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A Brief History of Global Climate Change

The 19th century witnessed a major shift in the social and natural environment. This century

witnessed a revolution in the natural sciences, resulting in the change in a revolution in the social

production processes by enhancing the productive capability naming that era as Industrial

Revolution. It also witnessed the political results of the bourgeois revolution which was a result

of the revolution in the means of production. Demographically this revolution resulted in the

enormous rise of populations and the rise of big urban centers. This rapid rise of the population

and the increase in large urban centers resulted in the rise of the problems of pollution which was

unprecedented. This led to the polluting of the waterways and the spread of disease in the

laboring classes as a result of the human and industrial wastes, (Ridgeway 1970, Chapter 2).

The inquiries that were made for looking into the consequences of industrialization and the

problems of pollution which were a result of the process of industrialization did not take into

account the environments of the surrounding areas. However, most scientists did take into

account such environments and started to analyze the impacts of industrialization on a larger


This research was instigated as a result of series of works that questioned the established

biological and geophysical beliefs. For example, William Thompson, in his paper On the Age

of the Suns Heat which was published in 1862, claimed that the world was far older than what

was generally believed (1862, pp. 388-393). This revelation by William Thompson provided the

timeframe which was needed for the changes and alterations made in species required by the

natural selections in the Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859. Similarly, in

his work On Glaciers, and the evidence of their having once existed in Scotland, Ireland and

England published in 1840, Louis Agassiz theorized that the earth has experienced ice ages in
the past during different time intervals in its history, thereby asserting that the climate of the

earth was a lot colder than what it was during the 1800s. This thus raises a question that what

determines the average temperature of a planet like earth (Weart 2008, p.2).

Joseph Fourier, during the 1820s, started to explain the temperature of the earth by the help of

infrared radiations being dissipated into the outer space. This allowed Fourier to know that some

of the gases that are present in the earths atmosphere do not allow the suns radiation to return

back to the space, thus leading to a gradual and consistent rise in the earths temperature (Weart

2008, pp.2-3). This function led to the emergence of the phenomenon of Greenhouse effect

(Weart 2008, p.3).

John Tyndall, a Physicist, during 1860s, for the first time, linked the greenhouse effect with the

emissions of Carbon di oxide. Tyndall observed that the carbon di oxide has a different nature as

compared to other gases. He found that since carbon di oxide is not clear, it therefore trap

radiations from the sun and does not allow it to escape from the earths atmosphere (Weart

2008, p.4). A bit of carbon di oxide is found in the earths atmosphere, and although it is only a

few parts in ten thousands, Tyndall saw how it could bring a warming (Weart 2008, pp. 3-4).

However, Tyndalls main concern was not regarding the increasing levels of carbon di oxide in

the atmosphere as a result of the industrial revolution and the subsequent possibility of

anthropogenic global warming; rather he was mainly concerned with explaining the phenomenon

of ice ages which was at that time highly controversial.

Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, also aligned his hypothesis with that John Tyndall and in

1896 published that the increase in the amount of carbon di oxide will lead to an increase in the

earths temperature and also the level of water vapors in the atmosphere (Weart 2008, p.5).
Because water vapor is the truly potent greenhouse gas, the additional humidity would greatly

enhance the warming (Ibid.) This phenomenon of the earths increase in temperature due to

greenhouse gases also explains the phenomenon of ice ages as the reverse of this process would

result in the cooling of the earth.

It was thus Arrhenius, who for the first time, explained the increase in the earths temperature

due to the increase in the levels of carbon di oxide. Even though the main concern for Arrhenius

was regarding the explanation of ice ages as he considered the rise in the earths temperature not

a serious issue for humanity, he calculated that doubling the carbon di oxide in the atmosphere

would raise the earths temperature some 5 degree or 6 degree centigrade (Weart 2008, p. 6).

However, later by 1910 most scientists thought Arrheniuss speculation was altogether wrong

as the tests conducted by Arrhenius had empirical problems (Weart 2008, p.7).

In order to explain the existence of ice ages, several theories were out forward by different

scientists over the course of the next half century. However most of the theories lacked

credibility due to various technical reasons, resulting in the halt of the studies of climate change

during the first half of the 1900s.

Guy Stewart Callendar, however, was a scientist who presented a theory during the 1930s which

could also be regarded as a precursor to the modern climate change theories (Weart 2008, p. 2).

