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A Brief History of Climate Change

Sep 16, 2022
Geography
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22
minutes

For thousands of years, humans have had ideas about mankind's potential impact on the climate.

In this episode, we look at how these ideas have changed, the men and women who have contributed to them, and ask ourselves why it has taken so long to start paying attention.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the history of climate change.

[00:00:28] We all know about the crisis our planet faces due to its rising temperature, and given that this rise has only accelerated over the last fifty years, it may seem like a fairly recent discovery.

[00:00:41] But the understanding of mankind’s impact on the climate is much older than you may think.

[00:00:47] So that’s what we will be talking about today, the long, complicated, but absolutely fascinating history of climate change.

[00:00:55] Okay then a brief history of climate change.

[00:01:01] Ideas around humanity’s influence on the environment have existed for millennia

[00:01:07] Theophrastus, a student of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, wrote about how draining marshlands caused certain areas to freeze, and he discussed how clearing forests may warm up the land by allowing more sunlight to reach the Earth’s surface.

[00:01:27] By the time of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, European scholars were writing about how deforestation and farming had altered the landscape and potentially, weather systems too. 

[00:01:40] And such theories became commonplace after North America was colonised and transformed from forest land to farmland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

[00:01:51] American farmers noticed such a change in the weather that by the 19th century people began to believe that cultivating soil increased rainfall and made the land more fertile. This led to a boom in settlements across America’s Great Plains, an arid, dry, area east of the Rocky Mountains. 

[00:02:15] The theory became known as the ‘Rain Follows the Plough’ theory but it has now been discredited, it has been proved to not be true, after modern scientists revealed that it was based on unreliable data. 

[00:02:29] It was all just a coincidence.

[00:02:33] Around the same time that America’s landscape was being altered, in the 1820s Joseph Fourier, a French Mathematician, began studying the Earth’s temperature, and he made an important discovery.

[00:02:48] Fourier calculated that due to the Earth’s size and distance from the Sun, it should be far cooler than it is, which led him to propose that the Earth’s atmosphere insulated the planet. Fourier was the first to theorise what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect.

[00:03:08] The Greenhouse Effect is, as you may know – in very simple terms – how certain gases in the Earth’s atmosphere prevent heat from the sun escaping back into the solar system, thus insulating the planet.

[00:03:24] This idea was developed in 1856 by an American scientist called Eunice Newton Foote who conducted experiments to assess how gases interact with sunlight. She found that CO2, Carbon Dioxide, heated up the quickest and kept its temperature the longest.

[00:03:43] Foote theorised that a change in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature.

[00:03:52] This was clearly an incredibly important discovery, but being in the unfortunate position of a woman in the 19th century, Foote was not taken seriously in the scientific community. 

[00:04:06] Her paper was presented by fellow scientist Joseph Henry at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but it was largely ignored, with Foote’s findings dismissed as amateur, as not credible, not believable. 

[00:04:23] Therefore, despite her landmark study, Foote’s findings fell into the shadow of those of the Irish physicist, John Tyndall. 

[00:04:33] Tyndall, as a man, of course, did not suffer the disadvantage of a woman’s position in society at the time. He was well educated and had access to superior resources to aid, to help his experiments.

[00:04:48] Tyndall’s experiments were similar to Foote’s but far more advanced. 

[00:04:53] In 1859, he analysed how infrared radiation specifically was absorbed by different gases, and found that gas produced by burning coal [which contained water vapour, methane and CO2], absorbed almost all the heat. 

[00:05:11] CO2 in particular absorbed 1000 times more than normal air.

[00:05:17] Perhaps the vast quantity of coal that was being burned to power Western industrial growth might be having unintended effects...

[00:05:27] By 1896, the role of CO2 in the atmosphere began to get more attention. Around this time, there was also much interest in the scientific community around the causes for the Earth’s periodic Ice Ages. 

[00:05:42] Such interest influenced the studies of the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, whose mother was called Carolina Thunberg Arrhenius.

[00:05:52] You may recognise the name Thunberg from a more recent and more famous climate change figure. And indeed, Greta Thunberg is, apparently, a very distant relation to Arrhenius.

[00:06:06] But Arrhenius was not initially interested in global warming, rather, the opposite. 

[00:06:14] He initially set out to see whether decreasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere could have been a reason for past Ice Ages, and he found that if CO2 levels halved, the Earth’s temperature could cool by roughly 5 degrees, which would have been enough to bring about an Ice Age.

[00:06:34] This led Arrhenius to thinking about whether the reverse was true, and if increased CO2 levels could increase the Earth’s temperature. 

[00:06:44] Unsurprisingly perhaps, he found that this was correct.

[00:06:49] But he didn’t stop there. He went on to conclude in later work that emissions caused by burning fossil-fuels such as coal could also contribute to a rise in temperature.

[00:07:01] For Arrhenius, though, this was not a concern, it wasn’t a problem, as he calculated that it would take 3000 years for CO2 levels to rise by 50%. 

[00:07:14] He was right in principle, but his timeline was way off, it was a large miscalculation.

[00:07:20] In reality, it has actually taken 100 years for CO2 levels to rise 30%. But besides his conservative prediction, Arrhenius actually liked the idea of a warmer planet.

[00:07:35] In 1908, he wrote about how increasing CO2 levels could bring ‘better climates’ for ‘colder regions of the Earth’. 

[00:07:43] It would also, he claimed, bring ‘much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind’. 

[00:07:53] In other words, a warmer planet meant more food and the growth of human civilisation.

