Climate change history: How journalists in the 1900s covered an emerging science. – Slate


The weather of 1911 was weird—or so reported the March 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics. Among reports of zeppelins, new developments in submarine tech, an electronic hearing aid from France, and the innovative use of canaries in coal mines in Tennessee, there’s a four-page illustrated feature on climate change.

The author, Francis Molena, describes a heavy heat having begun to dig in around June of the previous year: “The cities baked and gasped for breath, while the burning Sun and hot winds withered the corn and cost the farmers a million dollars a day.” What had started in the U.S. soon made its way to Europe. Whalers brought back reports of once-icy Arctic regions full of water. Then, around the middle of the summer, “the flood-gates of the heavens opened.” Kentucky was deluged while a cyclone devastated Costa Rica, and the Philippines were “more thoroughly drowned than they had been before since the time of Noah.” By this year, temperature records had been kept in the U.S. for several decades, and a graph illustrated how temperatures in 1911 had been beaten in each month but November. It’s the sort of reporting we’re all too used to today—but this was 1912.

Molena notes “a general impression among older men” that the “good old-fashioned winters” they knew in their youth—snow 15 feet deep, lasting six months—had gone. The weather just wasn’t what it used to be. Molena reminds readers that once upon a time, parts of the Earth had very different climates. After taking them through a basic explanation of the greenhouse effect and the warming role of carbon dioxide, he asks whether, as we know burning oil and coal produces carbon dioxide, we might now be producing sufficient quantities to alter the climate?

Header at top reads "Remarkable Weather of 1911." Below is an illustration of a factory spewing pollution into the air.

Header at top reads "Remarkable Weather of 1911." Below is an illustration of a factory spewing pollution into the air.

From Francis Molena’s 1912 Popular Mechanics article.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Google Books.

Never keen to pour pessimism on mainstream ideas of progress, Popular Mechanics takes all this extra warmth as largely for the good. Perhaps future generations will thank us for burning all this coal, Molena muses: “It is largely the courageous, enterprising, and ingenious American whose brains are changing the world. Yet even the dull foreigner, who burrows in the earth by the faint gleam of his miner’s lamp, not only supports his family and helps to feed the consuming furnaces of modern industry, but by his toil in the dirt and darkness 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.”

It wasn’t the only place the topic popped up that year. In August, a newspaper in New Zealand picked up similar estimates for carbon emissions as Molena had used, summarizing that the carbon emissions from burning coal creates a “blanket for the Earth and to raise its temperature,” the effects of which might “be considerable” in a few centuries. This cutting goes viral every now and again; you may have seen it shared online.

Not everyone was as optimistic as Molena. Back in the spring there’d been a short exchange of letters in Scientific American. Are we using our sky as a giant slag heap, the magazine’s readers wondered, the air filled with carbon dioxide just as coal tar had clogged up the rivers? Can we rely on the oceans and plants to breathe it all in, clearing up the mess? Was it time to start a movement for the conservation of the atmosphere, similar to calls to save the forests? Later that summer, someone at Scientific American dug out an old 1904 book by Wisconsin geologist Charles Van Hise, A Treatise on Metamorphism, dubbing it “a prophecy” of the recent hot summers. It’s a long book, but Scientific American had found a few pages in the middle that contained a reference to Arrhenius and the idea that by filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide humans could bring about a marked increase in the temperature of the globe. Van Hise was still talking about effects we might notice dramatically in a thousand or so years, but Scientific American warned that since his book had been published, consumption of coal had doubled and so “there is little wonder that Prof Van Hise’s prognostications in regard to the increased temperature should have been so swiftly verified.” The authors of this piece avoided Popular Mechanics’ celebratory tone, but still there wasn’t any particular sense of terror or urgency. The change, they thought, would probably be good for plants.

This wasn’t the first time the topic had come up. These science writers were, by this point, drawing on several decades of research on the topic. Knowledge of the thing we now know as the greenhouse effect can be traced back to the 1830s and reasonable ideas about how the Earth’s temperature might have varied over time.

The idea that carbon dioxide could have a warming effect in the atmosphere was first suggested by American scientist Eunice Newton Foote in 1856, and then in more detail by John Tyndall, a higher-profile scientist working in London a few years later. It wouldn’t be until the end of that century that a group at the Stockholm Physics Society came back to the topic. In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius (who, for trivia fans, is a relative of Greta Thunberg) spent several months playing around with numbers to work out what’d happen to global temperatures if the amount of carbon in the atmosphere went up or down.

