By Grant Jacobs 17/08/2018

We’ve had more than 100 years of warnings of human-induced climate change now. It’s nearer 200 years, really. Before records were taken they would be extrapolations rather than observations. Extrapolations are harder for those outside of science to trust, but extrapolations are part of what science does. Looking to where things might go is useful.

This pithy, insightful newspaper article is doing the rounds of social media again:

Credit: Sustainable Business Network

The basic idea was in fact well established by then.

Alexander von Humboldt is a legendary figure.* In his day he was the equal of Darwin or Goethe.

He theorised about human-induced climate change from 1799 onwards. He was one of the first, if not the first, to raise it. His ideas came from observing the effects of deforestation, from seeing changes in flora at different altitudes, and later from measuring temperatures in different locations and altitudes.

I find it interesting that the few outlines of climate change science history I’ve read don’t mention von Humboldt. Perhaps it is because he didn’t work from chemistry or physics?

During the second half of the 1800s a number of scientists identified the “heat trapping” nature of carbon dioxide and other gases.

Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to use the term ‘greenhouse gases’ in 1896. Greenhouse gases effectively act as a ‘blanket’ for the earth, trapping heat. Make the blanket thicker or denser and it traps more heat. Arrhenius later suggested burning coal might have long-term consequences.

It’s not just formal literature and media that has alerted people. I’ve also seen sci-fi novels bring up climate change up over 30 years ago. I imagine there are earlier accounts: I just haven’t read them. A recent novel I’ve read hinged on that humans would dither and dander, leaving action until the last minute even when the need was obvious far earlier.

So true, isn’t it?

Two hundred years of trying to get human-induced climate change to people’s attention….


* I can thoroughly recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. (I don’t seem to be alone in this: her book has garnered better than 4.3/5 at GoodReads. My experience is that any book rating over about 4 over a large number of reviews is superb.) This long interview with the author at national Geographic is worth reading, too.


I’m not an expert on climate change. Head over to Hot Topic for someone who has covered this for years. Genetics, molecular biology, computational biology are more my thing. This piece is a brief break from researching on the recent glyphosate court case (see previous post), and some up-coming material on gene editing and similar. There’s only so much errant nonsense on GMOs and glyphosate I can take before needing a break!

A Snopes entry has further background on the newspaper story. A copy of the NZ story is in archives.

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About the featured image

Taken from Twitter; search for ‘coal consumption affecting’. I originally saw this as a New Zealander noting how his father dug out an old copy of the paper for him. I haven’t been able to relocate that tweet. If anyone knows of it, please feel free to let me know so I can give what I feel is appropriate credit.


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