The history of climate change is covered in exacting detail in the book The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by author and climate scientist Daniel Yergin. This Pulitzer-prizewinning writer brings the reader on a journey spanning centuries of climate change science and seeks to clarify the issues that have today made this topic one of political and scientific controversy.
The data concerning climate change is treated in a two-fold manner; scientists have documented observable weather phenomena in real time, as well as analyzing data from resources such as ice cores, which reveal weather patterns going back thousands of years. Scientists also extrapolate using this gathered weather data to help inform them of possible future weather patterns and climactic events.
Studies of the climate began in the 18th century. A scientist in Switzerland, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure first proposed what would later be termed the “greenhouse effect” in 1770. John Tyndall, a British scientist, later used de Saussure’s theory as inspiration to conduct proper experiments confirming the effect. In the 1800s, the fear was not that the Earth would one day be too warm, but rather that the Earth would lose its heat into outer space and a new ice age would return. Louis Agassiz, another Swiss scientist, was the first to draw specific conclusions about how climate has shaped the planet over time. In the 1800s, he theorized that glaciers carved the planet into the familiar shapes we know today, and that the Earth has experienced wild fluctuations in climate over its history.
It wasn’t until a Swedish chemist by the name of Svante Arrhenius began making calculations of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1894 that the idea of global warming came to be. Excited by the idea of agricultural possibilities enabled by a warming trend in his native Scandinavia, Arrhenius welcomed the idea of a steadily warming planet. Arrhenius’s theories were never widely embraced, and in 1951, climate scientists were roundly dismissing theories that carbon dioxide influenced the atmosphere.
Ironically, it was during the 1950s that two scientists, Roger Revelle and Charles David Keeling, first began measuring increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. By 1969, a White House advisor sent Richard Nixon a memo warning him of the future impact rising temperatures would have. The memo was ignored, and the decade of the 1970s had scientist arguing over whether global warming or global cooling was actually occurring. Access to the new art of satellite photography showed ice was receding, lending proof to the claims that an increase in CO2 as a result of burning hydrocarbons caused a warming trend to occur.
It wasn’t until 1988’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was convened that climate science had an established forum for releasing data and studying its implications. While climate change is an accepted fact in much of the world, there are still pockets, such as in the United States, where denial of established data still occurs. In spite of this, public opinion is beginning to change and laws to curb the excess release of carbon into the atmosphere are slowly being implemented.