Early history of global warming science and predictions

Early history of global warming science and predictions

Here are some highlights of the early history of climate change science and predictions from 300 BC until the release of the First Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report in 1990:

300 BC

The Greek philosopher ‘Theophrastus’ (a student of Aristotle) documented that human activity affects the climate. He observed that drainage of marshes cooled an area around Thessaly and that clearing of forests near Philippi warmed the climate. See this publication from 1894: “On Winds and on Weather Signs” (translated, with an introduction and notes).


The French mathematician and physicist ‘Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier’ (1768-1830) found that the atmosphere kept the planet warmer and he made calculations of the warming effect. He suspected that human activities could influence the climate, although he focused on land use changes. Fourier’s findings are widely recognized as the first proposal of what today is known as the greenhouse effect. Read more ‘here‘.


The Irish physicist ‘John Tyndall’ (1820-1893) was the first to measure the infrared absorptive powers of the gases nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, etc. He concluded that water vapour is the strongest absorber of radiant heat in the atmosphere. Tyndall proved that the atmosphere has a greenhouse effect and demonstrated that visually transparent gases are infrared emitters. Read the paper “On Radiation” from 1865.


The Swedish physicist and chemist ‘Svante Arrhenius’ (1859-1927) attempted to calculate how changes in the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere could alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect; see this article from 1896: “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the ground“. His greenhouse law reads as follows: If the quantity of carbonic acid (CO2) increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression. He predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes were large enough to cause global warming. Arrhenius estimated in 1896 that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would cause a global temperature rise of 5–6°C (in 1906 he adjusted the value to 1.6°C). 2014-estimates from IPCC say this value is likely to be between 1.5 and 4.5°C. Arrhenius, however, expected the CO2 doubling to take about 3000 years whereas the most 2014-scenareos from IPCC expect this to happen in a century.


The English (born in Canada) steam engineer and inventor ‘Guy Stewart Callendar’ (1898-1964) developed a theory that linked rising carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere to global temperature. He explained how man-made carbon dioxide emissions trap radiation and linked the rising global temperatures with the increased combustion of fossil fuels brought about by industrialization. This theory was called the Callendar Effect after an article in Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society called “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Temperature” in 1938. Callendar demonstrated that global land temperatures had increased over the previous fifty years and his estimates have later been shown to be remarkably accurate.


The Canadian physicist ‘Gilbert Plass’ (1920-2004) predicted that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would warm the planet by 3.6°C, that CO2 levels in 2000 would be 30% higher than in 1900 and that the planet would be about 1°C warmer in 2000 than in 1900. Read more ‘here‘. The 2007-estimates from IPCC say that a doubling of CO2 would warm the planet by 2-4.5°C, the CO2 rise since pre-industrial times is 37% and the warm-up from 1900 to 2000 is around 0.7°C.


The Austrian (immigrated to the United States in 1950) physical chemist and nuclear physicist ‘Hans Suess’ (1909-1993) showed with carbon-14 isotope analysis that CO2 released from fossil fuels is not immediately absorbed by the ocean (which led to a collaboration with Roger Revelle; see below).


The scientist ‘Roger Revelle’ (1909-1991) from the United States (born in Canada) argued (together with Hans Suess) that the world’s citizenry was performing “a great geophysical experiment” and called on the scientific community to monitor changes in the carbon dioxide content of waters and airs. Also changes in the earth’s polar ice, sea level and atmospheric temperatures were sought. Revelle brought in David Keeling (see below) to initiate carbon dioxide studies, initially at Mauna Loa and when the first measurements were available. Revelle reasoned that the developing countries claimed special treatment in the adoption of mitigating measures by the developed countries (i.e., limitations on the combustion of fossil fuels). In 1956 in an article in Time Magazine Revelle said: “In the future, if the blanket of CO2 produces a temperature rise of only one or two degrees, a chain of secondary effects may come into play. As the air gets warmer, sea water will get warmer too, and CO2 dissolved in it will return to the atmosphere. More water will evaporate from the warm ocean, and this will increase the greenhouse effect of the CO2. Each effect will reinforce the other, possibly raising the temperature enough to melt the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland, which would flood the earth’s coastal lands.” Revelle (together with Suess) described the “buffer factor”, now known as the “Revelle factor”, which is a resistance to atmospheric carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean (this later became an entire branch of global warming science). Revelle played a key role in a wide variety of U.N. and ICSU activities for more than three decades.


