Now That We Know The Planet Is Warmer, What Do We Do?

So let’s see if I can get this timeline straight: in 1824 Joseph Fourier began to question how the Earth’s average temperature is determined. He then found that the atmosphere is responsible for trapping infrared radiation that reflects off of the surface of the Earth. Fourier also decided that the atmosphere must let out some of the infrared radiation. In 1859 this phenomenon was tested by John Tyndall. Tyndall discovered that some gases such as Carbon Dioxide are not transparent to infrared radiation, as was the commonly held belief. He proposed that if changes in the concentrations of these gases (now known as the greenhouse gasses) could bring about changes in the climate system. His research was picked up in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius who, using crude data and a pencil showed that by adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere humans could change the temperature of the Earth.

Skip ahead to 1938, when Guy Stewart Callendar spoke on the topic of climate change before the Royal Meteorological Society. He argued that rising levels of Carbon Dioxide were leading to rises in global temperature averages. After World War II the U.S. office of Naval Research began to pour money into scientific research. Some of this research was very useful in understanding climate change. It was justified by the idea that in war, controlling the natural elements or at least predicting them could lead to victory. Roger Revelle was one of the benefactors of this funding. He and Hans Suess published a paper that while contradictory in writing showed the the oceans would absorb some of the atmospheric carbon but not all. After this publication it became obvious to Revelle and others interested in studying climate change that if carbon emissions were to increase exponentially, then real changes in the climate could be seen within several decades.

During the 1950s Charles Keeling was building an instrument that could accurately measure Carbon Dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. In 1960 he published his findings, a rise in annual concentrations of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. This publication led to the recognition, that research into the possibility of Global Warming, was serious. Over the next two decades more funding was put into the hands of scientists researching elements of global climate change. These scientists began to organize and share findings at meetings and conventions. The field was becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Certain environmental disasters and Earth Day also lent a hand to the credibility of the research. The public began to become informed, and concerned. This meant that the political sphere was getting involved too.

With a combination of interdisciplinary research, advances in technology, and interest from parties such as NASA it was becoming clear that greenhouse gasses resulting from human activity were leading to a warming planet. This led to several international conventions and agreements. In 1990 the first IPCC report stated that the planet has been warming and continued warming is extremely likely. That has really brought us to where we are today, heading into COP 20, with a big decision to make and not a large amount of time to make it. It is recognized by large governments what is going on. Parties are coming to the table, but they are not communicating.

Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming tells that tale that I wrote of above in much more detail. It describes the wrong turns that research took in the face of what appeared to be good evidence. It shows the influence war and political games had on the research as a whole. More importantly it leaves a message just at the end that tells how every single human being will need to adjust the way they live as the planet warms. Part of this begins with staying informed and informing others, it also means acting responsibly whether that means walking to the farmers market instead of driving to the supercenter, or choosing to act on behalf of the world’s citizens while sitting as a member of the United States Congress instead of on behalf of industry lobby groups.