[00:08:00] Another key figure involved in the early science of climate change, the Englishman Guy Callendar, also thought global warming was a good thing. And in 1938 he supported Arrhenius’s proposals, demonstrating that the planet had, in fact, warmed due to human activity.

[00:08:20] Callendar had a keen interest in meteorology, the study of the weather and the atmosphere, and he began collecting data in his spare time.

[00:08:30] With records from 147 weather stations around the world, Callendar identified that global temperatures had risen by 0.05 °C every decade, and he calculated that 150 billion tonnes of CO2 had been added to the atmosphere due to burning fossil-fuels. Only a quarter of this CO2 could be absorbed by the Earth, primarily via the ocean.

[00:08:58] But despite his findings, Callendar was largely ignored by the scientific community. 

[00:09:04] Being a wealthy engineer only conducting such research in his spare time, he was viewed as a meddling gentleman, an interfering non-scientist, who had no credentials or reliability in meteorology.

[00:09:20] Additionally, even since Arrhenius’s research, people could not believe that humanity could have an impact on something as large as the Earth’s climate. Studies that suggested this were often scoffed at, ridiculed, dismissed, and considered to be errors within data.

[00:09:39] As such, Callendar’s results were not given much attention. 

[00:09:44] And, besides, the Earth’s warming was still believed by many to be potentially a good thing.

[00:09:51] Callendar himself claimed that it would prevent what he called ‘the return of the deadly glaciers’, the large blocks of ice that had caused the Ice Age. He also believed that burning fossil-fuels would warm the Earth enough to allow plants to be cultivated further North.

[00:10:09] However, within twenty years of this statement, London would suffer extreme consequences because of its polluting emissions.

[00:10:19] Since the Industrial Revolution, smog, fog made from pollutants in the atmosphere, had become a fairly normal thing for life in London. 

[00:10:29] But on the evening of the 5th December 1952, there was a smog like nobody had ever experienced before. This became known as The Great Smog.

[00:10:42] The day came after a period of very cold and windless weather. The conditions meant that pollution in the air could not be dispersed, spread out or blown away, and instead, pollutants collected over the city. By nightfall, visibility was just a few metres. In certain areas people could not even see their own feet, they were stuck inside a black cloud, caused entirely by burning fossil fuels in and around the capital.

[00:11:15] People were told to stay indoors, public transport was stopped and driving was impossible. It became dangerous to get those suffering to hospitals. The thick toxic fog lasted for four days and modern research suggests that between 10 and 12 thousand people lost their lives due to the smog.

[00:11:37] We know now that this kind of pollution can cause a massive collection of health issues, including respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. 

[00:11:47] Even today, it is estimated that pollution is responsible for around one in six deaths worldwide. And this is despite the attention that the Great Smog brought to the dangers of pollution. 

[00:12:01] Clearly, burning fossil fuels showed itself to have a negative direct impact on people in the form of pollution, but its impact on the global climate was still debated, despite increasing evidence from the scientific community.

[00:12:16] In 1958, the American scientist Charles David Keeling actually proved that CO2 levels were rising and that it could be attributed to human activities – this has become known as the Keeling Curve. 

[00:12:33] Keeling, with a PhD and access to accurate laboratory equipment managed to convince the scientific community more than Callendar had, but still, the effects of this proof was largely undecided

[00:12:48] Were rising CO2 levels bad? Were they good? Or did they simply not matter?

[00:12:54] The following decades even saw fears that the Earth may actually cool and there was concern over a future Ice Age. This might seem ludicrous, hard to believe to us today but a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider led to a media frenzy which quickly spread the idea.

[00:13:16] Schneider had suggested that the cooling potential of pollution particles could actually outweigh the warming effects of CO2, and he proposed that if the pollutants increased there could be another Ice Age. 

[00:13:32] Put another way, we needed to keep increasing fossil fuel consumption to avoid the world falling into another Ice Age.

[00:13:40] The following years, in 1972 and 1973, there were severe winters in Asia and the U.S, and–as you can imagine–this did little to convince people that Schneider was wrong.

[00:13:54] What if rising CO2 levels meant global cooling, not global warming?

[00:14:01] In reality, Schneider’s paper was still a minority and there were far more studies to support global warming. In 1977 Schneider himself even admitted that he had overestimated the cooling effects of pollution and underestimated the heating effects of CO2.

[00:14:20] In other words, he said that he was wrong.

[00:14:24] But it was not until the 1980s that the scientific community began to come to a consensus about global warming and its damaging impact.

[00:14:34] One event in particular had a huge influence

[00:14:38] On the 23rd of June 1988, NASA scientist James E. Hansen delivered a speech to the US Senate in a bid to get the U.S government to take real action in combating rising CO2 levels. 

[00:14:52] It was one of the hottest summers on record and Hansen had the A/C turned off during his speech to make a bigger impact.

[00:15:02] This speech was a big success and in the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, was established. Calls from prominent 

[00:15:13] scientists grew, together with freak weather patterns and droughts, and the world began to take global warming a little bit more seriously.

[00:15:22] However, scientists’ voices were often in competition with another group, a group that would suffer greatly if the world’s dependence on fossil fuels was reduced.

[00:15:32] The oil and gas industry.

[00:15:35] As you may well know, this resulted in a huge disinformation campaign sponsored by oil and gas companies.

[00:15:42] ExxonMobil were very active in this controversy, and in the 1990s its CEO infamously claimed that evidence for climate change was ‘inconclusive’ and that global warming was doubtful

[00:15:56] He made this statement despite his own company’s research proving global warming and its dangers.

[00:16:04] Nonetheless, over the next 20 years research continued into the possible consequences of global warming, all while its impact was clear to see. 

