They were a little optimistic in 1912, but they understood that adding carbon to the atmosphere has side effects.
- An article from 1912 is making headlines for its mention of climate change by means of putting carbon into the atmosphere.
- It is but one of many articles and papers that mentioned human-driven climate change during the early 20th century.
- It reminds us that just because we can see a problem coming doesn't mean we fully understand how quickly it will arrive or how dangerous it will be.
Extra, Extra! Read all about it!
In the March 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics, an article on the balmy year of 1911 and the ability of humans to change the climate includes a single line that has shocked some modern readers. The caption for a photograph of a coal plant explains that:
The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.
The article goes on to somewhat contradict its own caption, explaining how it is "highly improbable" that there would be enough change in the atmosphere within the next thousand years to have any noticeable effect on global temperatures, though it does argue that the Earth will get warmer before it gets cooler.
Oh, 1912, how innocent you were.
How did they know about climate change way back then?
The Popular Mechanics article was hardly ahead of its time. An article in Nature published in 1882 concluded that increased pollution "will have a marked influence on the climate of the world." This article was widely discussed, and follow-ups to it are credited with popularizing discussion about the effects of pollution on the environment.
A basic understanding of the greenhouse effect goes back to 1824 when Joseph Fourier argued that Earth's atmosphere allowed the planet to be warmer than it would be without one. He even speculated on the potential for humans to alter the climate, though he thought altering the land was more important to the process than changing the composition of the atmosphere. You can see in this quote how he also thought the process would take much longer to notice than it has:
The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature.
His ideas were followed up on by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. Working as a chemist, he was able to determine how much the temperature of the planet would increase for each unit of carbon dioxide introduced into the atmosphere. Working forwards from of his calculations, he was the first to understand that global warming by means of changing the composition of the atmosphere is possible. He phrased his ideas in what is now known as "Arrhenius' rule."
If the quantity of carbonic acid* increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.
He also didn't think we had much to worry about anytime soon from this phenomenon. He even once told an audience:
We would then have some right to indulge in the pleasant belief that our descendants, albeit after many generations, might live under a milder sky and in less barren surroundings than is our lot at present.
Why were they so off on the timescales? Why did they think this was a good thing?
Clipping from the 1912 article 'Remarkable Weather of 1911: The Effect of the Combustion of Coal on the Climate — What Scientists Predict for the Future' in Popular Mechanics.
Credit: Popular Mechanics
We've put a lot more carbon into the air than these scientists probably thought we would—that alone would throw off their estimates even if they had the better understanding of climate change that we have today.
As for thinking climate change could be good, they weren't alone. The idea that human intervention in the climate was good for us was widespread during the 19th century. Farmers were told that the act of plowing encouraged rainfall in the drier regions of Australia and the United States. In the light of this optimism, the idea that we could warm up the planet probably gave these early climatologists visions of more summer sun and better crop yields rather than nightmares of worsening natural disasters.
The conclusion of the 1912 Popular Mechanics article will leave you a bit sick in the stomach from all the hubris:
It is perhaps somewhat hazardous to make conjectures for centuries yet to come, but in the light of all that is known it is reasonable to conclude that not only has the brain of man contrived machines by means of which he can travel faster than the wind, navigate the ocean depths, fly above the clouds, and do the work of a hundred, but also indirectly by these very things, which change the constitution of the atmosphere, have his activities reached beyond the near at hand and the immediate present and modified the cosmic processes themselves.
It is largely the courageous, enterprising, and ingenious American whose brains are changing the world. Yet even the dull foreigner, who burrows in the earth by the faint gleam of his miner's lamp, not only supports his family and helps to feed the consuming furnaces of modern industry, but by his toil in the dirt and darkness adds to the carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere so that men in generations to come shall enjoy milder breezes and live under sunnier skies.
How did other predictions from that era pan out?
An electric discharge photographed in the workshop of Nikola Tesla, United States of America.
Photo from L'Illustration, No 3571, August 5, 1911 via Getty Images.
