Lessons from the history of global warming

The history of global warming is similar to the genealogy of a new technology or radical idea. It had a slow an inconspicuous beginning, a long gestation, an explosion of interest and then… well, we cannot be sure.

Usually, the normal route post the euphoric phase of interest is a decline to relative obscurity. The idea is kept alive only by a few hardened or nostalgic enthusiasts.

All we can do now is look back from the present.

Science is recorded in learned journals where scholars and academics describe in articles their theories, hypotheses and the results of their empirical tests. Each article or ‘publication’ is reviewed by at least two scientific peers, experts in the field, with the objective of seeing fair play and adherence to good scientific practice. These publications are an important currency in the academic world with both volume and quality of publication being used as performance indicators.

In 2008 Amanda Goodall counted articles in the scientific journals from 1970 to 2006 that mentioned ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in the title, abstract or keyword list. Before 1988 there were just one or to articles a year but since then the number of mentions has increased significantly to 600 per year by 2002, then over 800 per year by 2006.

These numbers suggest that climate change and global warming went from a non-topic to a hot topic amongst scientists in less than 20 years.

As Mike Hulme describes in his excellent book ‘Why we disagree about climate change’ the first mentions of climate change go back to the ancient Greeks with Theophrastus documenting the local climate effects of deforestation, a phenomenon mentioned occasionally from the 17th century onwards.

Through the 19th century and prior to 1988 a succession of scientists added pieces to the puzzle:

  • 1824 Jean-Baptiste Fourier uncovered the asymmetry of atmospheric radiation
  • 1830 Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz gained evidence from alpine glaciers
  • 1859 John Tyndall experimented with what became greenhouse gases
  • 1896 Svante August Arrhenius calculated what became known as climate sensitivity
  • 1938 Guy Stewart Callender first attributed large scale climate change to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions
  • 1957 Charles David Keeling established baseline carbon levels
  • 1975 Syukuro Manabe computed global circulation models
  • 1987 Wallace S Broecker established that climate makes sharp jumps

This is a good example of how ideas develop in science and society - similar to the uptake of new technology.

First nobody believes in it.

In the early 1950’s “no-one will ever watch television” said most people who only knew about radio. The history of global warming has had a similar reticence and long gestation.

Then a few adherents emerge.

The so-called early adopters who are amazed and passionate about what is on offer. In the 1950’s these people started watching TV and telling all their friends, as more people bought sets the cost came down and demand rose. For global warming it was still just a handful of scientists, often working on the problem in their spare time, who kept interest alive.

The wave hits and everyone wants to know about it, buy it and watch it.

In the case of television we watch for a staggering 4 hours a day on average in the US - that’s non-stop, no sleeping for two months of each year. In the history of global warming we are now in this phase of mass uptake. Everyone is interested in the idea.

What this typical history suggests is that even though ideas may take time to take hold, once they do they gain momentum rapidly and generate a life of their own. Few of us then seem to think critically about them, be that 4 hours a day of TV or what we understand by global warming.

We are more comfortable following the conventional wisdom of the day.

The conventional wisdom is abrupt climate change caused by human activity is a serious risk to our environment, economies, societies and, ultimately, ourselves.

But beware of the Pied Piper and recall what happened to radio and is about to happen to television and fixed-line telephones. Ideas have their day and then, pass, possibly out of our consciousness.

not so long ago everyone believed that the earth was flat until sailors kept telling people that they always saw the masts of ships before they saw the hull and maybe you could sail into the horizon without falling off the edge

The conundrum

The history of global warming shows us that we are in the phase of heightened interest and rapid uptake.

What we do with the climate change idea now is what will matter to us when we have moved on to something else.

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