We have been warned

1912 New Zealand country newspaper

Last week I used the Titanic tragedy as a metaphor for little understood aspects of global warming – inertia and tipping points. These I coupled with the hubris of the captain and  crew in ignoring the warnings about their impending catastrophe and suggested that many of our politicians were acting similarly on global warming and concluded that we have been ‘warned many many times’.

The basic science of the Greenhouse Effect was firmly grounded in the nineteenth century by Fourier, Tyndall, Foote and Arrhenious. The science has not changed much in the 120 years since Arrhenious made his calculations in 1895. Veiled warnings of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere began to be published in various journals (see above) from the start of the twentieth century. And this slowly but surely developed into a crescendo of warnings at the end of the century by a wide range of scientists and some prominent politicians including Margaret Thatcher who, when conservative Prime Minister of the UK in 1989 said “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices.”

But of all the politicians perhaps the most interesting, and early, warning came from President Lyndon Baines Johnston (LBJ) in an address to the US Congress in 1965 – an era unsullied by the lies and misinformation of the fossil fuel lobby. ‘Within a few short centuries, we are returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that was extracted by plants and buried in the sediments during half a billion years’ and ‘Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years’

Johnson suggested, in part incorrectly, that ‘By the year 2000 the increase in CO2 will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate.’ The level of the greenhouse gas CO2 in fact only increased by half that predicted by Johnson’s scientists but measurable, if not marked, climate changes were already being found by the year 2000. He cautiously concluded that the ‘climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.’

These words were spoken when very few individuals outside the scientific community had heard of climate change or global warming. It was a time when as a 20 year old I was confronted with the issues of conscription and Vietnam – political issues that were to dominate the next 10 years of my life. It was another 10 years before I began to consider the ‘climate’ question amongst a plethora of environmental and political problems. And another 20 before I finally realised that existential threat of the warming and that humankind faced a climate emergency.

Perhaps if the climate change message and publicity had been more prominent and the Vietnam fiasco somehow avoided we would have been able to agree with Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt’s catch phrase in 1966 “all the way with LBJ.”