It’s taken nearly a century of research to convince the majority of the earth’s population that we humans are polluting the atmosphere and changing the climate of our own planet. Decades of data now shows that not only is climate change real, but that our disregard has now left us near the point of no return, with dire consequences ahead of us. As the earth heats up, climate change has now become the Climate Crisis. But how did we get to this point so fast? Let’s take a quick look back.
BY THE 1800s, coal had replacing charcoal and wood as the common fuel across Europe. Mining made it readily available and it took far less coal than wood to produce the same amount of heat. The invention of an efficient steam engine by James Watt (fueled by coal), paved the way for the massive Industrial Revolution of mid-century, not to mention coal’s use across the globe in locomotives, steam ships, and mills.
As early as the 1820s, French physicist Joseph Fourier stated that some of the sun’s energy reaching the earth is held by the atmosphere, keeping our planet warm. He proposed that Earth’s thin atmosphere acts the same way a greenhouse does. Irish scientist John Tyndall explored which gases in the atmosphere played a role in that “Greenhouse Effect.” His tests in the 1860’s showed that coal gas, containing carbon dioxide and methane, was especially effective at absorbing heat energy.
By 1895, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius wondered if increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere from both natural AND manmade means might warm the Earth further. He investigated what might happen if atmospheric CO2 levels doubled. The possibility seemed remote at the time, but his results suggested that global temperatures would increase by a surprising 5C or 9F.
Several events outside the scientific world would change the planet forever.
In 1859, Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, PA, jumpstarting the modern petroleum industry. In 1886, German Karl Benz unveiled his curious-looking horseless carriage, the Motor-Wagon, the first true automobile. It had a new-fangled internal combustion engine, running on a new fuel derived from oil called gasoline.
A 2nd Industrial Revolution exploded when Westinghouse’s AC electricity (created by burning coal or oil), expanded industries even further. The 1920’s saw the opening of vast oil fields in Texas, as well as far off places like the deserts of Arabia and Persia, where the British had discovered oil. Add Henry Ford’s inexpensive and wildly successful Model T car to the equation and you can see where this is going.
BY THE 1930s, British engineer Guy Callendar started to notice that carbon emissions from all those tall factory smoke stacks might be having a warming effect on the planet. He noted that the North Atlantic region had already warmed significantly following the Industrial Revolution. He argued for the next 30 years that the greenhouse-effect was warming the planet. Our oceans naturally absorb some of the CO2 in the atmosphere. But in 1957, oceanographers Roger Revelle and Hans Suess showed that even our vast oceans will not be able to absorb ALL the extra CO2 we were belching into the atmosphere.
Probably the most famous climate research project was done at a monitoring station on top of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory. It was started in 1958 by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Geochemist Charles Keeling came up with a way to record CO2 levels. His data become known as the “Keeling Curve.” The upward, or hockey stick-shaped, curve showed an exponential rise in CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Later computer modeling predicted the possible outcomes of such a rise, showing that doubling CO2 could produce a 2 C or 3.6 F warming of the earth within 100 years.
But what exactly did climate change mean practically?
Well by 1968, polar studies suggested the future collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, which would cause sea levels to raise catastrophically over a century. Some island nations would quite literally disappear. That same year, Apollo astronauts orbited the Moon for the first time. Humans could now see the Earth as a fragile blue marble, with a wafer-thin atmosphere protecting it, an atmosphere we were frantically dumping pollutants into. In 1970, the first Earth Day took place in the U.S. The new Environmental Movement had begun to attain political influence, spreading concern about global pollution. U.S. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act by year end.
In 1974, the earth’s population reached the 4 billion milestone, doubling in the roughly 50 years since the 1920’s. It would double again in 40 more years to 8 billion in 2014. Droughts in Africa, Ukraine, and India during the 1970s caused famine and world-wide food crises, fanning fears about climate change and water shortages. The deforestation of CO2-absorbing equatorial rainforests in Brazil, the so-called Lungs of the Planet, were recognized as a major factor in climate change. In 1975, U.S. scientist Wallace Broecker first coined the term “Global Warming” in the title of a scientific paper, and it was suddenly everywhere.
IN THE 1980’s, the U.S. election of Ronald Reagan, however, brought a backlash against environmental regulations. Political conservatism, along with the petroleum industry, became linked to loud skepticism about such “global warming.” The U.S. Three Mile Island incident and the tragic 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in Ukraine put a pause on replacing fossil fuels with more nuclear plants. Japan’s Fukushima terrible tsunami disaster in 2011 more or else put the nail in nuclear power’s coffin. 1988 turned out to be a critical turning point when that year’s Summer became the hottest on record (one beaten many times by subsequent years, most recently in 2016).
That year also saw more widespread droughts, wildfires and hurricanes globally.
