Climate Change: First Wake-Up Call in 1910?
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.
‘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.
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”…?
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.