Nathan traces the origins of the first scientific reports linking industrialization to warming temperatures.
ED: You know that interview reminds us of something that we might not have thought about. We imagine that earlier generations just accepted the weather as something that happened.
BRIAN: Yeah, can’t change the weather.
ED: Exactly, we can talk about it. But we can’t change it, right? But that interview showed that people have not only been thinking about the weather, they’ve been trying to understand the weather, and even do something about the weather throughout the vast expanse of American history. The difference is that back in the 18th century they were worried about the earth becoming too cold. And, of course, now we worry about it becoming too hot. When did that pivot take place? How long have we been worrying about the effects of man, people, on making the world too warm?
NATHAN: So it’s pretty clear that as early as, you know, the 1820s and ’30s you see researchers talking about greenhouse gas, or what they call the hothouse effect at that time.
ED: 1820s and ’30s?
NATHAN: That’s right, 1827 in Franz, 1835 scientific papers start to pick this up. And you actually have a publication in an American Journal for the first time in 1896 that’s entitled, and you’ll love it, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air Upon the Temperature On the Ground.
BRIAN: Well that’s an inconvenient title.
NATHAN: That’s right. That’s right. So it’s at least as old as Jim Crow segregation, right? The 1890s. But you don’t really see a public conversation about it yet. There’s, believe it or not, a small paper from New Zealand, that in 1912 talks about, again, this is a quote, “coal consumption affecting the climate.”
And that is, again, a knowledge that the burning of furnaces is putting enough fumes in the air to, again, affect the overall temperature of the atmosphere. But in the United States, oh forget it. I mean we were basically waiting until the 1980s until you get a headline in the New York Times about climate change.
NATHAN: Absolutely. 1981 was the first climate change appeared as a headline in the New York Times. So, again, talk about a huge gap between when the scientific community kind of locates a problem and it winds up becoming part of the public conversation.
ED: So why did we first read about this in the New York Times in the early 1980s?
NATHAN: Well, again, I think you have to keep in mind that the public debate is long and slow in arriving to where the scientific debate was in the earlier part of the 20th century. I mean, it’s not until 1965 that the Johnson administration actually releases a report that carbon dioxide emissions could actually trap heat in the atmosphere. So think about 1965 versus the 1912 appearance in that New Zealand paper, right? And that’s, again, just within the scientific community.
Then you have, obviously, books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that’s raising some ideas about the dangers of made pesticides and chemicals and overall effects on the environment.
ED: And Earth Day?
BRIAN: Earth Day?
NATHAN: Earth Day is established in 1970 in April of that year. And there’s also, importantly, I think, a movement among Native Americans to make their claims much more public. And, again, the highlighting of a kind of American existence that is not wed to fossil fuels, but instead wed to the Earth, to a vision of nature that seemingly predates the republic itself, that was very compelling.
So all that to say, and I think there’s a combination of government voices, popular culture of voices, grassroots voices, that make it pretty hard to ignore by the early 1980s. And certainly by the late ’80s you have scientists even in NASA who are willing to testify before Congress about the connection between carbon dioxide burning and, you know, climate change. And so the ’80s is really an important decade, certainly, for giving us our contemporary vocabulary. But it still is another reminder that it took quite a long time to get to that point publicly.