Today, with the advantages of modern science, we know the world was already warming, but Arrhenius had no way to see that, and for him it was all very theoretical—a side project done for fun, possibly just a distraction from a stressful divorce he was going through. The data he based his calculations on wasn’t that rigorous, and he simplified the climate system immensely. But for Arrhenius, back then, it was just a way to pick up an idea to throw around with friends at the Physics Society. If it looked promising, it could be studied properly later.

Like other European scientists at the time, Arrhenius was more worried temperatures would fall, rather than rise (this was chilly Sweden, after all). So he started by working out the impact of halving the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. It would, he found, cool the world by 5 degrees C—enough to bring on another ice age. A colleague suggested he might consider it the other way around, too: What if carbon dioxide was added to the atmosphere? Arrhenius ran the numbers again and calculated that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would raise the Earth’s temperature by 5 degrees C, or even 6 degrees C.

At this point, the scientists were thinking about the effects of volcanoes, not emissions caused by humans. But then, a few years after this was published, another colleague of Arrhenius’ pointed out that if people kept burning coal at current rates, we might hit that doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide sometime soon, at least in a few centuries. Arrhenius included this observation in his 1908 book Worlds in the Making, which took the idea out of the realms of dusty journals and exclusive scientific chatter. He wasn’t worried, though—if anything, extra warmth would be to the good.

Moreover, soon enough there was lab work—by another Swedish physicist, Knut Ångström—which seemed to refute the idea that up in the atmosphere carbon dioxide’s warming power would be dwarfed by that of water vapor. Other scientists argued convincingly that the oceans would soak up the carbon, that volcanic dust was the main problem, or that clouds would reflect the sunlight back into space. Leading American geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin had initially been excited when he read Arrhenius’ calculations, incorporating them into his work on ice ages, but as criticisms of the carbon dioxide theory stacked up, he repeatedly expressed regret that he’d ever been taken in by the idea.

People thought Arrhenius was just a clever guy playing around with numbers to see what would come out. Climate calculations weren’t his only side project—he also had unusual ideas about volcanoes, immunity, and all sorts of other scientific topics. His book Worlds in the Making was mainly famous for his suggestion that life on Earth started with seeds being transported from interstellar space by the pressure of light. Given this context of the theory’s origin, pretty soon most scientists had thrown out the carbon dioxide theory of climate change entirely.

So this small handful of media pieces in the early 1910s would have seemed quite fringe, and perhaps understandably were largely ignored. Before long, much of the world went to war. We’d come out of it even more wedded to fossil fuel, as oil-based transport on land and air went through rapid development in the military, and domestic innovation projects like electric freight or steam solar fell by the wayside. Concerns about the environmental impact of industrialization continued to grow, especially in the U.S. conservation movement, but no one much worried about the abstract question of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Roll on a few decades, and in 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar decided it was time to look again at the issue of atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperatures. Callendar was an amateur when it came to climatology. His day job was studying steam for the British electrical industry; this was possibly one of the reasons he was ignored, at least at first.

As James Rodger Fleming describes in his (highly recommended) biography, Guy Callendar’s father, Hugh, was by far the more famous scientist during their lifetimes, with a plum professorship at the University of London. At home, Hugh had built a home lab in a greenhouse, and Guy and his siblings were encouraged to play there, sometimes to disastrous consequences. At the age of 5, Guy was partially blinded by his older brother Leslie, who stuck a pin in his left eye. (Leslie later blew up the greenhouse trying to make TNT.) This eye injury kept Guy out of active service during the First World War, though, which may well have saved his life. Instead, he worked in his father’s lab, X-raying aircraft engines to look for hairline cracks. After the war, he went to university before getting a job back in his father’s lab, working on steam engineering. He met his wife at the local tennis club, had twin daughters, and moved to the seaside.

Among all this, studying weather records then became a hobby for Callendar. In 1938, he presented his now classic paper “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Temperature” to the Royal Meteorological Society. The data was better on temperature than carbon dioxide back then, but there was enough for Callendar to estimate that humans had added 150,000 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels since the turn of the century. This, he argued, had exceeded the limits of natural carbon sinks like the oceans, and three-quarters of it remained in the atmosphere, causing what he calculated amounted to about a third of a degree Celsius of warming. He didn’t necessarily want to ring any alarm bells. Fossil fuels give us heat and power, after all, and he thought global warming could be useful, too—hold off another ice age.

