Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Climate Change: First Wake-Up Call in 1910?

with 25 comments

I was looking for something else in the Letters to the Editor section of the Geological Society website, when I came across this very short but massively powerful letter. I knew instantly that I must draw it to the attention of the widest-possible audience. The “letter” is from someone I have known since 1998 – Chris King, Professor of Earth Science Education at Keele University – and it is, in fact, almost entirely composed of a quotation from a peer-reviewed article published over 100 years ago.

———

Sir,

‘Our interest in the evolution of the atmosphere and of climate is of more than theoretical interest… Van Hise, on what he regards as a moderate estimate of the coal the human race will burn per annum during the present Century, estimates that in 812 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be doubled. According to the view of Arrhenius such a change would greatly ameliorate [see Update appended below] the climate of the world. This view of the heat-holding effects of an increase of CO2 is not undisputed, but so large a change in the constitution of the atmosphere, by the hand of man himself, may well cause him to investigate, with serious persistence, the terrestrial consequences of his own deeds…’ From: ‘Scenery, Soil and the Atmosphere’, by A P Banham: Popular Science Monthly, June 1910, pp.570-580.

I feel that absolutely no comment is necessary.

Chris King.

———

With the greatest of respect to Chris, however, for the benefit of a non-expert audience, I feel that further comment is necessary:

This letter demonstrates that there was scientific concern over the potential consequences of doubling atmospheric CO2 concentrations over 100 years ago. However, what many may not realise is that, when account is taken of all anthropogenic gasses in our atmosphere, we have doubled the effective CO2 content of our atmosphere in 100 years. Indeed, we have done this so fast that the Earth has yet to catch up: Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, the Earth would continue to warm for decades.

There is also the problem of positive feedback mechanisms and tipping points. That is to say, self-reinforcing change and the possibility that we have now triggered irreversible change. Even if it is reversible, it is unlikely to be so in any timescale relevant to an individual human lifetime: Glaciers that have been stable for decades will probably all be gone within 100 years. How long do you think it took them to form in the first place? The answer is almost certainly at least two orders of magnitude longer (i.e. 10 thousand years).

In the face of risks such as these, does it not also seem unreasonable to you that, here in the UK, our Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Finance Minister), George Osborne, should be trying so hard to ignore the warnings of the Government’s own scientific advisors and, instead, listen to climate change scpetics who say “there is no cause for alarm” and that we can indeed “have our cake and eat it”…?

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/press-releases/tory-mp-tables-crucial-2030-decarb-amendment-energy-bill-20130208

This story is not over by a long way yet…

——–

UPDATE: 18 Feb 2013 2130hrs – After much semantic discussion about the appearance of the word “ameliorate” in the above quotation, it has been confirmed that this is correct: Being a Scandinavian, Svante Arrhenius considered that it would be a good thing for the climate to warm up a bit. This adds yet another layer of irony to the waywardness of the 1910 prediction about time required to double the CO2 content of our atmospherere.

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25 Responses

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  1. Actually, George Perkins Marsh pointed to global warming as a result of burning fossil fuels in 1847. See the link here.

    Svante Arrhenius quantified probable impacts of burning fossil fuels in 1896. The paper is here.

    Guy McPherson

    17 February 2013 at 14:34

    • Many thanks for the links to even earlier warnings. For the avoidance of any doubt, although I had not heard of Marsh before, I was aware of the general history of climate science (including John Tyndall’s experiments in 1859-61). Therefore, the thing I focused on in this 100-year old quote is the way in which doubling time was underestimated – in much the same was a State legislators in North Carolina have assumed sea level rise will be linear. I suspect that Nature doesn’t do anything in a linear fashion.

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2013 at 15:07

    • Thanks for the emails, Guy. Given that my earlier response may seem to others as somewhat ungracious, I just want to reiterate that I am extremely grateful for both of those links. Having followed the first one, I note that Marsh was a contemporary of John Muir (the founder of the Sierra Club). You will see why I am surprised that I had not heard of Marsh, therefore, if you read this post on my blog last year: Nature is not your enemy (but it may bite you if provoked).