[00:16:13] Acid rain, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and melting glaciers were all identified as products of climate change, or “global heating” as it is now called by some.

[00:16:26] Despite all of this, and despite the massive amount of research and near unanimous agreement among scientists that climate change is man-made and is a great existential threat, the number of so-called “climate change deniers” has continued to grow.

[00:16:43] As you may have noticed, there are some similarities between modern “climate change deniers” and characters like Callendar from the early 20th century. 

[00:16:53] Callendar believed that global warming might be a good thing, that cooler places will become warm and habitable

[00:17:01] As you may also have noticed, Callendar was English and Svante Arrhenius was Swedish, so warmer summers and less cold winters might be welcome in these cold, northern European countries. 

[00:17:15] But clearly this ignores the fact that warm climates would become inhospitable and that it would lead to rising sea levels and catastrophic floods.

[00:17:25] And Callendar and Svante Arrhenius had none of the extensive research and studies that have been done now, so while we can understand and perhaps excuse an amateur meteorologist and a 19th century Swede, the fact that every major global scientific body agrees that climate change is a large man-made problem suggests that the same excuses don’t apply in the 21st century.

[00:17:51] As you will know, politicians in many of the wealthiest nations in the world have found it politically useful to question climate change. 

[00:18:00] In 2016, every single Republican presidential candidate had questioned or dismissed climate change.

[00:18:07] When Donald Trump became President, as you will remember, he removed the U.S from the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change. 

[00:18:16] What's more, and perhaps unbelievably, in 2020 Trump blamed the disastrous wildfires in California on the fact that forest floors were not clean enough, and he continued to insist that ‘It will start getting cooler, just you watch’.

[00:18:32] Of course, it has not been getting cooler. 

[00:18:36] Over the last decade, we have seen countless consequences of global warming and the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5 °C is unlikely to be met. 

[00:18:47] Consequently, when one thinks about global warming, it is easy to be filled with a sense of hopelessness and despair.

[00:18:55] However, there is some hope against what often feels like the bleak reality of climate change. 

[00:19:01] The targets set in the Paris Agreement have not been met but there is some positive news.

[00:19:08] Coal consumption has plummeted in the UK and the USA, while India’s growth in coal usage has slowed and China’s usage is levelling off.

[00:19:18] Renewable energy has become far less expensive and more efficient, a positive pattern for the future. In the last decade, wind energy has become 3 times cheaper, solar electricity 10 times cheaper, and the batteries required to store their energy are 60% cheaper.

[00:19:36] And there have been technological developments in a huge variety of other areas that have a positive impact on reducing global carbon dioxide levels.

[00:19:45] From carbon removal technologies, which we strongly support and contribute to here at Leonardo English, through to lab-grown meat, there are a lot of positive developments.

[00:19:56] And there is clearly an increasing understanding of what can be done to reduce our individual contribution to climate change.

[00:20:04] We can see some of the effects of all these positive trends already; for example, since 1990 EU emissions have fallen 34%. The U.K. emissions have fallen by 29% since 2010. And in the United States, the country that has emitted more CO2 than any other, emissions are 21% lower than 2005 levels.

[00:20:29] It might have taken well over a century to recognise the threat, but there is, perhaps, some light at the end of the tunnel.

[00:20:39] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on A Brief History of Climate Change.

[00:20:44] While I’m sure you know lots about global warming, perhaps you didn't know the story behind its discovery and how we got to the point we are today. 

[00:20:53] Perhaps if more attention had been paid to neglected figures like Foote and Callendar, it may not have taken so long.

[00:21:01] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:05] Why do you think it has taken so long for humans to accept the reality of climate change? 

[00:21:11] Why do you think some people still don’t?

[00:21:13] Do you feel hopeful about the planet’s climate future?

[00:21:17] What renewable technologies are you most interested in? Carbon reduction? Electric cars? Or lab-grown burgers?

[00:21:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the history of climate change.

[00:00:28] We all know about the crisis our planet faces due to its rising temperature, and given that this rise has only accelerated over the last fifty years, it may seem like a fairly recent discovery.

[00:00:41] But the understanding of mankind’s impact on the climate is much older than you may think.

[00:00:47] So that’s what we will be talking about today, the long, complicated, but absolutely fascinating history of climate change.

[00:00:55] Okay then a brief history of climate change.

[00:01:01] Ideas around humanity’s influence on the environment have existed for millennia

[00:01:07] Theophrastus, a student of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, wrote about how draining marshlands caused certain areas to freeze, and he discussed how clearing forests may warm up the land by allowing more sunlight to reach the Earth’s surface.

[00:01:27] By the time of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, European scholars were writing about how deforestation and farming had altered the landscape and potentially, weather systems too. 

[00:01:40] And such theories became commonplace after North America was colonised and transformed from forest land to farmland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

[00:01:51] American farmers noticed such a change in the weather that by the 19th century people began to believe that cultivating soil increased rainfall and made the land more fertile. This led to a boom in settlements across America’s Great Plains, an arid, dry, area east of the Rocky Mountains. 

[00:02:15] The theory became known as the ‘Rain Follows the Plough’ theory but it has now been discredited, it has been proved to not be true, after modern scientists revealed that it was based on unreliable data. 

[00:02:29] It was all just a coincidence.

[00:02:33] Around the same time that America’s landscape was being altered, in the 1820s Joseph Fourier, a French Mathematician, began studying the Earth’s temperature, and he made an important discovery.

[00:02:48] Fourier calculated that due to the Earth’s size and distance from the Sun, it should be far cooler than it is, which led him to propose that the Earth’s atmosphere insulated the planet. Fourier was the first to theorise what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect.

