A Brief History of the Science of (Man-Made) Climate Change

By Louise Young "I was born in the late 1950s at a time when the climate was more benevolent than it appears to be now. I feel that each generation has a profound duty to try to leave the earth a better place for those who come after—not just people, but nature as well. I am saddened to see what we are doing to this beautiful planet, and will continue to do what I can to improve our shared future."

Photo credit: bea_marques http://pixabay.com/en/leaf-eyes-green-leaves-look-heart-117554/

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that the science of climate change is a relatively new subject, especially given the way that some of the media portrays the issue as still unsubstantiated, and our government continues to fail to address the urgency of the situation.

However, in reality, the role that CO2 has on the warming of the earth’s atmosphere was first accepted and understood over 160 years ago (1). In 1850 Irish scientist John Tyndall established that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which means that it traps heat and keeps it from escaping from our atmosphere.

In the early 20th century, Swedish geochemist Svante Arrhenius realised that CO2 released into the atmosphere by the process of burning fossil fuels could alter Earth’s climate. By the 1930s, British engineer Guy Callendar had compiled empirical evidence that this effect was already discernible.

Callendar’s concern was pursued in the 1950s by numerous American scientists, including oceanographer Roger Revelle, who was once a commander in the US Navy Hydrographic Office. Revelle helped his colleague Charles David Keeling find funds to implement a systematic monitoring program.

By the 1960s, Keeling’s assiduous measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii demonstrated conclusively that atmospheric carbon dioxide was steadily rising.

In 1965, Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th President of the USA, declared: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

In 1979 the subject was addressed by the JASON Committee, an independent scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the US government on matters of defence, science and technology. The committee was established in 1960 and conducts research under contract to the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the US Intelligence Community, and the FBI (2).

The JASON scientists predicted that atmospheric carbon dioxide might double by 2035, resulting in mean global temperature increases of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, and polar warming of as much as 10 to 12 degrees.

These concerns led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and, in 1992, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which called for immediate action to reverse the trend of mounting greenhouse gas emissions.

One early signatory was President George H W Bush, who called on world leaders to translate the written document into “concrete action to protect the planet”. Three months later, the treaty was unanimously ratified by the Senate.

Since that time, global research into the science of climate change has continued relentlessly. Over the years the predictions have been modified, but they have never radically changed. There are many and various dire consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, and these consequences are slow moving, difficult to reverse, and have been happening now for decades.

That the earth is warming is now undeniable (3), with 2013 being the hottest year on record. The 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1998. If you are younger than 29 you’ve never experienced a month of below average global temperatures and considering the likely demographics of the Nucleus, that is probably quite a few of you who are reading this.

So why then are we still releasing ever-increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere?

This is a really important question, and goes to the heart of why we as a global society continue to avoid the scientific facts, the overwhelming and ever-increasing evidence, and our own common sense. Next time, I will focus on the politics behind our inaction.

1 - www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/31/AR2007013101808.html

2 - Many of the JASON reports are classified, but you can view some of the unclassified ones here: www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/

3 - www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/2013offthecharts.hottestyear-1.pdf

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