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2013 at 15:41

    • What about Fourier 1827?
      As far as taking drastic measures to save the ecology, and, in particular, forests, that was legislated by several European governments, in the XIVth Century… Just after the Little Ice Age got going..

      Patrice Ayme

      18 February 2013 at 21:16

  2. Martin, I would like your permission to republish this on Learning from Dogs? Thanks, Paul.

    Paul Handover

    17 February 2013 at 15:04

    • No problem, Paul (but kind of you to ask first). However, if you do publish this, I would recommend including or incorporating the comments above (i.e. that from Professor McPherson and my response) – which put this quotation in its proper context.

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2013 at 15:11

      • Agreed.

        Paul Handover

        17 February 2013 at 17:11

        • I hope you have been following Pendantry’s comments here.

          Martin Lack

          17 February 2013 at 17:29

        • Banham, King, and all Editors (both in 1910 and 2012) exonerated: Arrhenius believed more CO2 would be a good thing because he lived in a very cold country! I am truly astonished: what will sceptics do when they find this out? Hopefully they will learn that it is never good to be too parochial in your thinking…

          Martin Lack

          18 February 2013 at 22:01

  3. The two close calls by space rocks were a reminder that this is a serious, not particularly friendly, universe. Those who play apprentice sorcerers with the climate and planetary ecology should pay attention.

    All the more since the very latest study shows that Earth is close the limit of the habitable zone around the Sun. What was found is disturbing: Earth is within 1.5 million kilometers of inhabitability (7 times the Earth-Moon distance).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone

    Yet, obviously, Earth has long been habitable. It turns out that clouds make the difference (they are too complex to be taken into account in computer programs of habitability at this point). Still the point remains that our planet is not far, physically, from a runaway greenhouse.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50628915/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/habitable-zone-redefined-alien-planets-maybe-life/

    Pumping 450 million years of carbon into the air all of a sudden is not smart: Earth has had plate tectonics from the start, so much of this carbon was sequestered. Now we are freeing huge quantities of it in a geological snap. On top of this, general main sequence star theory, and observation, show that the Sun has warmed up. So having the same CO2 in the air as at the top of the carboniferous era would result in a warmer planet.

    Thus, all other things being equal, the Earth is closer to inhabitability through warming than it was 400 million years ago (when the CO2 was very high). To make things worse, there are no plausible technological fixes to too much CO2 in the atmosphere (with existing science and technology).

    Patrice Ayme

    17 February 2013 at 16:28

    • Thanks for the information and the links, Patrice.

      If ever there was a definition of unsustainable development, it is our burning of fossil fuels. We will have burnt them all many times faster than the time it takes for them to form (and they will only do so again if there are plants an animals to extract the gas from our over-heated atmosphere).

      Climate change sceptics often point to the Carboniferous Era (when everything grew very big) as evidence that high concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere will be good. However, what this fails to allow for is the fact that, as you implied, humans are now driving the change from one climate state to another at least ten times faster than most life on Earth will be able to adapt.

      I am afraid that all this just leaves me feeling very angry.

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2013 at 16:56

      • Thanks for thanking me Martin. It goes well beyond the fact that life has no time to adapt. The fact that we are playing with fire so close to hell (the interior limit of the habitable zone, that is where the greenhouse would become a run-away!) is the newest aggravating factor, now in full evidence.

        Patrice Ayme

        18 February 2013 at 17:52

    • Patrice, good links and will support a couple of posts that I am preparing for next week. I keep coming back to that silly old joke, “Why have we never been visited by alien lifeforms?” “Because they have not seen any signs of intelligent life on the planet!”

      Paul Handover

      17 February 2013 at 17:14

  4. Chris King: According to the view of Arrhenius such a change would greatly ameliorate the climate of the world.

    Wiktionary: ameliorate: To make better, to improve; to heal; to solve a problem.

    pendantry

    17 February 2013 at 16:57

    • As this is not Chris King’s mistake, I fear your correction will fall on deaf ears: It was either a mistake made by Svante Arrhenius (whose first language was not English), or the fault of AP Banham and/or the editors of the 1910 publication from which Chris King has quoted.