By gathering the data regarding the levels of carbon di oxide in the atmosphere, Callendar drew a

connection between the increase in the temperature and the level of carbon di oxide. While

presenting his paper The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Climate

at the Royal Meteorological Society in 1938, his findings astonished the audience. Callendar

told meteorologists that he knew what was responsible. It was us, human industry. Everywhere
that we burned fossil fuels, we emitted millions of tons of carbon di oxide gas, and that was

changing the climate (Weart 2008, p. 2). However, along with these conclusions, he considered

that the global rise in temperature may not occur for the coming centuries.

It was during the 1950 and 1980 that the foundations of the modern climate change science were

laid. Rapid advances were made both in the empirical and theoretical aspects of the field.

Additionally during the end of the 1980s, for the first time in human history, warnings were

issued by the climate change scientists to control the rapid rise in temperature and increase in the

levels of carbon dioxide, otherwise the earth and humans will have to face serious consequences

and may even endanger human existence on earth.

Gilbert Plass was the scientist who furthered the work done by Callendar and took up the task

where he had left. In an article published in 1956, Plass drew a connection between carbon

emissions and the variations in the global temperatures. Plasss work was certainly lacking in

some aspects, however, he realized that adding more carbon dioxide in an upper layer (of the

atmosphere) would indeed make a difference (Weart 2008, p. 24). Plasss work opposed the

previously done research on the topic which stipulated that the levels of carbon dioxide did not

matter. However, Plasss work was central in the point that it did prove a central point: the

greenhouse effect could not be dismissed with the old argument (Weart 2008, p. 24). Plass,

however, agreed with Callendar that no significant global warming could occur in the coming


During this era, another established myth regarding the global climate and the increase in the

emissions of carbon dioxide was exposed. Previously it was believed that whatever increase in

the carbon dioxide emissions took place due to anthropogenic or natural causes, the oceans will
absorb that increase and will leave the levels of carbon dioxide relatively stable. Although the

oceans are large pools that absorb excessive carbon dioxide in the oceans, however, Roger

Revelle and Hans Suess, published an article in 1957, in which they stated that such a huge

amount of increase in the levels of carbon dioxide may not be absorbed by the oceans (Weart

2008, p. 28). Although there were inconsistencies in the work they had done, yet it was

instrumental in reaching to the conclusion that although ocean waters can absorb some of the

carbon dioxide in few years, yet most of the carbon dioxide molecules will be evaporated out. He

further calculated that the ocean waters cannot absorb much of the gas (Weart 2008, p. 28). This

study showed that the oceans can absorb a very limited amount of carbon dioxide and this

mechanism cannot be heavily relied upon for maintaining an equilibrium level of carbon dioxide

gas. Furthermore, there still was evidence needed to prove the rising levels of carbon dioxide in

the atmosphere.

Charles D. Keeling was a scientist who took up the task of measuring the levels of carbon

dioxide in the atmosphere. In this connection he published the results of some of his studies in

1960 which would play a very important role as many experts believed any rise of carbon

dioxide would be too slow to matter for a long time to come, and it probably couldnt happen at

all (Weart 2008, p. 25). Keeling, in his studies, found that the level of carbon dioxide in

atmosphere is on a gradual rise. His first twelve months of data hinted that a rise could be seen

in just that one year In 1960, with two full years of Antarctic data in hand, Keeling found that

the baseline carbon dioxide level had risen. The rate of rise was approximately what would be

expected if the oceans were not swallowing up most industrial emissions (Weart 2008, p. 35).

Keeling kept on with hi studies in measuring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in
1970 he showed that for the past decade the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been

rising every year.

It was Keelings data [that] put a capstone on the structure built by Tyndall, Arrhenius,

Callendar, Plass, and Revelle and Suess No longer could a well-informed scientist dismiss out

of hand the possibility that our emissions of greenhouse gases would warm the earth (Weart

2008, p. 37). Furthermore, other scientists too began to feel a mild concern as they gradually

assimilated the meaning of Plasss and Revelles difficult calculations. Adding carbon dioxide to

the atmosphere could change the climate after all. And the changes might arrive not in some

remote science-fiction future, but within the next century (Weart 2008, p. 29).

The severity of the problem of the climate change was not felt at its full length by the scientists

during the 1950s. It was during the decades of 1960s and 1970s that the concerns regarding the

global climate change started to emerge on the global scale, and gradually got matured after the

1970s. Three major themes regarding the climate change discourse were the product of this era.

Firstly the infinite complexity which surrounds the issue of global climate change was accepted.

