NATURE + SCIENCE : A Century of Global Warming
A SHORT HISTORY OF CLIMATE CHANGE STUDIES.
The Glasgow climate conference was held a month ago triggering different reactions about the real impact of the commitments made and the agreements reached during this meeting. The Paris Agreement review conducted at Cop26 is considered unsatisfactory by many experts. After the conference, the most important deal was signed on the reduction of coal consumption (coal emissions represent approximately the 40% of the global carbon dioxide emitted), explicitly discussed for the first time at an international meeting on climate. A small step forward, but still not enough compared to the major issues on the table. Many observers were concerned by the strong presence of fossil-fuel lobbies, higher in number of representatives than the delegations of the single countries.Several NGOs involved in the fight against climate change (Global Witness, Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory e Glasgow Calls Out Polluters) reported that: “At least 503 lobbyists have been admitted into the climate talks, allowing them to participate and keep on delaying and divert the attention from the actions we need to embrace to face the climate crisis, in which their industries play a primary role”. To put these numbers into context, it seems useful to emphasize that fossil-fuel lobbies members exceeded the largest single nation delegation and the sum of the delegates of the 8 countries most affected by climate changes in the last 20 years: Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, Bahamas, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Despite the unscientific skepticism that, even today, influences the debate through baseless points of view, the undeniable refusal to cooperate showed by the oil and gas corporations and the slow progress promoted by governments to deal with an emergency getting more urgent every year, climate science has a century-long history. Taking into consideration the centrality of the environmental issue in the current debate it may be important to retrace the main steps of this story.
EARLY STUDIES: SVANTE ARRHENIUS (1896)
The first important discoveries related to the ‘’climate science’’ took place in the late 19th century, shortly after the Second Industrial Revolution. The Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by the international community in 1903, totally devoted himself to the study of the atmosphere. His contribution furthered the climate impact of carbon dioxide, theorizing for the first time the interconnection between the CO2 concentration and the climate of the Earth. Indeed, he published In 1896 a study on the London Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science titled: “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground”. Developing a theory about ice ages and using the basic principles of chemistry, he has been the first scientist to show that an increase in a CO2 emissions could provoke a progressive growth in Earth temperature: that’s what we call ‘”greenhouse effect” nowadays.
His analysis soon led Arrhenius to the conclusion that CO2 emissions caused by human activities and burning of fossil fuels reached such an extension to justify an increase of the global temperature. These observations still represent, nowadays, the main core of the climate science.
He has spent the last years of his academic career devoting himself to scientific dissemination and publishing many books on these arguments, that were translated in several languages.
A PERIOD OF STALEMATE AND SOME MOVES FORWARD
After Arrhenius research, this topic was abandoned for a long time. At the time, people believed that human activities impacts were unsignificant compared to the natural ones, such as solar activity and ocean circulation. Moreover, the scientific community was convinced that oceans were carbon containers huge enough to automatically clear the anthropic pollution. To provide you an example, they considered water vapor as a much more relevant greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide. In the 1940s we have the first innovation that allowed to step out from this mindset, thanks to the technological development related to the usage of infrared spectroscopy and high wavelength radiation detection. Thanks to these studies, it became clear that water vapor could absorb completely different radiations compared to CO2 ones.
These results were summed up by Gilbert Plass in 1955: he stated that the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere was holding infrared radiation, which would otherwise be dispersed into space, raising Earth’s temperature.
The undisputed vision that considered oceans as able to absorb most of CO2 emissions, was increasingly abandoned opening the door to the latest discoveries that attracted a growing support by the international research community.
THE KEELING CURVE (1958)
Although the fact that oceans play a fundamental part in absorbing the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere was known since a very long time, Hans Suess and Roger Revelle realized that this natural mechanism was getting slower everyday. Over the years, this phenomenon could have made the rise of global temperature even worse.
After this discovery, Charles David Keeling, scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, began to regularly and frequently check CO2 concentration in the Antarctic and in the Mauna Loa Observatory, starting from March 1958.
The Keeling Curve is a graph that represents the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere, by constantly monitoring the situation on the Mauna Loa. Keeling himself supervised the project from 1958 to 2005, when he passed away. It’s finally clear that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is increasing more and more; for this reason many scientists give credit to the Keeling curve for bringing the world’s attention for the first time about the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Keeling’s contribute is still considered as one of the most important scientific findings of the 20th century.
THE CHARNEY REPORT (1979)
“For more than a century, we have been aware that changes in the composition of the atmosphere could affect its ability to trap the sun’s energy for our benefit. We now have incontrovertible evidence that the atmosphere is indeed changing and that we ourselves contribute to that change. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing, and these changes are linked with man’s use of fossil fuels and exploitation of the land. Since carbon dioxide plays a significant role in the heat budget of the atmosphere, it is reasonable to suppose that continued increases would affect climate.”
It’s 1979 and the US President is Jimmy Carter; the White House commissions to a group of experts a study about the connections between the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the industrial activities and the climate change. The meteorologist Jule Gregory Charney is called to supervise the project, named after him.
The Charney Report is a precise estimation on what happened in the following decades and represents the first global assessment about the environmental impact of the greenhouse gas emissions on Earth.
The report widely describes the anthropogenic origin of global warming and points the finger against the unsustainability of a productive system built on the usage of fossil fuels, the unmonitored exploitation of natural resources and deforestation.
This warning has been ignored for too many years by governments and international institutions, who decided to turn a blind eye to it and bypass the scientific evidence; political decision-makers did not assume preventive actions despite being aware of the risks.
The result is the actual situation of full emergency, and this report shows its prophetic value and forces the world to handle with its responsibilities.
(Sidenote: Bert Bolin, who was involved in the Charney Report, was one of the main sponsor and the first chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), from 1988 to 1997).
In conclusion, the scientific community has offered many reliable and relevant studies over the years demonstrating the disastrous consequences of global warming in the short, medium and long term, and highlighting the responsibilities of human activity in accelerating climate change towards environmental disasters.
The metaphor of the boiled frog (see N. Chomsky) explains well the situation and how whatever changes, if sufficiently gradual, reveal our unability to react. The “boiled frog” is employed by Chomsky to describe people and societies passively accepting their own breakdown: if we throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately, saving its life. If, however, we put it in cold water and then start to heat it very slowly, it will gradually adapt to the temperature. When the water eventually becomes too hot, it will no longer have the strength to jump out and to avoid to die boiled before it’s too late.
The parallelism with the uneffective approaches and the inadequate efforts taken to deal with the upcoming disaster becomes evident. There’s a little time left before reaching the boiling point (literally!), and we still have some chances to move towards a new direction and implement the global environmental policy.
While it seems rightful to consider as inadequate and unsatisfying the compromises of the last Cop, in the near future it will be important to look at how the different governments will concretize their commitments and adopt new regulations in their countries.
To make it happen, citizens involvement and bottom-up initiatives within urban communities, aimed at taking action and putting national governments under pressure, play a major role in this process.
While the room of manoeuvre gets always more little, the first partial outcomes will be outlined after Cop27 which will be held in 2022 and hosted by Egypt. That’s why focusing our energies on implementing effective, disrupting climate actions is essential.
Urkell Journal Team