You can’t say I wasn’t warned. When I was in the sixth grade (that’s in 1950), we got the Saturday Evening Post in the mail once a week—and so I probably read their article, "Is the World Getting Warmer?"
About the time I started high school in 1953, both Time magazine and Popular Mechanics were running warnings by the infra-red heat expert Gilbert Plass. I probably read them too.
Then I likely forgot all about the problem, since the Cold War and bomb testing seemed much more scary than any drip-drip-drip scenario—one even slower than dry rot from an unrepaired roof leak.
But five years later, when I was a physics major at Northwestern University, there was a weekly film series in the engineering auditorium and one cold Friday night, among the short subjects preceding the main feature, I saw a short documentary on global warming directed by Frank Capra. (You can view it on YouTube’s archive and marvel at the old "straight man" attempts to provide comic relief; the diagnosis and prognosis were, however, right on.) Then in my third year of college, I read Plass’ 1959 article in Scientific American, "Carbon Dioxide and Climate."
It must have been consciousness-raising because of what happened ten years after that, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. It is one of the most beautiful settings in the world for doing science, with its long pier out into the Pacific Ocean and its Mediterranean climate. A freshly minted Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics, I was there for a neurobiology meeting when I accidentally wandered into the wrong auditorium. It turned out to be a seminar for the oceanographers on the role of the ocean in absorbing the excess CO2 from fossil fuels.
I remembered that this was an interesting topic and sat down in the back of the room. By that time, I’d had to teach acid-base chemistry to medical students and so I assumed that I could understand the oceanographers.
It was the oceanographers at Scripps who started taking global overheating seriously back in the 1950s. That CO2, even in trace amounts, could trap heat had been known since the experiments of Joseph Fourier in the 1820s—he of math’s Fourier Transform, he who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt in 1798, he who served as governor of Lower Egypt for a while.
Later in 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall first speculated that human-induced global warming might be possible.
In 1896, the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius presented the results of two years of paper-and-pencil calculations, showing that a doubling of CO2 concentration could warm up the air by 5°C (9°F). That’s close to modern estimates.
This didn’t alarm him. Arrhenius quipped that Stockholm might be improved by a little more heat. One must understand that his wife had left him, one of the reasons he spent a lot of long winter evenings alone with pencil and paper, doing long division. He later won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for other work; he considered his climate work "a hobby."
But in the half century that followed Arrhenius, each time that someone raised concern about overusing fossil fuels, there were two standard ways of dismissing the problem. Some physicists would claim that water vapor would mask the effect of excess CO2. Chemists would say that the oceans were capable of taking up the excess CO2 by making more bicarbonates. No CO2 rise, therefore no overheating, so stop worrying about emissions.
Plass had repeated Arrhenius’ calculations with the most advanced computers of the 1950s and had overcome the water vapor objection. He also provided a timeline that had been missing before. The Johns Hopkins University physicist predicted that if we kept burning fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 in the air would double by the year 2080. That’s in the range of modern estimates.
About the same time, ocean scientists realized that the oceans couldn’t possibly absorb all of the excess CO2 (the current data shows it only takes up 25 to 30 percent—but that’s enough to acidify the ocean surface). Roger Revelle, then the head of Scripps, recognized the incomplete absorption of the excess CO2 as a looming public policy problem and worked hard to raise the consciousness of both scientists and policymakers. But even Revelle thought that really serious effects were several centuries in the future.
Projections then simply assumed that the 1950s fossil fuel emissions would continue in the future at the same rate. No allowance was made for population growth and none for increased use by developing countries. Even if they had included such expansion of use, no one back then would have believed that world population could triple in the second half of the 20th century. They would have been laughed off the stage.
But emissions are instead up six fold and the feverish future is now arriving faster and faster. Emissions of CO2 grew 1% each year in the 1990s at the time of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Instead of growth reversing as it did for the ozone-depleting gases after the 1987 Montreal Protocol, carbon emissions instead soared. For 2000‒2007, annual growth was 3%.
This is more than the most extreme estimates made in the 1990s for future emissions. And the same thing happened with projections of sea level rise. The summer when there is no Arctic sea ice left looks like it is going to happen about forty years sooner than the reasonable estimates of only a decade ago.
Low-ball estimates are a recurring problem in climate science. Any insurance company that so underestimated risks would have quickly gone out of business.
This is a DRAFT for a book chapter. Comments most appreciated.