Secondly, an attempt was made in order to accept the climatic changes that had occurred

previously and thirdly, the anthropogenic causes of the global climate change were widely


Before the 1960s and 1970s, it was widely believed among the scientific community that a global

climate change of the extent of ice ages may occur very gradually and therefore the

anthropogenic climate change may be a problem of the very distant future. However, the studies

conducted during the decades of 1960s and 1970s revealed the fact that the previous climate

shifts had occurred not so gradually and if the increasing levels of carbon dioxide are not
controlled, the life on earth might be in a threat of extinction. Till this point in time, by the

rapid climate change the scientists meant a change to be expected in as little as thousand years.

However, the researches during the 1960s and 1970s reached to a shocking conclusion. It

showed that periods of quasi-stable climate ended in catastrophic discontinuities when

dramatic climate change occurred in a century or two at most (Weart 2008, p. 69).

The scientific community realized the extent of the threat posed by the climatic change and the

fact climate change is a phenomenon which is not far off and better it would be to find a solution

for it sooner than later.

Peter Weyl, a scientist, presented his important theory which addressed the thermohaline

circulation of the oceans (Weart 2008, pp. 60-61; Weyl 1968). This theory held that with the

melting of the ice sheets into the oceans will add an enormous amount of fresh water into the

oceans, thus bringing a change in the level of salinity and the density of the water. With the

change in the salinity of water due to melting the surface layer would no longer be dense

enough to sink. The entire circulation that drove cold water south along the sea bottom could

lurch to a halt. Without the compensating drift of tropical waters northward, a new glacial period

might begin (Weart 2008, p. 61).

Two main drilling techniques in order to study the past were developed which played a

significant role in studying the ages of climatic shifts. These two methods included drilling into

the cores of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the deep sea cores. The preliminary

study of ice cores, published in 1969, showed variations that indicated changes of perhaps 10

degree centigrade. Comparisons of the Greenland and Antarctic cores showed the climate

changes were truly global coming at essentially the same time in both hemispheres (Weart
2008, p. 71). These analysis of the ice cores and deep sea cores gave identical results and

revealed that the earth experienced far greater glacial periods than previously believed. And that

these glacial periods could return much more quickly and within much lesser time frames than

previously believed.

A conference was held in 1971 at Stockholm, Sweden, in which the scientists discussed only the

anthropogenic causes of global climate change. The conference was named as Study of Mans

Impact on Climate. This was the first time that a whole event was dedicated to the study of

anthropogenic causes of climate change. While the views of the scientists widely diverged and

very little consensus was reached in the conference, the report, which was widely read,

concluded that with a ringing call for attention to humanitys emissions of particle pollutants

and greenhouse gases. The climate could shift dangerously in the next hundred years, the

scientists declared, as a result of mans activities (Weart 2008, p. 68). It is interesting to note

that scientists after knowing the fact that humans could alter the environment and could be a

reason for the climate change, predicted the timeframe of the next ice age, and did not address

the warming issues.

For almost the span of a century, the scientists were mainly concerned about the ice age. Studies

during this time span were mainly concentrated upon knowing the swings that occurred between

the warm and far colder ice ages. They attempted to explain the reasons which may lead to such

swings. Therefore, after knowing about the past of the ice ages, the scientists focused their

research about predicting the timeframe of the future ice age (Weart 2008, P. 77). It was only

after the 1970s that a shift towards understanding the anthropogenic causes of climate change

would occur.
By the late 1970s, the scientists had at least attained the ability to model the climate. Although

this model quite simplistic as far as the extreme complexities of the natural environment was

concerned, yet it was a great stride forward. There arose a consensus on the idea that the

tendency of the environment at that point of time was cooling, but the course of event was no

longer natural. More and more scientists were coming to feel that greenhouse warming was the

main thing to worry about the greenhouse effect from increased carbon dioxide must

dominate in the end (Weart 2008, p. 99). The research done during the 1970s finally shifted the

focus from cooling of the planet earth to warming. It was the second half of the 1970s decade

that the discourse on the climate change experienced a major shift. A number of hearings were

held in the US congress in 1976 in order to address the issue of global warming. Scientists were

presented in the congress in order to testify the growing threat of global warming. Furthermore,

the 1977 National Academy of Sciences report on Energy and Climate kept up the pressure

with its announcement that catastrophic warming might be in store [and] they did drive a

general truth: the threat of climate change was intimately connected with energy production

(Weart 2008, p. 102). In addition to this, Robert White, the head of the National Oceanic and

Atmospheric Administration stated that we now understand the industrial wastes, such as

carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate

that pose a considerable threat to the future society. The scientific problems are formidable, the

technological problems, unprecedented, and the potential economic and social impacts,

ominous (Quoted in Oresks and Conway 2010, p. 172). These concerns were raised by the

study conducted by Jasons when they sent their findings to Washington D.C. Jasons were a

group of intellectuals who were concerned with studying scientific phenomena. They also stated

that the doubling of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might raise the average global
temperature by 2.4 degree centigrade. In order to study the results of Jasons findings, a group of

intellectuals was set up which was headed by Jule Charney, who was a renowned meteorologist

at the Massachusetts Institute of technology.