[00:03:08] The Greenhouse Effect is, as you may know – in very simple terms – how certain gases in the Earth’s atmosphere prevent heat from the sun escaping back into the solar system, thus insulating the planet.

[00:03:24] This idea was developed in 1856 by an American scientist called Eunice Newton Foote who conducted experiments to assess how gases interact with sunlight. She found that CO2, Carbon Dioxide, heated up the quickest and kept its temperature the longest.

[00:03:43] Foote theorised that a change in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature.

[00:03:52] This was clearly an incredibly important discovery, but being in the unfortunate position of a woman in the 19th century, Foote was not taken seriously in the scientific community. 

[00:04:06] Her paper was presented by fellow scientist Joseph Henry at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but it was largely ignored, with Foote’s findings dismissed as amateur, as not credible, not believable. 

[00:04:23] Therefore, despite her landmark study, Foote’s findings fell into the shadow of those of the Irish physicist, John Tyndall. 

[00:04:33] Tyndall, as a man, of course, did not suffer the disadvantage of a woman’s position in society at the time. He was well educated and had access to superior resources to aid, to help his experiments.

[00:04:48] Tyndall’s experiments were similar to Foote’s but far more advanced. 

[00:04:53] In 1859, he analysed how infrared radiation specifically was absorbed by different gases, and found that gas produced by burning coal [which contained water vapour, methane and CO2], absorbed almost all the heat. 

[00:05:11] CO2 in particular absorbed 1000 times more than normal air.

[00:05:17] Perhaps the vast quantity of coal that was being burned to power Western industrial growth might be having unintended effects...

[00:05:27] By 1896, the role of CO2 in the atmosphere began to get more attention. Around this time, there was also much interest in the scientific community around the causes for the Earth’s periodic Ice Ages. 

[00:05:42] Such interest influenced the studies of the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, whose mother was called Carolina Thunberg Arrhenius.

[00:05:52] You may recognise the name Thunberg from a more recent and more famous climate change figure. And indeed, Greta Thunberg is, apparently, a very distant relation to Arrhenius.

[00:06:06] But Arrhenius was not initially interested in global warming, rather, the opposite. 

[00:06:14] He initially set out to see whether decreasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere could have been a reason for past Ice Ages, and he found that if CO2 levels halved, the Earth’s temperature could cool by roughly 5 degrees, which would have been enough to bring about an Ice Age.

[00:06:34] This led Arrhenius to thinking about whether the reverse was true, and if increased CO2 levels could increase the Earth’s temperature. 

[00:06:44] Unsurprisingly perhaps, he found that this was correct.

[00:06:49] But he didn’t stop there. He went on to conclude in later work that emissions caused by burning fossil-fuels such as coal could also contribute to a rise in temperature.

[00:07:01] For Arrhenius, though, this was not a concern, it wasn’t a problem, as he calculated that it would take 3000 years for CO2 levels to rise by 50%. 

[00:07:14] He was right in principle, but his timeline was way off, it was a large miscalculation.

[00:07:20] In reality, it has actually taken 100 years for CO2 levels to rise 30%. But besides his conservative prediction, Arrhenius actually liked the idea of a warmer planet.

[00:07:35] In 1908, he wrote about how increasing CO2 levels could bring ‘better climates’ for ‘colder regions of the Earth’. 

[00:07:43] It would also, he claimed, bring ‘much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind’. 

[00:07:53] In other words, a warmer planet meant more food and the growth of human civilisation.

[00:08:00] Another key figure involved in the early science of climate change, the Englishman Guy Callendar, also thought global warming was a good thing. And in 1938 he supported Arrhenius’s proposals, demonstrating that the planet had, in fact, warmed due to human activity.

[00:08:20] Callendar had a keen interest in meteorology, the study of the weather and the atmosphere, and he began collecting data in his spare time.

[00:08:30] With records from 147 weather stations around the world, Callendar identified that global temperatures had risen by 0.05 °C every decade, and he calculated that 150 billion tonnes of CO2 had been added to the atmosphere due to burning fossil-fuels. Only a quarter of this CO2 could be absorbed by the Earth, primarily via the ocean.

[00:08:58] But despite his findings, Callendar was largely ignored by the scientific community. 

[00:09:04] Being a wealthy engineer only conducting such research in his spare time, he was viewed as a meddling gentleman, an interfering non-scientist, who had no credentials or reliability in meteorology.

[00:09:20] Additionally, even since Arrhenius’s research, people could not believe that humanity could have an impact on something as large as the Earth’s climate. Studies that suggested this were often scoffed at, ridiculed, dismissed, and considered to be errors within data.

[00:09:39] As such, Callendar’s results were not given much attention. 

[00:09:44] And, besides, the Earth’s warming was still believed by many to be potentially a good thing.

[00:09:51] Callendar himself claimed that it would prevent what he called ‘the return of the deadly glaciers’, the large blocks of ice that had caused the Ice Age. He also believed that burning fossil-fuels would warm the Earth enough to allow plants to be cultivated further North.

[00:10:09] However, within twenty years of this statement, London would suffer extreme consequences because of its polluting emissions.

[00:10:19] Since the Industrial Revolution, smog, fog made from pollutants in the atmosphere, had become a fairly normal thing for life in London. 

[00:10:29] But on the evening of the 5th December 1952, there was a smog like nobody had ever experienced before. This became known as The Great Smog.

