Two Hundred Years Of Talking About Climate Change

climate change

By Joseph Mazur

Back in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at MIT, there were a few weeks of cafeteria conversations among earth scientists buzzing around the topic of the global rise of CO2 and its implications for the future climate. I paid little attention to it. At the time, it seemed that even some of the best scientists could not decide whether the climate was warming or cooling. Whichever way it was going, it was reportedly an urgent problem, even back then.

There was little in the news about the urgency, yet some indicants of real climate change were emerging. There were droughts in the Soviet Union and Midwestern U.S., delayed monsoon in India, and extreme monsoon flooding in Bangladesh. But the one that caught everyone’s attention was the repeated years of almost no rain in the African Sahel, a 600-mile wide swath of eco-climate land running through the lower part of northern Africa from the Gambia on the Atlantic and Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Television news showed films of emaciated African’s. Newspapers and glossy magazines reported on millions starving and hundreds of thousands dying. Scientists at that time were thinking aloud about the causes. Some blamed the African drought on the overgrazing of fragilely semi-arid land. Others understood the cause as pollution, and others thought that, on average, the earth’s climate always corrected itself, and that we were merely at the cusp of a climate cycle that would correct itself.

News of what climate scientists were thinking was vague and uncertain. The popular news media – always out to shake up the public – reported dramatically inconsistent views of a planet meltdown and the coming of the next Ice Age.1 A sensational Newsweek article pointed to the coming of the next ice age and suggested that the government should stockpile food in advance of imminent catastrophic famines because “the planet [is] about a sixth of the way toward the next Ice Age.”2 There were warnings of great glaciers thousands of feet thick returning to Long Island. Several books came out in the mid-70s claiming that the planet was about to go into a deep freeze.3 Even as late as 1978, a New York Times poll concluded that specialists “were almost equally divided on whether there would be a warming, a cooling or no change at all.”4

Others understood the cause as pollution, and others thought that, on average, the earth’s climate always corrected itself, and that we were merely at the cusp of a climate cycle that would correct itself.

Some conspiracy theorists blamed radioactive fallout from bomb tests, military cloud-seeding to force rains, and Agent Orange used to defoliate the forests of Vietnam. I can remember a conversation in a London pub long ago with English friends who blamed the fog in London on the 1950s A-bomb tests in the Nevada salt flats. It seemed to me that there was some misunderstanding about how the global climate system worked.

In the early 1980s, the topic of climate change was beginning to raise lively discussions. I heard more buzz about climate change from reports on computer models that have fast-forwarded weather trends into the next hundred years, while paleoclimatologists drilled cores in glaciers, ice sheets, and tree rings to record millions of years of climate data. 

I said to my wife that it seemed to me to be too much of a coincidence.

“It’s too hard to believe the timing,” I said.

“What don’t you believe?” she asked.

“Don’t you find it odd that computers powerful enough to model weather just happen to arrive at climate science labs so close to the time climate change stirrings?”

“Coincidence for sure,” she answered. “But think about it, Joe. The explosion of automobile sales in the world came also at just the same time as that powerful weather-modeling computer.”

I’m no intellectual match for my wife but doggedly insisted, “I’m skeptical that those expensive computers coming out of research-grant money have become the toys that have to be justified by important research.”

“You’re saying that they are making this stuff up?”

“Not consciously! I’m just saying that suppressed intentions can sometimes overpower open minds.”

I held on to that foolish view for longer than I like to admit.

Thinking about it further, I continued to wonder: why now? The earth is 4.5 billion years old, civilization is roughly 12,000 years old, and the industrial revolution is about 250 years old. Yes, the car came in worldwide abundance at roughly and relatively the same time as the computer; however, coal firing worldwide had been around for well over a thousand years, and the heaviest burning began at the time of the industrial revolution of the mid 18th century.

As a boy, I remember New York City air as visibly dirty. Busses and trucks would spew black smoke from their exhausts. Often there was such a haze in the sky that one could hardly see the blue of a cloudless sky. I would come home from school to clean my face with a white napkin that would turn black in a single wipe.