In 1979, the group gave their findings. The results declared [that] they had rather high

confidence that in the next century the earth would warm up by about 3 degree centigrade, plus

or minus 50 percent, i.e. 1.5 degree centigrade to 4.5 degree centigrade (Weart 2008 p. 100).

Hence, by 1979, Washington had become well aware of the potential consequences the climate

change and global warming hold for the earth and its anthropogenic foundations.

A shift towards studying the effects of other gases on the climate occurred during the 1980s. The

studies found that methane is another gas that tremendously effect the global environment and is

a potential global warming agent. This gas is produced naturally through different biological

processes but also is a result of different anthropogenic processes. A study conducted in 1988

revealed that the methane level had increased by 11 percent in the previous decade alone. And

each molecule of the gas had a greenhouse effect about twenty times that of a molecule of carbon

dioxide (Weart 2008, p.125). Moreover, there were different sources available that could raise

enormous amount of methane gas resulting in the rise of global temperatures. For example, a

tremendous amount of methane gas is present in the permafrost layer of arctic tundra. If this

methane gas is allowed to melt, this may result in an enormous increase in the amount of

methane gas in the atmosphere.

The Soviet Vostok station in Antarctica during the 1980s played a vital role in understanding the

connection between the climate change and the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In

each global period, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been lower than during the
warm periods in between lower by as much as 50 percent the Vostok core tipped the balance

in the greenhouse effect controversy, nailing down an emerging scientific consensus: the gas did

indeed play a central role in climate change (Weart 2008, p. 125-126). Although the main

causes behind the increase in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were natural, yet the

anthropogenic causes also result in the same phenomenon.

Further investigations of the ice cores confirmed that the presence of greenhouse gases in the

atmosphere not only enhanced the global temperature but also led to rapid changes in

temperature. In 1982, a study of the Greenland ice cores was held by Dansgaard et. al. this study

revealed the occurrence of a dramatic cooling of rather short duration, perhaps only a few

hundred years (Weart 2008, p. 134). Furthermore, Hans Oeschger, was now analyzing a

layers of lake-bed clay near his home in Bern, Switzerland. Bern was indeed far from Greenland,

but found drastic climatic changes that neatly matched the ice records (Weart 2008, pp. 134-

135). In addition to this, in a study conducted in 1985, Wallace Broecker et. al. found that the

shutting down of thermohaline could result in a dramatic increase in the global temperatures. He

further pointed out evidence that such a shutdown had actually happened (Weart 2008, p.

136-137). He further wrote in 1987 that we had [previously] been treating the greenhouse effect

as a cocktail hour curiosity, but now we must view it as a threat to human beings and wild life

(Weart 2008, p. 136-137).

Work during the decades of 1980s and 1990s was mostly concerned with action-oriented

strategies to deal with the crisis. In a move to limit the emissions of specific chemicals which

damage the ozone layer, several governments of the world signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Main concern of the Montreal Protocol was to put a control on the release of the Chloro-flouro-

carbons (CFCs) and was quite successful in restricting its use (Speth 2004, p. 55).
A conference under the title World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for

Global Security was held at Toronto in 1988 to deal with the looming crisis of climate change.

It was significant for the reason that for the first time a group of prestigious scientists called on

the worlds governments to set strict, specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

by 2025, said the experts, emissions ought to be pushed some 20 percent below the 1998 level

(Weart 2008, p. 149). An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was also

established in 1988, due to the pressures put by scientists and the public.

The IPCC was composed largely of representatives of the worlds governments it was neither

a strictly scientific nor a strictly political body (Weart 2008, p. 153). In its first report,

published in 1990, the IPCC stated that the globe in fact has been warming as a result of the

increasing levels of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Houghten et. al. 19990 p. xi).

While hesitating to draw further conclusions, the report did recommend steps needed to be taken

in order to reduce the risks associated with global warming. One of the broad hint was towards

the worlds governments to act (Weart 2008, p. 157). After every five years the IPCC would

present its report on the world global environment.