[00:10:42] The day came after a period of very cold and windless weather. The conditions meant that pollution in the air could not be dispersed, spread out or blown away, and instead, pollutants collected over the city. By nightfall, visibility was just a few metres. In certain areas people could not even see their own feet, they were stuck inside a black cloud, caused entirely by burning fossil fuels in and around the capital.

[00:11:15] People were told to stay indoors, public transport was stopped and driving was impossible. It became dangerous to get those suffering to hospitals. The thick toxic fog lasted for four days and modern research suggests that between 10 and 12 thousand people lost their lives due to the smog.

[00:11:37] We know now that this kind of pollution can cause a massive collection of health issues, including respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. 

[00:11:47] Even today, it is estimated that pollution is responsible for around one in six deaths worldwide. And this is despite the attention that the Great Smog brought to the dangers of pollution. 

[00:12:01] Clearly, burning fossil fuels showed itself to have a negative direct impact on people in the form of pollution, but its impact on the global climate was still debated, despite increasing evidence from the scientific community.

[00:12:16] In 1958, the American scientist Charles David Keeling actually proved that CO2 levels were rising and that it could be attributed to human activities – this has become known as the Keeling Curve. 

[00:12:33] Keeling, with a PhD and access to accurate laboratory equipment managed to convince the scientific community more than Callendar had, but still, the effects of this proof was largely undecided

[00:12:48] Were rising CO2 levels bad? Were they good? Or did they simply not matter?

[00:12:54] The following decades even saw fears that the Earth may actually cool and there was concern over a future Ice Age. This might seem ludicrous, hard to believe to us today but a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider led to a media frenzy which quickly spread the idea.

[00:13:16] Schneider had suggested that the cooling potential of pollution particles could actually outweigh the warming effects of CO2, and he proposed that if the pollutants increased there could be another Ice Age. 

[00:13:32] Put another way, we needed to keep increasing fossil fuel consumption to avoid the world falling into another Ice Age.

[00:13:40] The following years, in 1972 and 1973, there were severe winters in Asia and the U.S, and–as you can imagine–this did little to convince people that Schneider was wrong.

[00:13:54] What if rising CO2 levels meant global cooling, not global warming?

[00:14:01] In reality, Schneider’s paper was still a minority and there were far more studies to support global warming. In 1977 Schneider himself even admitted that he had overestimated the cooling effects of pollution and underestimated the heating effects of CO2.

[00:14:20] In other words, he said that he was wrong.

[00:14:24] But it was not until the 1980s that the scientific community began to come to a consensus about global warming and its damaging impact.

[00:14:34] One event in particular had a huge influence

[00:14:38] On the 23rd of June 1988, NASA scientist James E. Hansen delivered a speech to the US Senate in a bid to get the U.S government to take real action in combating rising CO2 levels. 

[00:14:52] It was one of the hottest summers on record and Hansen had the A/C turned off during his speech to make a bigger impact.

[00:15:02] This speech was a big success and in the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, was established. Calls from prominent 

[00:15:13] scientists grew, together with freak weather patterns and droughts, and the world began to take global warming a little bit more seriously.

[00:15:22] However, scientists’ voices were often in competition with another group, a group that would suffer greatly if the world’s dependence on fossil fuels was reduced.

[00:15:32] The oil and gas industry.

[00:15:35] As you may well know, this resulted in a huge disinformation campaign sponsored by oil and gas companies.

[00:15:42] ExxonMobil were very active in this controversy, and in the 1990s its CEO infamously claimed that evidence for climate change was ‘inconclusive’ and that global warming was doubtful

[00:15:56] He made this statement despite his own company’s research proving global warming and its dangers.

[00:16:04] Nonetheless, over the next 20 years research continued into the possible consequences of global warming, all while its impact was clear to see. 

[00:16:13] Acid rain, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and melting glaciers were all identified as products of climate change, or “global heating” as it is now called by some.

[00:16:26] Despite all of this, and despite the massive amount of research and near unanimous agreement among scientists that climate change is man-made and is a great existential threat, the number of so-called “climate change deniers” has continued to grow.

[00:16:43] As you may have noticed, there are some similarities between modern “climate change deniers” and characters like Callendar from the early 20th century. 

[00:16:53] Callendar believed that global warming might be a good thing, that cooler places will become warm and habitable

[00:17:01] As you may also have noticed, Callendar was English and Svante Arrhenius was Swedish, so warmer summers and less cold winters might be welcome in these cold, northern European countries. 

[00:17:15] But clearly this ignores the fact that warm climates would become inhospitable and that it would lead to rising sea levels and catastrophic floods.

[00:17:25] And Callendar and Svante Arrhenius had none of the extensive research and studies that have been done now, so while we can understand and perhaps excuse an amateur meteorologist and a 19th century Swede, the fact that every major global scientific body agrees that climate change is a large man-made problem suggests that the same excuses don’t apply in the 21st century.

[00:17:51] As you will know, politicians in many of the wealthiest nations in the world have found it politically useful to question climate change. 

[00:18:00] In 2016, every single Republican presidential candidate had questioned or dismissed climate change.

[00:18:07] When Donald Trump became President, as you will remember, he removed the U.S from the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change. 

[00:18:16] What's more, and perhaps unbelievably, in 2020 Trump blamed the disastrous wildfires in California on the fact that forest floors were not clean enough, and he continued to insist that ‘It will start getting cooler, just you watch’.

[00:18:32] Of course, it has not been getting cooler. 

[00:18:36] Over the last decade, we have seen countless consequences of global warming and the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5 °C is unlikely to be met. 

[00:18:47] Consequently, when one thinks about global warming, it is easy to be filled with a sense of hopelessness and despair.