Some of the predictions for the far-off 21st-century that people made back then were accurate, though these futurists often claimed that humanity would advance much faster than we actually did or would take an eternity to accomplish something that was achieved a few years later.
Nikola Tesla predicted the rise of our the smart phone back in 1905 when he said:
"Within a few years a simple and inexpensive device, readily carried about, will enable one to receive on land or sea the principal news, to hear a speech, a lecture, a song or play of a musical instrument, conveyed from any other region of the globe. The invention will also meet the crying need for cheap transmission to great distances, more especially over the oceans. The small working capacity of the cables and the excessive cost of messages are now fatal impediments in the dissemination of intelligence which can only be removed by transmission without wires."
He seemed to think we'd have smartphones much sooner than we did, however. This is understandable since he was trying to invent transatlantic wireless communication at the time, he was just extremely optimistic. On the other hand some predictions look utterly absurd in retrospect. Great thinkers like Alfred Nobel and Guglielmo Marconi predicted that globalization, advanced weaponry, and international communication would make a general European war impossible—they thought so right up until July 1914.
Even with the help of science, predicting the future can be a tricky business. The science of climate change was beginning to take shape at the dawn of the 20th century, but humanity had yet to fully understand how rapidly the problem would sneak up on us. Given how difficult understanding the future is, perhaps we should just listen to what scientists are advising us to do today.
Why do we ignore accurate predictions about impending doom?
French president Emmanuel Macron recently announced plans to close all of the country's coal-fired power plants two years ahead of schedule.
France plans to close all of its coal-fired power plants by 2021, a move that doubles down on the country’s relatively aggressive push toward renewable energy.
“We've also decided to make France a model in the fight against climate change,” French president Emmanuel Macron said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Macron said the pledge would be a “huge advantage in terms of attractiveness and competitiveness,” suggesting that the move away from fossil fuels isn’t a zero-sum game.
“We should stop opposing on one side productivity, on the other side climate change issues,” he said.
France only gets about 1 percent of its power from coal. But in the U.S., coal remains a much larger part of the power supply mix, accounting for about 16 percent of energy production in 2016. It’s also a more controversial political issue.
In June 2017, President Trump announced the U.S. would drop out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Months later, in October, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, a policy drafted under the Obama administration that would have pushed states away from coal production.
Coal was a cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign. He won nine out of ten states with the highest coal production in the country after promising to revive the industry and put thousands of unemployed coal miners back to work. But since his election, employment rates in the mining industry have remained mostly stagnant. The relatively cheap cost of natural gas seems to be the cause. And, incidentally, it’s this competition that could help the U.S. hit emissions goals set by the Obama administration—even without the Clean Power Plan in place.
Since signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, at least 15 countries have pledged to phase out coal. The U.K. and Italy plan to close all of their coal plants by 2025; the Netherlands by 2030. China has reduced coal consumption three years in a row, and halted the construction of about 100 new coal-fired plants.
Still, coal is hard for some countries to resist. It’s cheap, found in politically stable areas, and easy to extract.
India, for instance, plans to nearly double its coal production by 2020. Even Japan, a country desperate for stable energy sources after closing its nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, has plans to build new coal-powered facilities.
It seems coal won’t be phased out of the global power mix until alternative energy sources become cheaper. And so far, natural gas and renewable energy don’t quite cut it.
A massive solar project has just been completed, and its specs are impressive.
Environmentalists so far are infuriated by the actions of the Trump White House. With a little less than a year in office, the administration has opened up public and protected lands to energy exploration, removed the US from the Paris Agreement, and scrapped the Clean Power Plan. In the near future, there are plans to expand offshore drilling, sell off public lands in the West, and allow for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
There’s also been quite a number of rule changes and rollbacks, a scrubbing of climate change information on government websites, and the appointment of climate skeptics to high offices, such as Scott Pruitt as Secretary of the EPA, a man who refuses to accept that CO2 levels are associated with global warming.
Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Michael Nedd, looks at it another way. Instead of stripping environmental protections, he told the Washington Post, it could be viewed as the new administration evening out the scales. “One could argue—I don’t know, but one could argue—that under the previous administration that scale could have been tipped too far on the environmental side and energy wasn’t developed.”
He added, “So right now, what we’re looking at is: How can we have that balance?” Nedd said their aim was to develop a free market approach. Develop all kinds of energy, and let the market decide what the winner is. In that, there are still some renewal projects going on within the federal government that haven’t been shelved, although they may be receiving a lot less attention.
The price of solar panels today makes them competitive with fossil fuels, even in the middle of a natural gas boom. Credit: Getty Images.
The US government recently fired up two conjoined solar power plants on federal land. A “Throw the Switch” event was held on Dec. 17, although the Bureau of Land Management sent out no press release. Present were Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), U.S Bureau of Land Management Nevada Director John Ruhs, NV Energy officials (the state’s energy company), state and local officials, and representatives from J.P. Morgan, EDF Energy, Switch, and First Solar.
Located in Clark County, Nevada, the Switch 1 and Switch 2 power stations together make up 1,797 acres. That’s 275 football fields end to end. The plants contain a total of 1,980,840 solar panels, which at capacity pump out 179 MW of power. That could power 46,000 homes.
All that clean energy is channeled to power hungry data centers in Las Vegas and Reno. The project is located in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, one of 19 zones earmarked by the Interior Dept. for major energy projects. First Solar built the dual plants, while EDF runs them.
Renewables may no longer need federal support to be competitive in the marketplace. Credit: Getty Images.
Senator Harry Reid said the project created hundreds of good paying jobs. It also saves the environment from absorbing 265,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is like pulling 52,000 cars off the road. EDF executive Cliff Graham said at the event, “EDF RE is positioned to invest $3 billion between now and 2020 in renewable projects across the country; we anticipate to deliver on our projection and bring more jobs, tax dollars and investment to Nevada.”
The land was first leased for the project through an auction held in 2014. Construction began in 2016 and took 12 months total, with the aid of 1,300 construction workers. BLM Nevada director John Ruhs told the Washington Post, “The administration is completely supportive of ‘all of the above’ energy.” Adding, “It’s just the first of more that are coming, especially for Nevada, and probably California, as well.” The Obama administration approved 60 utility-scale, renewable energy projects. Whether many or all go through remains to be seen.
On another front, The Nature Conservancy also took part in this project. They were able to secure $6.9 million to help protect desert tortoise habitats and offset the environmental impact of the power plants.
To learn more about their contribution, click here:
As its CEO, Bill Nye lays out the missions The Planetary Society would like to see NASA focus on over the next 20 years. NASA by nature goes where the future is, and Nye can't help but think of another industry that should follow suit.
Why is NASA so important? Let us count the ways – for its intellectual and physical daring, its spinoff technology that has advanced civilization generally (we wouldn’t have the internet without NASA) – but perhaps chief among them is that no matter who you are in the world or how you feel about the United States, NASA earns global respect for its technological achievement and drive towards progress and efficiency. An industry that could learn from that ethos, rather than digging its heels in to delay the future, is fossil fuels. If everyone pulled together in the same direction, it would mean clean, renewable energy for everyone on Earth, much sooner. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
If we could jump 50 years into the future, what will our world look like? Flying cars? Hologram phones? Bill Nye sees two technological paths ahead – and we're in the fork between them at this very moment.
Bill Nye is always hesitant to make predictions about the future, but especially now, when America is at such a fork in the road. What happens in the next four years will affect the technology we fund and develop – will we pioneer clean energy systems, or stay bedded down with coal? Will we prioritize oil profits over electric cars? Will the promised tax cuts narrow the wealth gap, or widen it? All these decisions will affect the way life 50 years from now looks. A lot hangs in the balance of the next U.S election in 2020; will Americans re-elect Trump, someone like Trump, or will there be a liberal reactionary choice? There are more questions about the future right now than answers, but Bill Nye is confident that if young people get involved in politics, science and show up to vote, that life in 2060 and 2070 can be one of greater equality and technology like we’ve never seen. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.