On-the-go history: The science of climate change

Recently there has been an abundance of natural disasters and there is irrefutable proof that humans have influenced climate change, yet there still seems to be a significant portion who don’t believe this. Despite overwhelming evidence sceptics still rear their heads and many still claim that this is a ‘new’ or ‘modern’ idea that never existed 30-40 years ago. However, the first instance of climate change was first documented in 1824 by French Mathematician, Joseph Fourier.

The idea of climate change is almost two hundred years old and scientists have been researching to better understand how the earth’s atmosphere works since Fourier’s breakthrough. How has the theory of climate change developed and altered since then.

Early breakthroughs in climate science

Joseph Fourier was interested in heat transfer and had already mapped out all the factors that affect the earth’s energy balance. But in 1824, he made his biggest breakthrough, when he suggested that the atmosphere could regulate the planet’s surface temperature. He was highly unlikely to realise the significance of this but he had set out the main principle of what is now called the ‘greenhouse effect’. However, it wasn’t until 1859 when an Irish physicist called John Tyndall proved with his laboratory experiments that gasses such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane – greenhouse gasses (GHGs) – absorb heat energy. These GHGs make up 1% of the earth’s atmosphere and help regulate the climate.

Nonetheless, the theories were still early and in 1896, Swedish physicist and chemist, Svante Arrhenius, investigated the role that carbon dioxide played in controlling ice ages. His mathematical model studied how changes of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere affected global temperatures. He later suggested that an increase in coal burning might benefit humanity by preventing another ice age. In the 1930s, Guy Callendar, an English steam engineer, revived Arrhenius’s theory when he concluded that rising global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were directly linked to the burning of coal.

Notable events and agreements

Since these early theories of climate change, significant research has been put into the area and there have been numerous acts and agreements past both nationally and internationally to combat the issue of climate change. In 1952, the Great London Smog killed approximately 4000 people, however, the number could be higher. Smog occurs because of meteorological conditions in which smoke particles from the domestic and industrial burning of coal became trapped in fog. Following the smog, the government couldn’t ignore the effects of coal burning on the atmosphere and passed the Clean Air Act in 1956. This was a landmark step for any domestic nation.

The effects of GHGs was continually being investigated and in 1987, the Montreal Protocol was ratified to reduce the number of substances that deplete the ozone layer from being produced and consumed, the success of this was furthered when in 2016, the Kigali Amendment was signed to give further flexibility to react to further climate issues and to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which is a known pollutant. Originally HFCs were used to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had been banned in the Montreal protocol.

There have been significantly more agreements and landmarks in the bid to fight climate change and the effect humans do have. But the idea is not new and it is something we must work together to tackle, the Paris Climate Agreement signed last year, was the first big step that the world wants to work together and combat this vital issue.

Air Quality. (n.d.). Changing Air Quality & Clean Air Acts. Retrieved from Air Quality: http://www.air-quality.org.uk/03.php
Graham, S. (1999, October 8). John Tyndall (1820-893). Retrieved from NASA: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Tyndall/
Graham, S. (2000, January 18). Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927). Retrieved from NASA: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Arrhenius/
UNEP. (2016, December). The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol: Another Global Commitment to stop climate change. Retrieved from UNEP: http://www.unep.org/africa/news/kigali-amendment-montreal-protocol-another-global-commitment-stop-climate-change


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