[00:18:55] However, there is some hope against what often feels like the bleak reality of climate change. 

[00:19:01] The targets set in the Paris Agreement have not been met but there is some positive news.

[00:19:08] Coal consumption has plummeted in the UK and the USA, while India’s growth in coal usage has slowed and China’s usage is levelling off.

[00:19:18] Renewable energy has become far less expensive and more efficient, a positive pattern for the future. In the last decade, wind energy has become 3 times cheaper, solar electricity 10 times cheaper, and the batteries required to store their energy are 60% cheaper.

[00:19:36] And there have been technological developments in a huge variety of other areas that have a positive impact on reducing global carbon dioxide levels.

[00:19:45] From carbon removal technologies, which we strongly support and contribute to here at Leonardo English, through to lab-grown meat, there are a lot of positive developments.

[00:19:56] And there is clearly an increasing understanding of what can be done to reduce our individual contribution to climate change.

[00:20:04] We can see some of the effects of all these positive trends already; for example, since 1990 EU emissions have fallen 34%. The U.K. emissions have fallen by 29% since 2010. And in the United States, the country that has emitted more CO2 than any other, emissions are 21% lower than 2005 levels.

[00:20:29] It might have taken well over a century to recognise the threat, but there is, perhaps, some light at the end of the tunnel.

[00:20:39] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on A Brief History of Climate Change.

[00:20:44] While I’m sure you know lots about global warming, perhaps you didn't know the story behind its discovery and how we got to the point we are today. 

[00:20:53] Perhaps if more attention had been paid to neglected figures like Foote and Callendar, it may not have taken so long.

[00:21:01] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:05] Why do you think it has taken so long for humans to accept the reality of climate change? 

[00:21:11] Why do you think some people still don’t?

[00:21:13] Do you feel hopeful about the planet’s climate future?

[00:21:17] What renewable technologies are you most interested in? Carbon reduction? Electric cars? Or lab-grown burgers?

[00:21:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE] 

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the history of climate change.

[00:00:28] We all know about the crisis our planet faces due to its rising temperature, and given that this rise has only accelerated over the last fifty years, it may seem like a fairly recent discovery.

[00:00:41] But the understanding of mankind’s impact on the climate is much older than you may think.

[00:00:47] So that’s what we will be talking about today, the long, complicated, but absolutely fascinating history of climate change.

[00:00:55] Okay then a brief history of climate change.

[00:01:01] Ideas around humanity’s influence on the environment have existed for millennia

[00:01:07] Theophrastus, a student of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, wrote about how draining marshlands caused certain areas to freeze, and he discussed how clearing forests may warm up the land by allowing more sunlight to reach the Earth’s surface.

[00:01:27] By the time of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, European scholars were writing about how deforestation and farming had altered the landscape and potentially, weather systems too. 

[00:01:40] And such theories became commonplace after North America was colonised and transformed from forest land to farmland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

[00:01:51] American farmers noticed such a change in the weather that by the 19th century people began to believe that cultivating soil increased rainfall and made the land more fertile. This led to a boom in settlements across America’s Great Plains, an arid, dry, area east of the Rocky Mountains. 

[00:02:15] The theory became known as the ‘Rain Follows the Plough’ theory but it has now been discredited, it has been proved to not be true, after modern scientists revealed that it was based on unreliable data. 

[00:02:29] It was all just a coincidence.

[00:02:33] Around the same time that America’s landscape was being altered, in the 1820s Joseph Fourier, a French Mathematician, began studying the Earth’s temperature, and he made an important discovery.

[00:02:48] Fourier calculated that due to the Earth’s size and distance from the Sun, it should be far cooler than it is, which led him to propose that the Earth’s atmosphere insulated the planet. Fourier was the first to theorise what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect.

[00:03:08] The Greenhouse Effect is, as you may know – in very simple terms – how certain gases in the Earth’s atmosphere prevent heat from the sun escaping back into the solar system, thus insulating the planet.

[00:03:24] This idea was developed in 1856 by an American scientist called Eunice Newton Foote who conducted experiments to assess how gases interact with sunlight. She found that CO2, Carbon Dioxide, heated up the quickest and kept its temperature the longest.

[00:03:43] Foote theorised that a change in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature.

[00:03:52] This was clearly an incredibly important discovery, but being in the unfortunate position of a woman in the 19th century, Foote was not taken seriously in the scientific community. 

[00:04:06] Her paper was presented by fellow scientist Joseph Henry at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but it was largely ignored, with Foote’s findings dismissed as amateur, as not credible, not believable. 

[00:04:23] Therefore, despite her landmark study, Foote’s findings fell into the shadow of those of the Irish physicist, John Tyndall. 

[00:04:33] Tyndall, as a man, of course, did not suffer the disadvantage of a woman’s position in society at the time. He was well educated and had access to superior resources to aid, to help his experiments.

[00:04:48] Tyndall’s experiments were similar to Foote’s but far more advanced. 

[00:04:53] In 1859, he analysed how infrared radiation specifically was absorbed by different gases, and found that gas produced by burning coal [which contained water vapour, methane and CO2], absorbed almost all the heat. 

[00:05:11] CO2 in particular absorbed 1000 times more than normal air.

[00:05:17] Perhaps the vast quantity of coal that was being burned to power Western industrial growth might be having unintended effects...

[00:05:27] By 1896, the role of CO2 in the atmosphere began to get more attention. Around this time, there was also much interest in the scientific community around the causes for the Earth’s periodic Ice Ages. 

[00:05:42] Such interest influenced the studies of the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, whose mother was called Carolina Thunberg Arrhenius.