The foundries and oil refineries in New Jersey were blamed, not on the black fumes from coal-burning New York City furnaces. Soap factories and meatpacking plants were also the cause. We learned that our city was relatively clean and that Los Angeles was worse.

“In L.A. your eyes burn, your throat is always sore, and the smog is so thick you can hardly see from one side of a street to the other.” 

Health departments didn’t consider it to be an automobile problem; it was instead an industrial problem. One major cause was the burning dumps, domestic incinerators, oil refineries, chemical plants. And so, the cause of the poor L.A. air quality was blamed on the industrial release of sulfur dioxide.5 I don’t know why no one was blaming the automobile. Yes, industrial smoke was a chief contributor to dirty air, but cities were not looking at tailpipes at that time. Smog was dark, if not altogether brown. It was hard to see any correlation between the almost invisible automobile exhaust and the testable, almost edible, eye-irritating smog.

By the 1980s, automobile exhaust was so much cleaner than it had been in the middle of the century. That was thanks to the efforts of many people, in particular a Cal Tech professor of biochemistry, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, who was studying how the flavor of ripe pineapples comes from their scent. His lab was experimenting with gases and flavors given off from fruit and assorted vegetation. He had studied garlic, radishes, and marijuana before.

One noteworthy account has it this way: one day in 1949, when he had inhaled enough pineapple scent to make him feel woozy, he stepped out of his lab to get some air.6 But his breaths were harsh enough to make him cough. Even after he returned to his lab, he could taste the air he breathed. He knew about government studies of air quality that were conflicted on what to blame. He knew that government scientists, eager to blame sulfur dioxide from plant emissions, were not questioning clean automobile fumes. “People did look at tailpipes, but auto exhaust was clear and the smog was brown, so it didn’t seem like there was a direct relationship between those two things.”7 He trapped some Pasadena air in a glass air chamber, chilled it, and distilled some frozen water vapor to liquefy the smog.

The fundamental background needed to understand climate change is an understanding of how CO2, a naturally occurring compound absorbed by all plants, animals, and oceans, rises like a sheet floating in the atmosphere to lock in the heat of the sun’s rays.

Using reagents such as sodium hydroxide, as he did with pineapples, he created derivatives to feed through a column of silica and captured the elements of smog before submitting it to sunlight and the chemical reactions of oxidation. His experiments took six months to complete and ten years before officials became convinced by more concrete evidence that car exhaust hydrocarbons exposed to sunlight and oxidation turn into smog. In the end, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit was the hero who had identified the elemental properties of L.A. smog. It had come from automobile exhausts and the oil refineries.

No matter how you look at it, the fundamental background needed to understand climate change is an understanding of how CO2, a naturally occurring compound absorbed by all plants, animals, and oceans, rises like a sheet floating in the atmosphere to lock in the heat of the sun’s rays. CO2, two oxygen atoms bonded to a single carbon atom, is essential for the life of the planet, but with deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, there are not enough plants, animals, and oceans available to absorb it in the overwhelming volumes coming from automobile exhausts and industrial processes that involve burning fossil fuels.

Escaped carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat waves to form and trap infrared radiation from the earth’s surface, creating what we call the “greenhouse effect” of blocking the heat from radiating outward. CO2 is not the only culprit. Methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) hydrofluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) are also greenhouse gasses. And there are others.

We have known since Aristotle’s time that a locality’s climate is affected by human-made changes in the landscape. For example, draining large lakes can have a cooling effect, and clearing large forests a heating effect. Although suspicion of climate change and global warming surfaced in the scientific community as early as the late 19th century, the 1990s computer models made a strong case that carbon gasses were instrumental in causing a warming effect on the planet.

A coincidence was suspected, not just by me. “Why now?” skeptics asked. Why are we just now witnessing the warming effects of greenhouse gasses? In the long history of human civilization, why is it that we see climate change just at the time when we have computers powerful enough to build numerical time-projection modeling? By coincidence, computers can simulate the past, present, and future conditions of the earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere and compare the predicted Arctic glacier shrinkage with the observable.

