The History of Climate Change

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Virtually everyone has heard the words climate change, but how it is defined, what it entails and this history of the climate change movement is something that is less familiar to many people. In his book, “The History of Climate Change,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yergin traces the rise of global warming from an obscure scientific topic to a major component of international policy for many countries around the world.

Unbeknownst to most people, the climate change movement began in the late 18th century. Yergin traces these obscure beginnings to the present-day controversies that are present in nightly news reports. As one of the world’s foremost energy experts, Yergin explains this complex and highly-charged topic in a balanced manner that enlightens readers without forcing the so-called right answer upon anyone. The author details personalities and ideas that have influenced public understanding of this discussion since its inception.

Scientists studying glaciers were the first individuals to notice global warming.Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss scientist, initially proposed that the earth’s atmosphere was like a greenhouse,protecting the surface along with plants and animals living on it from colder temperatures of outer space. John Tyndale, from Britain, was one of the first to perform experiments that confirmed the greenhouse effect. Svante Arrhenius, a Swede showed the effects of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere in experiments conducted in 1894. As the 20th century progressed, other scientists confirmed Arrenhius’ findings, but most were not taken seriously until the 1950s when modern climate science was born.

Yergin chronicles how scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography contributed to public understanding of climate by studying temperatures in different layers of the world’s ocean, along with Charles David Keeling’s work on a mountaintop observatory in Hawaii that later was called the “Keeling Curve.” This study measured rising levels of carbon dioxide in the world.

By the late 1960s, the climate change discussion began to enter the political arena, leading up to the debate that started the next decade between those that feared global warming as opposed to global cooling. At this time, scientists began to strongly suggest that human activities played a significant role in climate change through the release of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, governments have worked worldwide to issue reports and seriously work on the climate change issue. Most European Union countries have adopted laws to reduce carbon emissions, although in the United States, most efforts to produce a national climate change policy have failed. Yergin notes, however, the progress has occurred in other areas such as renewable fuel requirements for utilities and automobile fuel efficiency standards. Overall public opinion on climate change has begun to change too, according to a Pew research study that indicates two-thirds of Americans believe that solid evidence exists that the earth is warming and that scientists need to do something about the extent of human impact.

Yergin’s book, which runs 719 pages, includes several themes, including the geopolitics of oil and gas, the history and future of the automobile industry and a detailed look at the electricity grid, deregulation and the future of renewable energy in the United States.

photo credit: JohnLeGear via photopin cc

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