[00:05:52] You may recognise the name Thunberg from a more recent and more famous climate change figure. And indeed, Greta Thunberg is, apparently, a very distant relation to Arrhenius.

[00:06:06] But Arrhenius was not initially interested in global warming, rather, the opposite. 

[00:06:14] He initially set out to see whether decreasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere could have been a reason for past Ice Ages, and he found that if CO2 levels halved, the Earth’s temperature could cool by roughly 5 degrees, which would have been enough to bring about an Ice Age.

[00:06:34] This led Arrhenius to thinking about whether the reverse was true, and if increased CO2 levels could increase the Earth’s temperature. 

[00:06:44] Unsurprisingly perhaps, he found that this was correct.

[00:06:49] But he didn’t stop there. He went on to conclude in later work that emissions caused by burning fossil-fuels such as coal could also contribute to a rise in temperature.

[00:07:01] For Arrhenius, though, this was not a concern, it wasn’t a problem, as he calculated that it would take 3000 years for CO2 levels to rise by 50%. 

[00:07:14] He was right in principle, but his timeline was way off, it was a large miscalculation.

[00:07:20] In reality, it has actually taken 100 years for CO2 levels to rise 30%. But besides his conservative prediction, Arrhenius actually liked the idea of a warmer planet.

[00:07:35] In 1908, he wrote about how increasing CO2 levels could bring ‘better climates’ for ‘colder regions of the Earth’. 

[00:07:43] It would also, he claimed, bring ‘much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind’. 

[00:07:53] In other words, a warmer planet meant more food and the growth of human civilisation.

[00:08:00] Another key figure involved in the early science of climate change, the Englishman Guy Callendar, also thought global warming was a good thing. And in 1938 he supported Arrhenius’s proposals, demonstrating that the planet had, in fact, warmed due to human activity.

[00:08:20] Callendar had a keen interest in meteorology, the study of the weather and the atmosphere, and he began collecting data in his spare time.

[00:08:30] With records from 147 weather stations around the world, Callendar identified that global temperatures had risen by 0.05 °C every decade, and he calculated that 150 billion tonnes of CO2 had been added to the atmosphere due to burning fossil-fuels. Only a quarter of this CO2 could be absorbed by the Earth, primarily via the ocean.

[00:08:58] But despite his findings, Callendar was largely ignored by the scientific community. 

[00:09:04] Being a wealthy engineer only conducting such research in his spare time, he was viewed as a meddling gentleman, an interfering non-scientist, who had no credentials or reliability in meteorology.

[00:09:20] Additionally, even since Arrhenius’s research, people could not believe that humanity could have an impact on something as large as the Earth’s climate. Studies that suggested this were often scoffed at, ridiculed, dismissed, and considered to be errors within data.

[00:09:39] As such, Callendar’s results were not given much attention. 

[00:09:44] And, besides, the Earth’s warming was still believed by many to be potentially a good thing.

[00:09:51] Callendar himself claimed that it would prevent what he called ‘the return of the deadly glaciers’, the large blocks of ice that had caused the Ice Age. He also believed that burning fossil-fuels would warm the Earth enough to allow plants to be cultivated further North.

[00:10:09] However, within twenty years of this statement, London would suffer extreme consequences because of its polluting emissions.

[00:10:19] Since the Industrial Revolution, smog, fog made from pollutants in the atmosphere, had become a fairly normal thing for life in London. 

[00:10:29] But on the evening of the 5th December 1952, there was a smog like nobody had ever experienced before. This became known as The Great Smog.

[00:10:42] The day came after a period of very cold and windless weather. The conditions meant that pollution in the air could not be dispersed, spread out or blown away, and instead, pollutants collected over the city. By nightfall, visibility was just a few metres. In certain areas people could not even see their own feet, they were stuck inside a black cloud, caused entirely by burning fossil fuels in and around the capital.

[00:11:15] People were told to stay indoors, public transport was stopped and driving was impossible. It became dangerous to get those suffering to hospitals. The thick toxic fog lasted for four days and modern research suggests that between 10 and 12 thousand people lost their lives due to the smog.

[00:11:37] We know now that this kind of pollution can cause a massive collection of health issues, including respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. 

[00:11:47] Even today, it is estimated that pollution is responsible for around one in six deaths worldwide. And this is despite the attention that the Great Smog brought to the dangers of pollution. 

[00:12:01] Clearly, burning fossil fuels showed itself to have a negative direct impact on people in the form of pollution, but its impact on the global climate was still debated, despite increasing evidence from the scientific community.

[00:12:16] In 1958, the American scientist Charles David Keeling actually proved that CO2 levels were rising and that it could be attributed to human activities – this has become known as the Keeling Curve. 

[00:12:33] Keeling, with a PhD and access to accurate laboratory equipment managed to convince the scientific community more than Callendar had, but still, the effects of this proof was largely undecided

[00:12:48] Were rising CO2 levels bad? Were they good? Or did they simply not matter?

[00:12:54] The following decades even saw fears that the Earth may actually cool and there was concern over a future Ice Age. This might seem ludicrous, hard to believe to us today but a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider led to a media frenzy which quickly spread the idea.

[00:13:16] Schneider had suggested that the cooling potential of pollution particles could actually outweigh the warming effects of CO2, and he proposed that if the pollutants increased there could be another Ice Age. 

[00:13:32] Put another way, we needed to keep increasing fossil fuel consumption to avoid the world falling into another Ice Age.

[00:13:40] The following years, in 1972 and 1973, there were severe winters in Asia and the U.S, and–as you can imagine–this did little to convince people that Schneider was wrong.