The scientist ’Charles David Keeling‘ (1928-2005) from the United States started collecting carbon dioxide (CO2) samples at Mauna Loa on Hawaii in 1958 and by 1960 he had showed strong seasonal variations in carbon dioxide levels. In 1961 Keeling produced data showing that carbon dioxide levels were rising steadily in what became known as the “Keeling Curve”. His ongoing research showed that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide grew from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 380 (ppm) in 2005, in correlation with increased fossil fuel emissions. Read this “Introduction to his work“.


The Swedish meteorologist ‘Bert Bolin‘ (1925-2007) wrote together with Erik Eriksson the article “Changes in the Carbon Dioxide Content of the Atmosphere and Sea due to Fossil Fuel Combustion” in which they brought clarity to the issue of atmosphere-ocean interactions concerning carbon dioxide. They developed a chemical and dynamical model of the short-term exchange of CO2 between the atmosphere and the upper layer of the ocean. Their model indicated that the surface ocean layer must have taken up less than ten percent of fossil fuel emissions and was acting as a “bottleneck” in the transport of CO2 to the deep sea. They concluded that if industrial production climbed as projected, atmospheric CO2 would probably rise 25% or more by the end of the century. Bolin was involved in international climate research collaborations and numerous organizational and scientific activities from the 1960s to the 1990s. Under Bolin’s chairmanship, from 1988 to 1997, the IPCC produced First and the Second Assessment Reports (the first report led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the second to the Kyoto Protocol).


In the 1950s the Russian physicist and climatologist ‘Mikhail Ivanovich Budyko’ (1920-2001) had worries about how feedbacks (loops of mutually reinforcing effects) might amplify human influences on the global climate. He found that the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation worked differently in the snowy latitudes as compared with the temperate zones. This led him to wonder, before almost any other scientist, about the potentially huge consequences of fossil fuel burning. In 1961, he published a warning that the exponential growth of humanity’s use of energy would inevitably heat the planet. The next year he made calculations of the Earth’s energy budget and his equations suggested that climate changes could be extreme. He even predicted that the Arctic icepack might disappear quickly. In 1969 he published the article: “The effect of solar radiation variation on the climate of the Earth“; read more ‘here‘.

1960s and 1970s

Scientists began using computers to develop sophisticated calculations of the greenhouse effect. In 1967 the Japanese meteorologist and climatologist ‘Syukuro Manabe’ (born 1931) and the U.S. meteorologist ‘Richard Tryon Wetherald’ (1936-2011) found that, in the absence of unknown feedbacks, a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in approximately 2°C increase in global temperature. By 1975, Manabe and Wetherald had developed a three-dimensional climate model that gave similar results. Meanwhile numerous scientists explored a variety of climate change research areas: volcanoes, sunspots, tree rings, varves of clay, ice ages cycles, ice cores, deep-sea cores, corals, clouds, aerosol pollution (smog), etc. Alarming appeals to policy makers and the public gradually increased in numbers along with the amount of observed evidence.


In a ‘Report to the White House‘ called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” this prediction was made: “Carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at the rate of 6 billion tons a year. By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at present.” In a speech to the Congress same year the president of The United States Lyndon B. Johnson said: “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.” The 25 percent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reached in 2014.