Callendar’s paper was published along with the questions that were asked afterward, giving us an insight into how peer review worked then. Callendar’s interlocutors largely agreed that warming was happening, but were less convinced it was a matter of the rise of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the comments could well be read as rather patronizing. One, for example, “congratulated Mr. Callendar on his courage and perseverance” (“courage” being British scientist code for “absolutely ludicrous behavior”). Callendar gave as good as he got, though. In response to the suggestion that he’d ignored the natural movements of carbon dioxide, he replied he had “actually written an account of these, but it was just eight times as long as the present paper.” As Fleming puts it, Callendar was clearly “accustomed to rubbing elbows with scientific elites and was already a seasoned veteran of scientific debate.” He’d grown up with it.

Callendar went to war the following year. He ended up working for Britain’s Petroleum Warfare Department and sharing a patent for something called FIDO, or Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation, which helped clear fog so aircraft could land in bad weather conditions. Callendar tested it using a large skating rink in West London, the ice-making machinery repurposed to produce synthetic fogs and a large wind tunnel used to re-create the conditions of an airfield. When it was finally applied in the field, FIDO burnt through 6,000 gallons of petrol in the four minutes required to land an aircraft, totting up to a total of 30 million gallons over the two and a half years it was in operation. Or to put it another way: The academy threw out Callendar’s work on anthropogenic climate change, so he went to work burning as much fossil fuel as possible, in an attempt to deliberately control the weather.

Callendar wasn’t the only one thinking about global warming at the time. Working in Greenland, Swedish glaciologist Hans Ahlmann confirmed something he’d been confident of for decades: rapid warming in the polar regions. His fieldwork was disrupted by the war, but he continued to study the gradual retreat of glaciers, pulling in data from the South Pole too. Like Guy Callendar, Ahlmann saw this as largely a positive change, calling it klimatförbättringen, or “climate embetterment.” The cause of this embetterment came from nature, he argued, not anything like industrial carbon dioxide pollution. But he was clear it was happening.

Whether it was good or bad, and whatever the cause, by 1947 the Pentagon was wondering if it should start measuring the thickness of Arctic ice too; if the climate was changing and the country did go to war with the Soviet Union up there, it made sense to be informed. Within a few years, all the American military services were funding studies of the Arctic, including sea ice, permafrost, and the physical properties of snow. In May 1950, evidence for global warming was presented at a meeting of the American Meteorological Society and made its way into Time magazine. The write-up suggests some of the delegates were still unsure, with one especially enthusiastic researcher from Harvard going to the trouble of finding a thermometer from 1849 and checking it against modern instruments to show it was reliable. Still, it was hardly front-page news, tucked away in the middle of the magazine, at the end of the science section (squeezed into the hard left of the page by an advertisement for air conditioning, fittingly enough). Moreover, it wasn’t clear what was causing this warming or even if it was long-term. No one seemed overly worried. It was much more exciting to see if we could change the weather on purpose.

A bomber takes off from a runway flanked by lines of fire under a stormy sky

A bomber takes off from a runway flanked by lines of fire under a stormy sky

FIDO petrol burners are ignited on either side of the main runway at Graveley, England, in 1945.
Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Callendar’s wartime project for the Petroleum Warfare Department, FIDO, had shown it was possible to fight back the fog if you burnt enough oil, and in 1942 a team at General Electric led by Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir presented various American scientific dignitaries with a new way to produce clouds by sending hot lubricating oil at supersonic speeds through cold air. Initially, this work had been secret, but in 1946 they went public with tests to fertilize, or “seed,” clouds with dry ice that appeared to produce a light snow. In 1950, Langmuir made a splash with a Science article on experiments in New Mexico on injecting clouds with silver iodine to create rain. This made the cover of Time, which ran an illustration of a slightly glum-looking Langmuir holding up an umbrella to protect him from the rain, the umbrella stick made from a string of pipettes.

This was what, in the early 1950s, the phrase “man-made climate change” meant to most meteorologists and policymakers—a deliberate play with the weather. In an April 1950 Scientific American feature on “The Changing Climate,” author and meteorologist George Kimble is keen to let readers know they are living through a particularly interesting climatic moment. Temperatures have clearly crept up gradually since the middle of the last century. Still, Kimble reassures, there’s no reason to concern ourselves wondering why. It’s certainly not due to all the heat we’re producing from burning fossil fuels, he notes almost in passing, concluding it’s probably something to do with the sun. He’s much more interested in Langmuir’s research into seeding clouds. Callendar’s fog dispersal device gets a name check (though not Callendar himself), but the term “carbon dioxide” doesn’t appear.

