The Discovery of Global Warming (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine) | Spencer R. Weart

Summary of: The Discovery of Global Warming (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine)
By: Spencer R. Weart


Immerse yourself in the fascinating history of global warming research with Spencer R. Weart’s book, The Discovery of Global Warming. This comprehensive summary delves into the development of climate science, from Joseph Fourier’s early research on the greenhouse effect in 1824 through the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Readers will explore a range of pivotal discoveries and insights, such as how carbon dioxide affects temperature, the role of computer simulations in understanding climate, and the political battle between environmental groups and industries. Prepare to uncover the rich tapestry of man’s quest to understand our planet’s delicate climate systems.

The Emergence of Climate Change Awareness

The history of climate change science dates back to the 19th century, when Joseph Fourier theorized the “greenhouse effect.” John Tyndall identified carbon dioxide as a heat-absorbing gas and Svante Arrhenius found that CO2 levels could cause another ice age. In the 1930s, Guy Stewart Callendar suggested that burning fossil fuels could cause a manmade warming trend. While initially challenged by other scientists, Charles David Keeling’s baseline readings of atmospheric CO2 levels and the work of oceanographers Roger Revelle and Hans Suess on carbon absorption in the sea supported the theory of global warming by the 1960s.

The History of Climate Research

Climate change is a contemporary concern, but scientists have studied it for decades. The effects of CO2 levels on the atmosphere and global warming were identified as early as 1965; however, research, not policy change, was called for. The potential threats of air pollution gained attention from medical professionals in the 1950s as the long-term effects were studied. By examining the fossils of single-celled organisms and analyzing ancient pollens, scientists compiled a 300,000-year climate history, including the solar cycles that confirmed previous theories of the ice ages. Oddly, there was a global decrease in temperature from 1940 to 1960, which countered the effect of extra CO2. Climate simulations were born with mathematician John von Neumann’s development of computers designed to handle the complicated calculations of climate factors. However, minor errors and perturbations became systemic and had unforeseen extreme outcomes. The study of climate science has a rich history, and research continues to help us understand our global environment and how we can protect and preserve it.

Climate Change: From Earth Day to Present Day

The history of climate change science from the first Earth Day in 1970 to present day is characterized by shifting scientific consensus and political controversy. Despite growing scientific evidence, climate change deniers have long subverted public support for environmental protection.

The first Earth Day in 1970 marked a turning point in the history of climate change science. By the following year, the first international conference on climate took place in Stockholm, and increased public awareness of abrupt weather catastrophes reinforced new thinking about drastic climate change. The development of better methods for taking ice and seabed core samples led to improved data about abrupt historic weather changes. Scientists found that wildly erratic climate change followed periods of stability and deduced levels of both temperature and CO2 back to the time of the dinosaurs, finding large fluctuations from era to era.

Ice core samples from around the world showed that Earth went through distinct 100,000-year cycles corresponding to orbital variations proposed by scientist Milutin Milankovitch. The challenge was reconciling how such small variations in the sunlight hitting the globe could lead to glaciations, the advance and retreat of continental ice sheets. Feedbacks within natural systems provided the answer: a slight warming can lead to more glacial melting, flooding northern oceans with water too light to sink, halting northbound current circulation and triggering another ice age.

The most striking feedback system associated with climate change is the “greenhouse effect.” As greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere absorb the sun’s heat, they cause more water to evaporate, and more water vapor in the air absorbs more heat, perpetuating the effect. Over time, governments began tracking petroleum usage and industrial emissions while scientists continued tracking CO2 levels. For 50 years, the “Keeling curve” has shown a steady rise in atmospheric CO2. Yet, scientists still disagreed about its effect. Some felt the evidence pointed to greater cooling, not heating. However, by the late 1970s, most agreed that heating due to CO2 was Earth’s most immediate climate problem.

Worried that deforestation added to the rise in CO2, some scientists began advocating for forest preservation policies and emission curbs. Commercial interests threatened by the prospect of regulation joined conservative political leaders to fight back, establishing think tanks and public relations campaigns against regulation or government oversight. Their intent was to convince the public no immediate action was needed. Many journalists, more interested in a juicy story than in intricate data, pitted science against political ideology, giving each argument equal weight.

Scientists admitted they could not predict the future with certainty, leaving an opening for climate change deniers to sow seeds of doubt about the severity of climate change. The public became alerted to the threat of greenhouse warming just as the opponents of environmental protection mounted a concerted effort to blunt their concern. As newly developed techniques allowed the measuring of air trapped inside frozen bubbles in core samples, scientists found that CO2 levels dropped by as much as half during the warming between glaciations. This erased any doubt that CO2 was a primary factor in climate change.

Researchers identified other factors influencing warming. In addition to climate variations caused by the planet’s orbit, sunspots, deforestation, sulfates in smog, and other factors, scientists began assessing other gases, notably chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In 1977, after scientists demonstrated that CFCs could destroy the ozone layer, the U.S. banned them. Scientists were shocked that the effect of methane and nitrogen (in fertilizer) could exceed the impact of CO2: Methane’s heat-trapping effect is 20 times greater than CO2’s. Methane levels rose 11% in the ’80s. The tundra locks most methane away, but warming could release the gas, leading to more warming. Only computer models could project these outcomes. Global warming might be happening faster than anyone thought.

In conclusion, the history of climate change science has been characterized by shifting scientific consensus and political controversy. Despite growing scientific evidence, climate change deniers have long subverted public support for environmental protection.

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