With a few exceptions, we tend to think that the crises occupying the daily news cycle are of recent origin. That’s partly due to the sheer volume of media coverage to which we’re daily subjected, but it’s also a result of a worrisome detachment from history—and I don’t mean ancient history, I mean events within the last century.
Climate change, the subject of intense debate in this space lately, provides a perfect example. If asked, most people would respond that the climate debate is a relatively new issue, an outgrowth of the environmental movement that started in the 1970s.
They’d be wrong.
In fact, climate change was first proposed more than 120 years ago by a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius, who developed mathematical models predicting that as the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose—due to the combustion of fossil fuels—the planet’s temperature would increase.
I know: You’re thinking, who the heck is he? He was a highly respected scientist, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, which, I grant you, is a bit suspect, seeing as how that award was created by Alfred Nobel, who was—wait for it—himself a Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and created the awards in 1896 as his life’s legacy.
Home court advantage aside, Arrhenius is recognized as one of the first scientists to calculate how changes in atmospheric CO2 could alter surface temperatures through the greenhouse effect. He was definitely the first one to predict that emissions from burning fossil fuels might be large enough to effect global warming.
Granted, his research was heavily influenced by other contemporary scientists—that’s how science works, of course—but remember, we’re talking about the 1890s: When automobiles were truly horseless carriages rarely seen outside of a few big cities. Before most of our major sports became popular, or even existed. Before five of our current states were even admitted to the Union, and when farmers numbered fully one-half of the U.S. population of 62 million.
Heck, the 1890s predated the emergence of democracy altogether—with few exceptions, almost the entirety of the world’s population was ruled by kings, queens, emperors and czars.
It was another era altogether.
Grounded in science
So why is a stroll through late 19th century history relevant to current debates? For one, to remind us that climate science isn’t something conjured up by a bunch of modern-day eco-activists; the research has been ongoing for generations.