Another conference that set the stage for the governments all around the world to discuss the

problems associated with global climate change and to establish a coalition to restrict the

emission of greenhouse gases, was the Earth Summit held in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

However, the agreements evasions and ambiguities left so many loopholes that policy makers

could avoid meaningful action (Weart 2008, p. 162).

In its report published in 1995, three years after the Earth Summit, the IPCC concluded that the

balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on climate change
(Houghten et. al. 1995; Weart 2008, p. 164). The report agreed with the conclusions of Jasons

report in which it was stated that a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

could result in a 1.5 to 4.5 degree centigrade change in global temperature.

Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was the final gathering of the world leaders upon the issue of global

climate change. Through this protocol the developed countries shall drastically reduce their

carbon dioxide gas emissions by 2010. However, the different interest groups and the US

politicians prevented the Kyoto Protocol to get enacted. With little debate , the American

politicians avoided any policy change that might move towards meeting the Kyoto targets. Most

other nations took that as an excuse to carry on likewise with business as usual (Weart 2008, p.


Ironically, with the increase of evidence regarding human induced climate change, the world

governments rejection of policies to restrict greenhouse gases emissions has also increased. It is

an alarming situation that 1995 was the warmest year on record for the planet as a whole, and

1997 broke that record, and 1998 yet again (Weart 2008, p. 175).

The IPCC in its 2001 report argued that the new scientific evidence demolished objections from

industry-oriented skeptics and persuaded even the most recalcitrant officials (Weart 2008, p.

178). This report starts with stating that there is new and stronger evidence that most of the

warming observed over the last 50 years is attributed to human activities. Both temperature and

sea levels are projected to continue to rise throughout the twenty-first century for all scenarios

studied (Houghton et. al. 2001, p. ix). It further stated that the projected rate of warming is

much larger than the observed changes during the twentieth century and is very likely to be
without precedent during at least the ten thousand years, based on palaeoclimatic data

(Houghton et. al. 2001, p. 13).

The Present

After having a brief assessment of the history of climate change, it is important to know where

do we stand as far as the problems of climate change are concerned.

The 2007 IPCC report on global temperature stated that eleven of the last twelve years (1995-

2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the international record of global surface

temperature (Solomon et. al. 2007, p.5). Moreover, the global temperature, over the same

period of time has increased by 0.76 degree centigrade. This statement that warming of the

climate is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air

and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and raising global average sea

levels highlights the fact that the situation has even gone worse after 2007. (Solomon et. al.

2007, p.5).

According to NASA, the Arctic sea is deteriorating by 11.5 percent in a decade. Further data

from NASA Grace satellite show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland are

losing mass. The continent of Antarctica has been losing more than 100 cubic kilometers of ice

per year since 2002 (NASA 2012). In addition to all this, the world glaciers are receding

resulting in a decrease in the worlds fresh water resources and rising sea levels.

All this is the result of the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, whose main

contributor is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. David Spratt and Philip Sutton

argues that human activity has increased the carbon dioxide in the air by 38 percent from the

1750 pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million: by 200, it was 387 parts per million (2008, p.
76). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated an increase

of the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 338 parts per million in the year 1980 to

389 parts per million in 2010.

The US Energy Information Administration recorded an increase in the consumption of oil from

36.119 billion barrels per day in 1980 to 87.075 billion barrels oil per day in 2010. The emissions

from the oil consumption globally increased from 8825 million metric tons to 10887 million

metric tons in 2009. The consumption of natural gas, which is a relatively cleaner source of

energy, though not altogether clean, increased from 52943 billion cubic feet in 1980 to over

106763 billion cubic feet in 2009 leading to an increase in the carbon dioxide emissions from

3086 million metric tons to 6031 million metric tons. Also the carbon dioxide emissions from

coal increased from 6522 million metric tons to 13,393 million metric tons during the same


During the same period of time, emissions of methane and nitrous oxide gases have also

increased. Spratt and Sutton argues that since 1750, the emissions of methane gas have

increased by 150 percent, and about half a million tons of methane are added each year, mostly

as a consequence of human activity (Spratt and Sutton 2008, p. 77). Although nitrous oxide

has increased by only 16 percent since 1750, however, the gas has an effect three hundred times

more powerful than carbon dioxide making its overall contribution to global warming about one-

tenth of that of carbon dioxide (Spratt and Sutton, 2008 p.78).