[00:13:54] What if rising CO2 levels meant global cooling, not global warming?

[00:14:01] In reality, Schneider’s paper was still a minority and there were far more studies to support global warming. In 1977 Schneider himself even admitted that he had overestimated the cooling effects of pollution and underestimated the heating effects of CO2.

[00:14:20] In other words, he said that he was wrong.

[00:14:24] But it was not until the 1980s that the scientific community began to come to a consensus about global warming and its damaging impact.

[00:14:34] One event in particular had a huge influence

[00:14:38] On the 23rd of June 1988, NASA scientist James E. Hansen delivered a speech to the US Senate in a bid to get the U.S government to take real action in combating rising CO2 levels. 

[00:14:52] It was one of the hottest summers on record and Hansen had the A/C turned off during his speech to make a bigger impact.

[00:15:02] This speech was a big success and in the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, was established. Calls from prominent 

[00:15:13] scientists grew, together with freak weather patterns and droughts, and the world began to take global warming a little bit more seriously.

[00:15:22] However, scientists’ voices were often in competition with another group, a group that would suffer greatly if the world’s dependence on fossil fuels was reduced.

[00:15:32] The oil and gas industry.

[00:15:35] As you may well know, this resulted in a huge disinformation campaign sponsored by oil and gas companies.

[00:15:42] ExxonMobil were very active in this controversy, and in the 1990s its CEO infamously claimed that evidence for climate change was ‘inconclusive’ and that global warming was doubtful

[00:15:56] He made this statement despite his own company’s research proving global warming and its dangers.

[00:16:04] Nonetheless, over the next 20 years research continued into the possible consequences of global warming, all while its impact was clear to see. 

[00:16:13] Acid rain, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and melting glaciers were all identified as products of climate change, or “global heating” as it is now called by some.

[00:16:26] Despite all of this, and despite the massive amount of research and near unanimous agreement among scientists that climate change is man-made and is a great existential threat, the number of so-called “climate change deniers” has continued to grow.

[00:16:43] As you may have noticed, there are some similarities between modern “climate change deniers” and characters like Callendar from the early 20th century. 

[00:16:53] Callendar believed that global warming might be a good thing, that cooler places will become warm and habitable

[00:17:01] As you may also have noticed, Callendar was English and Svante Arrhenius was Swedish, so warmer summers and less cold winters might be welcome in these cold, northern European countries. 

[00:17:15] But clearly this ignores the fact that warm climates would become inhospitable and that it would lead to rising sea levels and catastrophic floods.

[00:17:25] And Callendar and Svante Arrhenius had none of the extensive research and studies that have been done now, so while we can understand and perhaps excuse an amateur meteorologist and a 19th century Swede, the fact that every major global scientific body agrees that climate change is a large man-made problem suggests that the same excuses don’t apply in the 21st century.

[00:17:51] As you will know, politicians in many of the wealthiest nations in the world have found it politically useful to question climate change. 

[00:18:00] In 2016, every single Republican presidential candidate had questioned or dismissed climate change.

[00:18:07] When Donald Trump became President, as you will remember, he removed the U.S from the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change. 

[00:18:16] What's more, and perhaps unbelievably, in 2020 Trump blamed the disastrous wildfires in California on the fact that forest floors were not clean enough, and he continued to insist that ‘It will start getting cooler, just you watch’.

[00:18:32] Of course, it has not been getting cooler. 

[00:18:36] Over the last decade, we have seen countless consequences of global warming and the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5 °C is unlikely to be met. 

[00:18:47] Consequently, when one thinks about global warming, it is easy to be filled with a sense of hopelessness and despair.

[00:18:55] However, there is some hope against what often feels like the bleak reality of climate change. 

[00:19:01] The targets set in the Paris Agreement have not been met but there is some positive news.

[00:19:08] Coal consumption has plummeted in the UK and the USA, while India’s growth in coal usage has slowed and China’s usage is levelling off.

[00:19:18] Renewable energy has become far less expensive and more efficient, a positive pattern for the future. In the last decade, wind energy has become 3 times cheaper, solar electricity 10 times cheaper, and the batteries required to store their energy are 60% cheaper.

[00:19:36] And there have been technological developments in a huge variety of other areas that have a positive impact on reducing global carbon dioxide levels.

[00:19:45] From carbon removal technologies, which we strongly support and contribute to here at Leonardo English, through to lab-grown meat, there are a lot of positive developments.

[00:19:56] And there is clearly an increasing understanding of what can be done to reduce our individual contribution to climate change.

[00:20:04] We can see some of the effects of all these positive trends already; for example, since 1990 EU emissions have fallen 34%. The U.K. emissions have fallen by 29% since 2010. And in the United States, the country that has emitted more CO2 than any other, emissions are 21% lower than 2005 levels.

[00:20:29] It might have taken well over a century to recognise the threat, but there is, perhaps, some light at the end of the tunnel.

[00:20:39] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on A Brief History of Climate Change.

[00:20:44] While I’m sure you know lots about global warming, perhaps you didn't know the story behind its discovery and how we got to the point we are today. 

[00:20:53] Perhaps if more attention had been paid to neglected figures like Foote and Callendar, it may not have taken so long.

[00:21:01] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:05] Why do you think it has taken so long for humans to accept the reality of climate change? 

[00:21:11] Why do you think some people still don’t?

[00:21:13] Do you feel hopeful about the planet’s climate future?

[00:21:17] What renewable technologies are you most interested in? Carbon reduction? Electric cars? Or lab-grown burgers?

[00:21:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]