Climate Change: When scientist Eunice Foote warned of global warming in 1856, she was ignored. Time to get to work – Dr. Alice Bell

Her name was Eunice Foote, and at the time, nobody paid much attention to her. This lack of attention was partly sexism, but only partly.

Foote herself wasn’t too worried about her findings. Today we think about how visionary his work was, how essential it was for the future of humanity. For Foote, it was just reasonably interesting work with the throttles.

Today, with the benefits of modern science, we know the Earth was already warming under Foote’s feet, but she had no idea.

It would take almost another half-decade – at the turn of the 20th century – for a group of Swedish scientists to even consider that humans burning fossil fuels could create enough carbon dioxide to warm the Earth. The most famous of them was Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius (who, for trivia fans, is a relative of Greta Thunberg).

Arrhenius and his colleagues felt that it would take centuries, and then it would be a good thing, a further sign of progress in the industrial age.

To modern eyes, this may seem laughable, even shocking. But no one had done the science to calculate the impacts – in some cases, the very ways of doing that science had yet to be invented. It is perhaps understandable that northern European researchers worry much more about the lack of heat than about the excess.

At first, the ideas of Arrhenius remained a relatively marginal science. And yet, the warming was continuing rapidly and becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Coal burning continued to grow, and new petroleum-based transportation, like cars and planes, offered new reasons to ignite the ancient carbon embedded in fossil fuels.

A local man trying to fight a forest fire on the Greek island of Evia last August asks for help as no water is coming through the pipe (Picture: Angelos Tzorttzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

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In 1912, Popular Mechanics magazine skims weather records to establish that warm temperatures weren’t just old men complaining “winters aren’t like they used to be”. He published one of many articles that appeared in the mainstream media that year that re-examined Arrhenius’ work and questioned whether, given the prodigious amounts of fossil fuels that some parts of the industrialized world were going through, can Maybe his prediction of a warming world had come sooner than we imagined?

Still, Popular Mechanics thought this warming was all for the good, going so far as to say that future generations would look back and thank them for burning so much coal.

As the century progressed, warming continued. Engineer and amateur meteorological researcher Guy Callendar (whose day job was in the fossil fuel industry) presented calculations to the Royal Meteorological Society suggesting a warming of a third of a degree in recent decades, that he linked to rising carbon emissions, but was widely laughed out of the room.

People wade through muddy floodwaters in the border town of Shaman in Balochistan province after heavy monsoon rains hit much of Pakistan (Photo: Abdul Basit/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Swedish glaciologist Hans Ahlmann recorded rapid warming in the polar regions, calling it klimatförbättringen, or “climate hardening.” But that was the late 1930s, and the world quickly went to war – with Callendar himself joining the Petroleum Warfare Department – and largely forgot about the issue once again.

By the mid-1950s, parts of the United States were sweating yet another heat wave. The tourist resorts are doing well but the farmers are despairing and, as in 1912, a few people are once again turning to the carbon dioxide theory.

There had been a huge expansion of post-war research, particularly in the United States, with new techniques and equipment, and military funding, that could be applied to the question. Armed with these new resources, scientists could see deeper, in more detail, and with greater precision. The role carbon dioxide was already playing in climate change was harder to discount.

In 1956, a Californian oceanographer, Roger Revelle, gave Congress his first briefing on the problem. It was clear that burning fossil fuels was already messing up the weather, and that was a big deal, but he thought we’d be going nuclear soon anyway and the days of fossil fuels were numbered, so we’d sort it out the problem soon enough. (Revelle’s tone would change as he learned more, and he’s also notable for introducing a young Al Gore to the subject, at Harvard).

Columns of smoke rise from Dartford, Kent, after wildfires broke out during the July heatwave (Photo: William Edwards/AFP via Getty Images)

Revelle managed to bring in more funding, and with it more scientific eyes. Soon after, articles by Shell scientists appeared in New Scientist telling everyone not to worry.

In 1963, the first international conference on the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was held. This included views from ecologists alongside geophysicists like Revelle. They noted that warming waters were already disrupting fish stocks and instilling a sense of fear and alarm that we are more accustomed to associating with the idea of ​​global warming today.

It is with this richer interdisciplinary approach that climate science has matured in the 20th century, gradually gathering better and more alarming evidence of the impacts that climate change is currently having and may also accelerate in the near future.

We’re a long way from Popular Mechanics’ reflection on how perhaps, hundreds of years from now, future generations will look back and thank their ancestors for burning coal. With news just this week of a third of Pakistan under water, we are a long way from that indeed.

It’s hard to say what Eunice Foote would have thought of all this. She was a women’s rights activist as well as a scientist, so one would imagine she would stand alongside Arrhenius’ relative, Greta Thunberg, shouting that it’s high time politicians treated the situation like a emergency.

As Barack Obama said in a 2014 speechwhich itself is aging rapidly, we are the first generation to really feel the impacts of climate change, but the last to really be able to do something about it.

Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis by Alice Bell is published by Bloomsbury Sigma

Unlike people who came before us, we know exactly the extent of the problem. Let’s not let the precious opportunity we have left fall and let’s act.

Teresa H. Sadler