Scientists sounded the alarm again about climate change and we finally saw the media, public, industry and some governments pay closer attention. A year later, in 1989, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide a scientific, economic and political view of climate impacts. Conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in a speech to the UN, called for a global treaty on climate change.
Researchers began accepting the ramifications of a warming Earth – rising ocean levels caused by polar ice melting, severe heat waves, droughts, famines, and more powerful typhoons/hurricanes fueled by rising ocean temps. Studies predicted that as the poles melted, sea levels could rise between 11 and 38 inches (28 to 98 cm) by 2100, enough to swamp many of the Earth’s low-lying coastal cities like Miami, Amsterdam, Bangkok, and Manilla.
The UN’s IPCC produced an Assessment Report concluding that temperatures have indeed risen over the last century, that humans are indeed adding to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases and influencing climate. Reports of the breaking up of Antarctic ice shelves and Greenland glaciers began affecting public opinion. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, was the first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, and was signed by India, China, EU Leaders and US President Bill Clinton.
Kyoto called for reducing the emission of 6 greenhouse gases in 41 countries by 2012. The next year, a freak Super El Nino produced the warmest year on record … once again. The controversial “hockey stick” graph appeared again, indicating that modern-day temperature rise is striking, compared with the last, relatively flat 1,000 years.
In 2001 however, U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol (joining Sudan and Afghanistan), saying it was “fatally flawed” and that it would hurt the U.S. economy. 2003 brought a deadly Summer Heat Wave across Europe, accelerating the split between European and U.S. public opinion. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore released a controversial documentary in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, on the dangers of climate change. The film won an Oscar and Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Politicization of climate change, exploded with some industry and government skeptics arguing that IPCC predictions and films like Gore’s were nothing but overblown science fiction.
The next milestone was the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
In the Paris Agreement, 197 countries pledged to set targets for their greenhouse gas cuts and to report their progress. Its goal was to prevent a global temperature rise of 2 C (3.6 F), a critical limit, which, if surpassed could lead to more deadly and frequent and longer heat waves, droughts, famines, wildfires, and hurricanes. It was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama. The U.S. had gotten a taste of that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a decade earlier, spurring debate over the impact of global warming on storm intensity.
Then former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement (joining Iran and Libya) in 2016, citing “onerous restrictions” that “punished the United States.” That same year, NASA and NOAA found Earth’s 2016 surface temps to be the warmest in modern record. Sounding familiar now? By 2018, the UN IPCC concluded “rapid, far-reaching” actions were needed NOW to cap global warming in order to avert dire, irreversible consequences for the planet by 2050. In 2020, President Biden placed the U.S. back in the Paris Agreement.
Meanwhile, the younger generation was watching the adults’ indecision and inaction impacting their future planet. In 2018, a Swedish teenage girl named Greta Thunberg began protesting in front of her country’s Parliament. Her protests to raise awareness for climate change went viral and over 17,000 students in 24 countries participated in her climate strikes. In 2019, Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The UN Climate Action Summit has since set a deadline for achieving net zero emissions in 2050.
2020 brought the Earth multiple heavy impacts of climate change.
We saw a record number of wildfires in the western U.S., burning 10 million acres. A record number of named hurricanes in the Atlantic (30), with 12 reaching U.S. landfall. Record setting droughts experienced in East Africa, Australia and the southwestern U.S. Record setting monsoon season flooding seen in Bangladesh and eastern India. Record setting typhoons, cyclones and flooding hitting the Philippines and South East Asia. Record deaths of large coral reefs and species loss throughout the world. Record glacier retreats in mountain ranges including the Alps and Alaska. Record melting of our polar icecaps into the oceans. Our planets longest rivers and deepest reservoirs are overused, drought stricken, and drying up. Water Wars, famine and climate refugees loom in our very near future if we stay the course.
Over the last decade, new renewable energy systems have developed exponentially. Cost efficient solar and wind tech are surging in the marketplace. Renewable energy is now profitable and a new source of employment. Investment in coal has stalled, and in some countries halted. More and more automobile manufactures are making profitable electric vehicles. Nevertheless, we are still a fossil fuel-based global economy and any transition faces a massive political struggle. The entrenched and very powerful petroleum industry fights every step of the way.
Renewable energy is not a cure-all. We won’t magically stop using petroleum fuels and return to a clean atmosphere, cooler oceans and normal temperatures. The effects of greenhouse gases will take decades to work themselves out, IF we reduce them very soon. To not do so is frankly unthinkable, for our grandchildren, those living and those yet to be born.
Generation Z is now young, 20-something adults and raising their voices and Votes against the causes of climate change and those choosing to ignore it. Gen Z knows THEY will inherit the resulting planet. Our human adoption of carbon-based energy was turned on in the past, and can be turned off in the future. Hopefully soon.