Image: The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, National Library of Australia
From: The Conversation
Author: Linden Ashcroft
On August 14 1912, a small New Zealand newspaper published a short article announcing global coal usage was affecting our planet’s temperature.
This piece from 110 years ago is now famous, shared across the internet this time every year as one of the first pieces of climate science in the media (even though it was actually a reprint of a piece published in a New South Wales mining journal a month earlier).
So how did it come about? And why has it taken so long for the warnings in the article to be heard – and acted on?
The fundamental science has been understood for a long time
American scientist and women’s rights campaigner Eunice Foote is now widely credited as being the first person to demonstrate the greenhouse effect back in 1856, several years before United Kingdom researcher John Tyndall published similar results.
Her rudimentary experiments showed carbon dioxide and water vapour can absorb heat, which, scaled up, can affect the temperature of the earth. We’ve therefore known about the relationship between greenhouse gases and Earth’s temperature for at least 150 years.
Four decades later, Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius did some basic calculations to estimate how much the Earth’s temperature would change if we doubled the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere. At the time, the CO₂ levels were around 295 parts per million molecules of air. This year, we’ve hit 421 parts per million – more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times.
Arrhenius estimated doubling CO₂ would produce a world 5℃ hotter. This, thankfully, is higher than modern calculations but not too far off, considering he wasn’t using a sophisticated computer model! At the time, the Swede was more worried about moving into a new ice age than global warming, but by the 1900s he was startling his classes with news the world was slowly warming due to the burning of coal.
Read more: Scientists understood physics of climate change in the 1800s – thanks to a woman named Eunice Foote
Climate science began on the fringe
The 1912 New Zealand snippet was likely based on a four-page spread from Popular Mechanics magazine, which drew from the work of Arrhenius and others.
When climate advocates point to articles like this and say we knew about climate change, this overlooks the fact Arrhenius’ ideas were generally considered fringe, meaning not many people took them seriously. In fact, there was backlash about how efficient carbon dioxide actually was as a greenhouse gas.
When the first world war began, the topic lost momentum. Oil began its rise, pushing aside promising technologies such as electric cars – which in 1900 had a third of the fledgling US car market – in favour of fossil-fuel technological developments and military goals. The idea humans could affect the whole planet remained on the fringe.
The Callendar Effect
It wasn’t until the 1930s that human-induced climate change resurfaced. UK engineer Guy Callendar put together weather observations from around the world and found temperatures had already increased.
Not only was Callendar the first to clearly identify a warming trend and connect it to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, he also teased apart the importance of CO₂ compared to water vapour, another potent greenhouse gas.
Just like the 1912 article, Callendar also underestimated the rate of warming we would see in the 80 years after his first results. He predicted the world would be only 0.39℃ hotter by the year 2000, rather than the 1℃ we observed. However it did get the attention of researchers, sparking intense scientific debate.
But at the end of the 1930s, the world went to war once more. Callendar’s discoveries swiftly took a backseat to battles, and rebuilding.
Fresh hope scuttled by merchants of doubt
In 1957, scientists began the International Geophysical Year – an intense investigation of the Earth and its poles and atmosphere. This saw the creation of the atmospheric monitoring stations tracking our steady increase in human-caused greenhouse gases. At the same time, oil companies were becoming aware of the impact their business was having on the Earth.
Read more: What Big Oil knew about climate change, in its own words
During these post-war decades, there was little political polarisation over climate. Margaret Thatcher – hardly a raging leftie – saw global warming as a clear threat during her time as UK Prime Minister. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen gave his now famous address to the US Congress claiming global warming had already arrived.
Momentum was growing. Many conservationists were encouraged by the Montreal Protocol, which more or less haltedthe use of ozone-depleting substances to tackle the growing hole in the ozone layer. Surely we could do the same to stop climate change?
As we now know, we didn’t. Phasing out a class of chemicals was one thing. But to wean ourselves off the fossil fuels on which the modern world was built? Much harder.
Climate change became politicised, with conservative pro-business parties around the world adopting climate scepticism. Global media coverage often included a sceptic in the interests of “balance”. This, in turn, made many people believe the jury was still out – when the science was becoming ever more certain and alarming.