      Martin Lack

      17 February 2013 at 17:06

      • I was not attempting a correction; I was commenting on humanity’s inability to effectively communicate (while at the same time immersed in belief of complete understanding) — apologies for not having made that clear.

        Anyone approaching this subject for the first time, without an appreciation of the current scientific understanding, might look at this passage you’ve highlighted and (quite naturally) wonder what all the fuss is about since ‘a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will improve the world’s climate’.

        No wonder deniers find it so easy to deceive.

        pendantry

        17 February 2013 at 17:21

        • Pendantry: we cannot assume all the time that all the readers are complete idiots. Svante Arrhenius really believed that doubling CO2 would ameliorate the climate. That shows that intelligent people naive to the subject make that mistake naturally. In the first approach.

          Patrice Ayme

          18 February 2013 at 18:03

        • Half of all people have less than average intelligence (simple fact); it does not help to assume (ass, u, me) that all readers understand everything you say in the way that you would wish them to.

          pendantry

          18 February 2013 at 18:19

        • Patrice, I have emailed Chris King and the Editor of the Geological Society website for clarification. However, are you saying that you know Arrhenius thought additional CO2 would be good!!!? Do you have corroborating evidence you can refer me to?

          Martin Lack

          18 February 2013 at 18:44

        • Editor of the Geoscientist magazine and Geological Society website has confirmed that quotation is accurate. Being Scandinavian, Arrhenius considered that a warming of the Earth’s climate would indeed be a good thing…! It is yet another layer of irony to add to the fact that in 1910 they thought we would take 800 years to double the CO2 content of the atmosphere…!

          Martin Lack

          18 February 2013 at 21:25

        • Pendantry: Are you saying that, because the average guy is average, intellectuals ought to make themselves average?

          There are two extremes in the spectrum of the public: on one side the idiots, who are, indeed, close to a majority. To these my main message is that they ought to remind themselves of that fact every day. Talking too much to idiots satisfied by their own idiocy is just a waste. The best we can hope is to get the idiots to be dissatisfied with themselves, because, only from that first e-motion, a precondition, can we hope for them to wish to open their eyes.

          The other extreme is the professional research crowd, pretty much my main target, in some fields (such as the Quantum). They are very few in numbers. In politics and practical philosophy, my main target has been my good friend Obama, towards whom many of my essays have been directed. I am comfortable with having just a readership of two, namely me, and him.

          Helps comes from looking up.

          Patrice Ayme

          18 February 2013 at 20:55

        • Patrice, I’m saying that when writing words that appear on the Internet (as opposed to in private communication), all too many people all too easily forget who the audience potentially may be.

          pendantry

          18 February 2013 at 23:19

  5. While the specifics regarding who was “first” to think through the consequences of our species’ actions upon the planet is of interest to some, the takeaway is that anthropogenic influences certainly weren’t the product of the 1950s-1960s. I would further argue that so-called experts, while increasing in number in the last 150 years, are no better equipped today to communicate their findings than they were in the past. Scientists learned a lot in these 150 years, but most of it remained siloed. We will all be better off when lessons from social sciences are better applied.

    weatherdem

    17 February 2013 at 23:23

    • Thanks Weatherdem. The specifics of who was ‘first’ are addressed by the other comments here but, in essence, I agree with you completely. Furthermore, I am reluctantly coming round to the view of Guy McPherson that both mainstream climate scientists and climate change sceptics are equally guilty of believing what they want to believe and seeing only what they want to see. This is because, when you investigate the ten positive feeback loops that McPherson cites you realise that all the research is out there and has been peer reviewed: The problem is that the vast majority of mainstream scientists are refusing to join the dots and admit that these 10 loops are going to interfere with – and mutually reinforce – each other. It also does not help that the IPCC is still not incorporating these feedback loops in its projections.

      Martin Lack

      18 February 2013 at 09:58

  6. [...] 2013/02/17: LoE: Climate Change: First Wake-Up Call in 1910? [...]


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