A Brief History of Global Warming — and Its Solar-Powered Solution

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By Kyle G. Crider

“’Come on up with me,’ he said. ‘It’s raining already.’ In fact it was, the endless warm drizzle of spring — the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.” Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

For those who think that Al Gore invented global warming (as well as the Internet), it no doubt will come as quite a surprise — should such folk actually manage to break out of their filter bubbles and read this article — that humans have known about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) for almost 200 years.

A National Geographic piece, Why Is the Man Who Predicted Climate Change Forgotten?, names Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) as a founding father of global warming science. The Guardian names George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) as the author of “the 1847 lecture that predicted human-induced climate change.NASA likewise reminds us, “The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century.”

The New York Times, Oct. 28, 1956.
The New York Times, Oct. 28, 1956.

As for the other AGW-related things we have learned — and when we learned them — physicist and historian Spencer Weart has published a handy timeline and other supplemental material to augment his book, “The Discovery of Global Warming.”

Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick relates in his HuffPo piece, Climate Science in 1956 and 2015: “Despite the apparent inability of many of our current policy makers to accept the scientific reality of climate change, the science is not new. Fifty-nine years ago, on Oct. 28, 1956, the New York Times ran a story in their Science in Review section entitled ‘Warmer climate on the earth may be due to more carbon dioxide in the air.’”

In 1958, famed director Frank Capra shot “The Unchained Goddess,” one of The Bell Laboratory Science Series shown on American TV and later in U.S. classrooms. As related by Open Culture, one of the narrators declares:

“Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of its civilization. Due to our releases in factories and automobiles every year of more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps the air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere may be getting warmer.”

When asked if this is bad, the narrator explains:

“Well, it’s been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps. And if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi valley. Tourists in glass bottom boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water. For in weather, we’re not only dealing with forces of a far greater variety than even the atomic physicist encounters, but with life itself.”

Melting icecaps, global flooding. A warning from 1958.
Melting icecaps, global flooding. A warning from 1958. (“The Unchained Goddess”)

Then, as the Guardian reminds us, in November 1965 climate scientists summarized the risks associated with rising carbon pollution in a report for Lyndon Baines Johnson – and debunked a number of myths that climate deniers still parrot to this day:

“Only about one two-thousandth of the atmosphere and one ten-thousandth of the ocean are carbon dioxide. Yet to living creatures, these small fractions are of vital importance … Within a few short centuries, we are returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that was slowly extracted by plants and buried in the sediments during half a billion years.”

While our current bout of AGW is definitely not being driven by the sun, one of its solutions definitely is. Obtaining clean, renewable energy from the sun means never having to say we’re sorry for wrecking our planetary life-support systems with greenhouse gas overload. Solar-powered electricity is a product of the photovoltaic (PV) effect, discovered by French physicist A. E. Becquerel in 1839. Over a hundred years later, PV solar panels were used to power a spacecraft — the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched by the U.S. in 1958.

But our use of the sun, from passive architecture to active power, goes much further back than that. John Perlin’s excellent post, Let It Shine: The 6000 Year Story of Solar Energy, is a tour-de-force that begins in China around 6,000 BC. Here are Perlin’s first ten chapters of sun-inspired history:

  • Section I. Early Use of the Sun
  • Chapter 1: Solar Architecture in Ancient China (6000 BC -)
  • Chapter 2: Solar Architecture in Ancient Greece (500 BC-100 BC)
  • Chapter 3: Roman Solar Architecture (100 BC-500 AD)
  • Chapter 4: Burning Mirrors (1000 BC-1800)
  • Chapter 5: Heat for Horticulture (1500s-1800s)
  • Chapter 6: Solar Hot Boxes (1767-1800s)
  • Section II. Power From The Sun
  • Chapter 7: The First Solar Motors (1860-1880)
  • Chapter 8: Two American Pioneers (1872-1904)
  • Chapter 9: Low-Temperature Solar Motors (1885 – 1915)
  • Chapter 10: The First Practical Solar Engine (1906-1914)

But wait, there’s more … In fact, Perlin is not even half-way through his account of solar history.

Like the protagonist of Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, the future can be shaped by us, for good or ill. So go solar, save the planet. You’ll find yourself in good company — with lots of history.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Christopher Michel 2) and 3) Wikimedia Commons

Kyle G. Crider is the Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).

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One response

  1. Interesting that the “father of global warming” happen to be born toward the end of the Little Ice Age. His life spanned the recovery from that cold period. I would argue that Peter Gleick should not be referenced when discussing the science of climate change. He was exposed as a political activist when he stole the identity of a Heartland Board member to steal financial documents. Notably absent from this piece is the ice age alarmism of the 70s following the dramatic drop in global temps after WWII despite increasing CO2 emissions.

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