Science

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate

We often think of the fight against climate change as a new phenomenon. But while scientific understanding of humanity’s impacts on climate is now much greater, warnings about climate change are not decades but hundreds of years old. Now, a 1912 newspaper climate warning that went viral online sheds some light on early concerns about fossil fuel use.

Did a 1912 newspaper article warn us about climate change?

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
A newspaper article from 1912, warns about climate change. Image credit: Rodney and Otamatea Times

A newspaper article titled “Coal Consumption Affects Climate” was recently shared on several social media platforms, including Reddit and Twitter. But this newspaper extract has appeared online before. In fact, the first real “viral moment” came on October 11, 2016, when it appeared on the “Sustainable Business Network NZ” Facebook page.

Understandably, people questioned the authenticity of this text. But the article is very real and can be found in many digital archives. It was published in a New Zealand newspaper known as the Rodney and the Automatia Times on 14 August 1912. Interestingly enough, the entire text also appeared as a commentary in Popular Mechanics, four weeks before it was included in the paper.

The full 1912 newspaper article, as it appears online, states:

“The furnaces of the world now burn about 2 million tons of coal a year. When this is burned, in combination with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket.” Earth and raise its temperature. The effect may be significant in a few centuries.”

The scientific understanding behind the 1912 paper

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Arrhenius’s theory about coal combustion and global warming. Image credit: The Selma Morning Times (1902 newspaper in Alabama, US)

Much of the online skepticism about this newspaper clipping is related to confusion about how much people knew or didn’t know about greenhouse gases over a hundred years ago. But the text is consistent with much of what was then known as the current understanding of the science about climate change.

In fact, before the 1912 article One Hundred Years, a French mathematician named Joseph Fourier had concluded that the Earth must be colder than it is, given its distance from the Sun. From this, he hypothesized, a blanket-like layer in the planet’s atmosphere traps heat inside. Later in 1856, American scientist Eunice Foot wrote a paper which identified carbon dioxide as the predominant component of that blanket.

The term “greenhouse gases” came into use in 1896 when a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius coined the term. In a studyhe published the same year, he did show an understanding of how humans contribute to increasing concentrations of certain gases, such as carbon dioxide (later referred to as carbonic acid), in Earth’s atmosphere. In his later work, he would suggest that this could lead to a warming of the planet.

Arrhenius’ ideas weren’t isolated from the pages of scientific journals either. As the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences says, they “gave great public interest” during his lifetime. Although, unfortunately, they fell out of favor long after his death in 1927.

How has our understanding of climate changed?

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Earth’s average global temperature is on the rise. Image credit: NASA

Of course, it should not be suggested that people in 1912 understood climate change as we do today. For starters, they had neither the tools nor the understanding to accurately measure its effects. The article’s text that “the effect may be significant within a few centuries” is proof of this. This is especially when considering the damage already done.

According to recent findings from an ongoing study by NASA’s Goddard Institute, the Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit, since 1880. That may not sound like much, but it’s an abnormally fast rise and the effects have been devastating.

How has the climate itself changed over the past 110 years

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Antarctic Melting Glacier

When we think of climate change, we often think of its potential effects on our future. But from the perspective of someone alive in 1912, climate catastrophe seems like something that really happened.

At the start of 2022, research suggested that the global mean sea level has already risen by about 8-9 inches (21-24 cm) since 1880. The speed at which it is rising only appears to be accelerating. In fact, the rate doubled from 0.06 inches (1.4 mm) per year during most of the 20th century to 0.14 inches (3.6 mm) per year between 2006-2015. As a result of these increases, high tide flooding is now 300% to 900% greater than it was 50 years ago.

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Global Sea Level. Image credit: NOAA Climate.gov

Along with rising sea levels and temperatures, the environment has also faced a massive loss of biodiversity and appalling levels of pollution. So much so that some researchers have determined that almost all of the world’s rainwater is too polluted for humans to drink without treatment. Moreover, microplastics have been discovered as far away as the Arctic and within organisms that live on the ocean floor.

Earth’s forests have suffered especially over the past 100 years. In fact, our planet has lost about a third of all its forests over the past 10,000 years. But astoundingly, about half of this deforestation has occurred in the past century alone.

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Deforestation

One report in 2019 found that the world is losing an area of ​​forest about the size of the United Kingdom each year, with at least 24 million hectares of global tree cover lost annually between 2016 and 2021. Although some of this tree cover has been restored through Agriculture and re-growth, approximately one-third of forest losses are classified as permanent (ie used for human settlements or for agricultural purposes).

Looking towards the next century

This climate alert of a newspaper article from 1912 continues to circulate
Climate change awareness.

Seeing a 1912 newspaper article discussing climate is undoubtedly fascinating. But it is crucial to place the article in the appropriate context. While scientific understanding of climate change was already beginning to develop, it was nowhere near what it is today. So, we should not be so quick to judge. After all, despite scientific improvements, carbon dioxide emissions today are still as high as ever.

With this in mind, we can’t help but wonder what people will think of us in the centuries to come. Will they look at today’s headlines and judge our actions as appropriate? Or will they wonder why we haven’t done more with our current knowledge? We hope to be the first.

Smith

Tricare west is a global news publication that tells the stories you want to know.

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