With this scepticism came delays. The 1992 Kyoto Protocol aimed at reducing greenhouse gases took until 2005 to be ratified. Science — and scientists themselves — came under attack. Soon a vicious tussle was underway, with loud voices – often funded by fossil fuel interests – questioning overwhelming scientific evidence.
Sadly for us, these noisy efforts worked to slow action. People refusing to accept the science bought the fossil fuel industry at least another decade , even as climate change continued to increase, with supercharged natural disasters and intensifying heatwaves.
Read more: Communicating climate change has never been so important, and this IPCC report pulls no punches
The best time to act was 1912. The next best time is now
After decades of setbacks, climate science and social movements are now louder than ever in calling for strong and meaningful action.
The science is beyond doubt. While the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990 stated global warming “could be largely due to natural variability”, the latest from 2021states humans have “unequivocally […] warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”.
We’ve even seen a welcome change in previously sceptical media outlets. And as we saw at May’s federal election, public opinion is on the side of the planet.
National and international climate policies are stronger than ever, and although there is still much more to be done, it finally seems that government, business and public sentiment are moving in the same direction.
Let’s use the 110th anniversary of this short snippet as a reminder to keep speaking up and pushing, finally, for the change we must have.
Read more: The US has finally passed a huge climate bill. Australia needs to keep up
“We MUST respect this earth - it is all we have
Claudio Dametto - South Australia
“I will always Vote to Preserve Our World.
Liam McGregor - Western Australia
“A simple message that even a politician can understand
Felicity Crombach - Victoria
“Please show you care about our future generations!!
Phil Harmer - New South Wales
“Save our world , Life & health before profits.
Kerry Lillian - New South Wales
“Close down all coal mines and Do not mine gas . Make these Companies
Daniel Johnson - New South Wales
“We want carbon free energy!
Edan Clarke - New South Wales
“Feels good to be taking a voter action step
Beaver Hudson - New South Wales
“Great Initiative. Let’s Hold elected officials Accountable to their bosses, us!
John Paul Posada - New South Wales
“We need actions not words we need honest democratic govt We need a pm
Bob Pearce - South Australia
“Thank you for this great resource. I was feeling helpless. Even this small step
Silvia Anderson - Victoria
“If political parties continue receiving political donations, we will rarely have politicians working for
Dan Chicos - New South Wales
“I only vote for people who will take urgent action to restore a safe
Susie Burke - Victoria
“Current government is not representing the opinion of the majority of Australian to meet
Neil Price - Tasmania
“We are fighting to rescue our kids' future from those who seek to steal
Vanessa Norimi - Queensland
“No time to waste Now or Never My vote is for NOW
Rosalie White - Victoria
“I am only 9 but I already care
Ava Bell - New South Wales
“From New Lambton Uniting Church - Caring for our world is a moral imperative.
Niall McKay - New South Wales
“Our federal govt is an International climate Embarrassment - its about time they stepped
Oriana Tolo - Victoria
“Vote earth this time!
Sue Cooke - Queensland
“We are in one on the wealthiest countries in the world. we have the
rowan huxtable - New South Wales
“The climate Emergency is the public health opportunity and urgent priority of the 21st
Mike Forrester - Victoria
“If they want my vote they better act now
Barbara McNiff - New South Wales
“We need to act locally now for the earth. Our only home. Vote Earth
Anne Miller - New South Wales
“I often look at the places I've known all my life and see how
Jim Baird - New South Wales
“Strike one For people power!!! Democracy might prevail outside the current cronyism that faces
Lorraine Bridger - New South Wales
“Our federal politicians Are Afraid to make action on climate change a major election
Jennifer Martin - New South Wales
“climate election, let's go!
Fahimah Badrulhisham - New South Wales
“Great to see this website that is a focus on action for climate change
Lynette Sinclair - New South Wales
“Let’s show politicians and the Murdoch media that climate change is by far the
Jane Aitken - Australian Capital Territory
“If you want to stay in power You need to take action to stop
Jane Bulter - New South Wales
“We are all that stands between terminal climate change and the vulnerable. We are
Carol Khan - Queensland
“We need a Government that Believes this is real and not taking money from
Ken Gray - New South Wales
“I'm voting for my childrens future
Anneliese Alexander - New South Wales