By the time the New York Times Magazine would cover the newly warming climate in July 1953, carbon dioxide was back on the table, albeit only as one idea among several others. New York had just had its third wettest spring since records began in 1826, the author, Leonard Engel, informed his readers. And although the Weather Bureau suspected that the large number of tornadoes recorded was partly due to expanding its team of volunteer storm spotters, that number was surprisingly high—three times as high as usual. This was not a one-off phenomenon, nor was it just an issue for the U.S. Engel points to the Alps, Greenland, and Alaska, where the winters weren’t long enough to make up for the summer melting; the glaciers are retreating, falling back as they sweat off running water. The people of 1953 were living through a period of climate change, and these changes could affect them deeply. It might bring new opportunities, Engel suggests, but he also struck a warning note: A decline in rainfall could cause devastating drought, or the shrinking of the ice caps could lead to flooding. Above it all, the feature was illustrated with an imposing photo of clouds building before a tornado.

Underlining the point, on the following page the magazine had compiled news and photos from correspondents across the country. While Boston and Florida both reported booms in summer tourism, in Texas, all the news was of the drought. The Rio Grande ran dry for hundreds of miles, “topsoil drift[ed] over useless farm machinery,” livestock had to be sold at ruinous prices and farmers were going bankrupt. Weird weather was getting harder to ignore.

Sitting where we are today, such early coverage of the climate crisis can be hard to read. How dare they be so blasé! So self-congratulatory! But they didn’t know the details yet. And it’s kind of amazing they knew as much as they did.

It’s easy to wail over all the missed opportunities to act. And maybe we need to. Grief is, after all, a key emotion of the climate crisis, one we need to make space for. We can be angry too, especially when it comes to later parts of this story, from the 1980s onwards—the so-called merchants of doubt, for example, who peddle climate skepticism as part of a suite of tactics to deliberately delay action on climate change. But at the same time, without denying either grief or anger, we can allow ourselves to be impressed—relieved, even—by how far we have come in some areas.

Even today, when the climate crisis hits with ever more distressing power, it’s not obvious to the naked eye that it’s greenhouse gases which are the problem. For most of us today, the idea that the air around us is made up of a mix of different, invisible chemicals is pretty intuitive. We’re used to the idea that we inhale something called oxygen and then breathe out another invisible substance called carbon dioxide. We know other animals do the same, and plants do it the other way around. If we paid attention in school, we know that roughly three-quarters of the sea of air we live within is nitrogen, with a chunk of oxygen and a sliver of other stuff like carbon dioxide and hydrogen. We might worry about the quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases totting up in the atmosphere, or feel increasingly nervous about tiny, naked-to-the-eye particles of pollution, especially in car-choked cities. But we have to be taught before we can imagine all this, and someone needs to discover it first. Similarly, we might notice changes in weather, rack our memory to wonder if Halloween last year and the year before were both so much warmer than in our childhood. But we need detailed, carefully taken records to really check that memory, and specialist skills to analyze and verify any trends. We need science to see the climate crisis, and we should be thankful we have it.

What modern climate scientists do is amazing. The knowledge they can pull out of the skies, seas, and soils is just incredible. Researching a book tracing the history of the climate crisis has been emotionally hard at times, but tracing the history of our discovery of the problem has given me real moments of joy: from Eunice Foote putting a few cylinders of gas on her sunny windowsill in the 1850s, to Willi Dansgaard playing around with bubbles caught in polar ice over a century later, to Bert Bolin and Mostafa Tolba setting up the first working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the 1980s. It really wasn’t all that long ago that our ancestors simply looked at air and thought it was just that, air, not an array of different chemicals, some of which might make you high, explode, or—over several centuries of burning fossil fuels—could have a warming effect on the Earth.

When climate fear starts to grip, it’s worth remembering that we have all this incredible knowledge that offers us a chance to act. We could, all too easily, be sitting around thinking, The weather’s a bit weird today. Again.

This book excerpt is adapted from Alice Bell, Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis, Counterpoint Press, 2021.

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By Alice Bell. Counterpoint.

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