The answer is that the intelligence of developing climate change did not happen as recently as many people believe because great discoveries are the fruits of many others.

One can correctly say that it goes as far back as two hundred years when the French mathematician Joseph Fourier calculated that the earth warms from solar radiation and that its atmosphere acts like an insulating shield heated from above and below.8 “Like the glass of a hothouse, because it lets through the rays of the sun but retains the dark rays of the earth,” he said. In 1862, the Irish physicist, John Tyndall, found that planet-escaping CO2 warms the planet. Those discoveries linked the temperature of the atmosphere to CO2. Then, near the end of the nineteenth century, the Swedish physical chemist, Svante Arrhenius, started thinking about the causes of the ice ages.9 After what he described as tedious calculations (actually tens of thousands), Arrhenius published that increased carbon dioxide levels cause temperature differences and long-term variations in climate.10

In 1956 the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass concluded in the American Journal of Physics that continued industrial releases of carbon dioxide would increase the atmospheric temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit per century. Governments, then, were warned about the greenhouse effect and its catastrophes for the future.11

We were warned about future extreme global impacts of sea risings, heat waves, floods, and droughts, alerted of coincidental effects of weather pattern shifts, drops in crop yields, species extinction, typhoons in Southeast Asia, and tornados in the Midwest US.

Some public figures labeled the predictions hoaxes stirred by purely coincidental climate changes with no causal connection to greenhouse gas emissions.12 But now we have a well-researched report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on August 9, 2021, that tells us just how real the Earth’s climate is changing “in every region and across the whole climate system.”13 It should shock everyone into questioning politicians’ obligations to save the world.

The IPCC report solidly connects the emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities to the expected average global temperature (AGT) rise exceeding 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next twenty years. Climate change deniers fail to understand is that a 2.7-degree increase in AGT can be double that on land and triple or quadruple that in some regions of the world. For millennia we have lived in a relatively stable climate acceptable for adapted human habitation having a narrow band of threshold boundaries. Some parts of the world – including the southwest US – were once uninhabitable without temperature-controlling technologies. But those technologies are also contributors to the problem. They use fossil fuels to cool rooms while contributing to atmospheric heat. How long will it be before that cycle breaks down?

Like the answer to any bottomless question, we do not know. We do know, however, that the impacts of climate change are with us. We can now see and feel them.

About the Author

AuthorJoseph Mazur, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Marlboro College, is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim, Bogliasco, and Rockefeller Foundations, among others and the author of several acclaimed mathematics books that have been translated into more than a dozen languages. The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (Yale) is his latest book.


  1. Peter Gwynne, “The Cooling World”, Newsweek (April 28, 1975).
  2. Tom Alexander, “Ominous Changes in the World’s Weather,” Fortune, (February, 1974). 90-95.
  3. Lowell Ponte, The Cooling, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976) and a book written by a team of 18 people calling themselves The Impact Team. They were non-weather experts. See: The Impact Team, The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age, (New York: Ballantine, 1977). Calder, Nigel, The Weather Machine. (New York: Viking, 1975).
  4. Walter Sulivan, “Climate Specialists, in Poll, Foresee No Catastrophic Weather Changes in Rest of Century; Warning About Carbon Dioxide,” The New York Times, February 18, 1978, p. 9. Read more:
  5. Sarah S. Elkind, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, The Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 62.
  6. Chip Jacobs and William Kelly, Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, (New York: Overlook Press, 2008), 72.
  7. Ibid., Jacobs and Kelly, p. 72.
  8. onepage & q&f=false
  9. Arrhenius, Svante (1896). “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground” (PDF). The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 41 (251): 237–276. doi:10.1080/14786449608620846.
  10. Svante Arrhenius, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground,” Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science Series 5, Volume 41, April 1896, pages 237-276.
  11. Plass, Gilbert N. (1956). “Effect of Carbon Dioxide Variations on Climate”. American Journal of Physics. American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). 24 (5): 376–387. doi:10.1119/1.1934233. ISSN 0002-9505
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