Thirty years ago, the potentially disruptive impact of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and rain forests became front-page news.
It had taken a century of accumulating science, and a big shift in perceptions, for that to happen. Indeed, Svante Arrhenius, the pioneering Swedish scientist who in 1896 first estimated the scope of warming from widespread coal burning, mainly foresaw this as a boon, both in agricultural bounty and “more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the Earth.”
There were scattered news reports through the decades, including a remarkably clear 1956 article in the New York Times that conveyed how accumulating greenhouse gas emissions from energy production would lead to long-lasting environmental changes. In its closing the article foresaw what’s become the main impediment to tackling harmful emissions: the abundance of fossil fuels. “Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world, and there is every reason to believe that both will be consumed by industry so long as it pays to do so.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in late 1988, after a variety of factors had pushed the greenhouse effect into the spotlight. That year there was severe drought and heat in the United States and vast fires in the Amazon rain forest and in Yellowstone National Park. The outline of a solution had been forged just one year earlier as the world’s nations agreed on the Montreal Protocol, which set steps to eliminate certain synthetic compounds imperiling the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.
The crystallizing moment came on June 23, in unnerving Senate testimony. James E. Hansen—a climate scientist who’d turned his attention from studying the searing conditions on Venus to Earth’s human-changed atmosphere—concluded bluntly that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.”
My journalistic journey to learn about climate change science, impacts, and related energy choices began in earnest later that month in Toronto, at the first World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere. It’s never stopped, weaving from the North Pole to the White House, from solar-tech labs and nuclear plant fuel pools to the Vatican. Details changed, but in many ways the main issues remain roughly as I and other journalists found them in 1988. [Continue reading…]