The U.S. White House staff counselor ‘Daniel P. Moynihan‘ (1927-2003) wrote an internal ‘memorandum‘ saying: “…we really don’t have very satisfactory measurements of the carbon dioxide problem. On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change. The process is a simple one. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels. At the turn of the century several persons raised the question whether this would change the temperature of the atmosphere. Over the years the hypothesis has been refined, and more evidence has come along to support it. It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit [3.9 degrees Celsius]. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by ten feet [3.05 meter]. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.” And: “It is entirely possible that there will be counterwailing effects. For example, an increase of dust in the atmosphere would tend to lower temperatures, and might offset the CO2 effect. Similarly, it is possible to conceive fairly mammoth man-made efforts to counterwail the CO2 rise. (E.g., stop burning fossil fuels.) In any event, I would think this is a subject that the Administration ought to get involved with.” The Moynihan-memorandum was addressed to John Ehrlichman in the first year of the Richard Nixon presidency.


The Stockholm Conference (on the initiative of Sweden) of United Nations the ‘Declaration on the Human Environments‘ was adopted with a range of principal objectives, including these (compilation of 26 principles): The natural resources of the earth, including the air, must be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations, the non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against future exhaustion, the discharge of substances in such concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless must be halted, science must be applied to the identification and avoidance of environmental risks and states shall cooperate to develop international law regarding compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage.


The U.S. scientist ‘Wallace Smith Broecker‘ (born 1931) contributed with holistic understanding of the role played by the ocean in triggering the abrupt climate changes which punctuated glacial time and his work is considered the foundation of the carbon cycle science.


The National Academy of Sciences in the United States released the so called ‘Charney report’ with this conclusion: “When it is assumed that the CO2 content in the atmosphere is doubled and statistical thermal equilibrium is achieved, the more realistic of the modeling effects predict at global surface warming of between 2ºC and 3.5ºC, with greater increases at high latitudes.”


A joint UNEP/WMO/ICSU ‘Conference in Austria‘ with scientists from 29 developed and developing countries, stated that the atmospheric impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) is reinforced and accelerated by the other greenhouse gases. It was believed that in the first half of the next century a rise of global temperature could be higher than any time in man’s history.


The ‘Brundtland Report’ by the Brundtland Commission set up by the United Nations in 1983, defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and recommended the adoption of renewable energy plus energy conservation measures to address the global warming.


The scientist ‘James Edward Hansen’ (born 1941) from the United States has been a leading climatologist since the 70s. His field of research has been on global temperature analysis (since 1880), global climate models and projections. When his temperature analysis was updated in 1988, he found that the four warmest years on record were all in the 1980s. The first climate prediction computed from a general circulation model that was published by Hansen was in 1988 and the same year he was giving testimony before the United States Congress. James Hansen concluded that global warming would be evident within a few decades, and that it would result in temperatures at least as high as during the Eemian (more than 100.000 years ago). He argued that, if the temperature rises 0.4 °C above the average of 1950-1980, for a few years, it would prove human-caused global warming. In 2006 Hansen and colleagues found that the observed global warming was similar to two of the three scenarios back in 1988. In 2013, he stated that burning all existing fossil fuels “would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”


The ‘First Assessment Report’ (see the ‘overview’) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) under the United Nations predict in a business-as-usual scenario an increase of the global temperature during the 21st century of about 0.3ºC per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 to 0.5ºC per decade) and an average rate of global sea level rise of about 6 cm per decade over the next century (with an uncertainty range of 3 – 10 cm per decade). Since then IPCC Assessment Reports has been published in ‘1995 (second)‘, ‘2001 (third)‘, ‘2007 (fourth)‘ and underway; ‘2014 (fifth)‘.

In 2011, the global CO2 Emissions from the consumption of energy have increased by 51% compared to 1990. The three diagrams below show the development since 1960 in 1) CO2 Content in the atmosphere, 2) Air Temperature and 3) Sea Level.

CO2 Content update 2013

Air Temperature update 2013..

Sea Level, 2013


Links to global warming history and sources:
http://www.global-opvarmning.com/ (Danish)


Drawing by Claus Andersen, 2014.

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