Over 100 years ago, in March 1912, a popular US science and technology magazine said that “it may well be that the enormous present-day combustion of coal is producing carbon dioxide so fast that it will have important climatic effects.”
The article, by Francis Molena in Popular Mechnics, contained this picture caption: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned… [the resulting carbon dioxide] tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
I was alerted to this last week by an image of text from an August 1912 New Zealand country newspaper, sent to me by climate scientist John Hunter.
If you go to the indispensible online archival resource Trove, at trove.nla.gov.au, and enter the first sentence of Molena’s caption, you’ll find the identical item published in 10 Australian regional papers on various dates in 1912. (All are unreferenced, proving plagiarism was as rampant then as now.)
Molena’s caption would be true today except that the world now burns coal at over four times the 1912 rate, plus vastly greater amounts of oil and gas. As for his prediction about how long it would take for human-induced warming to register, those “few centuries” turn out to be little more than one.
Note that Molena wasn’t cautioning against global warming, but celebrating it. The coal miner’s toil, he said, “adds to the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere so that men in generations to come shall enjoy milder breezes and live under sunnier skies.” He was echoing Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish scientist who in the 1890s identified coal-burning as a source of global heat and looked forward to a warmer homeland.
For all that, science’s picture of fossil-fuelled greenhouse warming was building. In 1925 Alfred Lotke found that burning coal would adversely affect the natural balance of the atmosphere. In 1938 Guy Callendar’s painstaking work on temperature records revealed a warming planet.
In the 1950s Gilbert Plass, Roger Revelle and others produced clear evidence of a rising risk of climate instability. Drawing on Revelle’s work, in a 1959 Hobart Mercury article, high school science teacher Murray Yaxley warned of melting polar ice drowning our cities.
In the early 1970s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists ran models of environmental impacts which, they concluded, would radically affect economies by early this century. In the 1980s physicists Carl Sagan and James Hansen told the US Congress of mounting evidence of warming and warned of dangerous consequences.
But this is only half the global warming story. There is science, and there is life. As science was revealing that human carbon emissions were anything but benign, vast quantities of real money invested in a long-term future for fossil fuels begged to differ.
A campaign by oil, coal and other related interests began after Hansen’s well-publicised 1988 warnings and picked up steam through the early UN climate summits. Their “successes” included the derailing of the Copenhagen summit in 2009 and spreading of the myth that forest harvesting is an effective counter to fossil fuel emissions.
Buying time, the fossil fuel lobby remains hard at work. Waste from burning fossil fuel is over three times the mass of the original coal, oil and gas (each carbon atom takes on two oxygen atoms) yet the industry still pretends it can economically capture and store it. Worse, politicians and media hacks accept and promote that fallacy.
Against them is today’s reality. It is absurd to ignore the stark evidence of systemic change when floods are metres higher than anything recorded, when prolonged extreme heat, drought and wildfire are hitting three continents at once, and when heat records are broken not by the small fraction of one degree that was once standard but by three or four degrees – as happened this year across the northern hemisphere.
Science told us 127 years ago that fossil fuels were changing the climate. Now the broad Australian public, radicalised by the state of the weather everywhere you look, wants a stronger climate response. Against that, corporate coal, oil and gas continue to conspire with government to keep their businesses humming.
In Canberra Labor remains aboard the fossil fuel merry-go-round driven by the same false carbon-capture promises, now coming mainly from gas. The Tasmanian Liberals continue to cling to a baseless belief that technology, tree harvesting and market forces absolve them of the responsibility to act. Hard decisions are called for but none is forthcoming, and that failure is costing us dearly.