a much stronger absorber of solar radiation than carbon dioxide. That any excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels would be rapidly absorbed by the vast oceans. Etc. The speculation was all well-informed (based on the available data at the time) but at an impasse…
And here we begin.
Episode 1. 1900, Royal Botanical Gardens. Two British scientists’ adventures with leaves and CO2 measurements.
In the years between 1898 and 1901, Dr. Horace Brown, a British chemist, and Mr. Fergusson Escombe, a British botanist, were at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England studying the influence of light and carbon dioxide levels on the rate of the photosynthesis reaction in leaves (Brown & Escombe, 1905). They constructed a rather ingenious apparatus:
A leaf was housed inside a sealed box with a window. Air with a known carbon dioxide concentration could be pulled through the box while light of a measured intensity was made to shine on the window. The air from the leaf box was then pulled into the chemical apparatus on the right, within which the amount of carbon dioxide remaining in the air was measured by its reaction with sodium hydroxide to form sodium carbonate. This was a new method of measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in air, at the time, and Brown & Escombe were pleased to find it was accurate enough to discern the small quantities of carbon dioxide consumed by a single leaf as it did photosynthesis. Naturally, Brown & Escombe had occasion in the course of this work to make a multitude of measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration in the ambient air at the Royal Botanical Gardens. It averaged about 290 ppm (parts per million).
So it was around 1900, and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at the Royal Botanical Gardens was 290 ppm.
If you think it’s a good idea for folks to read factual information about the history of and evidence for climate change, consider recommending this article! If you want to see more information I’ve gathered about climate change, its causes, effects, and available solutions, visit my fact-based website and blog. #rescuethatfrog