The history of climate change is a storied one, and those not already in the know can very easily be intimidated if they try to get a look at how it all falls together. Because climate change has become a politically-charged issue and a major matter of policy, trying to find a historical source is more than a little tricky. However, understanding the history behind climate change isn’t too difficult when it’s broken down to the basics, and this means going back a good long time on the historical record.
The origin of climate change study actually stretches back a lot farther than people think. Most young people today have parents that remember the discussions of climate change in the 1970s, which are often used for political leverage today, but this isn’t actually where climate change originated as a topic of study. Climate change has been on the radar of inquisitive academics for centuries.
Climate change study can be most-cleanly linked to originating studies in the late 1700s. In the late 1770s, a Swiss scientist suggested that the atmosphere operated like a greenhouse. While this is commonly-accepted today, it was revolutionary at the time, and the ramifications weren’t well-understood. Greenhouses operate by using gases to trap thermal energy from the sun. They take in more heat than they radiate and thus stay warmer even in the winter months. As we grew more aware of how our planet’s ecology worked, we realized that this was a necessary component of life on the planet.
In the 1800s, this hypothesis was confirmed by John Tyndall, a British scientist. In 1894, just before the turn of the century, a chemist from Switzerland named Svante Arrhenius elaborated on the effects of carbon dioxide on the “greenhouse effect”, something you’ll probably remember from modern policy discourse. Carbon dioxide is one of the key acting gases in the function of the atmosphere as a greenhouse, alongside nitrogen.
Then, in the 1950s, actual progress was made in analyzing the climate history of the world. In the 50s we developed the ability to properly gauge the information that could be gotten from analyzing ice cores from the frozen north. Ice cores are deep bores of ancient ice, and their layers can be used to make judgments about the state of the climate at the time each layer was frozen. It’s similar in this way to geology, where information can be determined from the different layers.
These made the biggest splashes in terms of scientific progress through history. Then, in the 1970s, the subject came forward as a matter of policy debate. This is when the now-infamous “global cooling” scare was drawn up, and ultimately exemplified all of the things that can go wrong in a policy debate about a scientific matter.
Now, of course, climate change is an area of research and open debate. For the most part, there is a division between the policy aspects and the scientific aspects. The former are argued about, while the latter are generally-accepted within the community of academic professionals. Many are working actively to chronicle the goings-on, such as Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer-award winner who has recently authored “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World”, which is incidentally excellent reading if you want a more in-depth look. While climate change history can be intimidating from square one, a few of the right sources will send you on your way to understanding it.
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