Title: The Discovery of Global Warming
Author: Spencer R. Weart
Published: 2003

Overview: The author discusses global warming in a historical context, focusing on the evolution of its theory rather than proposing solutions to climate change. In the face of our population’s overall lack of scientific knowledge and the tendency for pundits in media to muddle scientific viewpoints, this book arms the citizen with the rational (though sometimes conflicting) perspectives of 100 years of scientific research.

Detail: The overall progress of global warming research can be divided into 3 phases: a theoretical concept in 1896, a possibility in the 1950s, and confirmation beginning in the 21st century.

At the start of the 20th century it was nearly unimaginable that human beings could alter something as large as the earth. The study of earth’s temperature began with scientists searching for the causes of ice ages. Carbon dioxide concentrations, orbits around the sun, sun spots, and gravitational pulls were all possible causes of temperature fluctuations on earth. So the theory of global warming actually began with scientists studying ice ages. Still, by 1940 nobody really knew what caused ice ages, and the vast assortment of theories seemed far-fetched.

With the beginning of the Cold War the U.S. government became interested in weather patterns—specifically, if it was possible to create clouds or rain. The idea was to use weather as a weapon in military operations, creating the need for a vast amount of research. Until this point Meteorology was not an established field of science. The need for government research, along with a World Meteorological Convention in 1947, created an international community of scientists. These scientists were astrophysicists, geochemists, and oceanographers. Thus, Meteorology brought together scientists who previously had little interest in each other’s research.

One of the more important transitions in public opinion on the environment happened when life expectancy increased during the mid 20th century. At one time the public had equated smoke and pollution to jobs and a booming economy. When it emerged that this same pollution could shorten their lives, attention focused on helping the environment. The public became suspicious of DDT, nuclear testing and nuclear power.

In 1958 a scientist named Keeling was the first to create an extremely accurate way to track CO2 in the atmosphere. Some scientists had speculated since the late 1800s that CO2 might play a part in climate change, but without accurate data, most of the scientific community had been skeptical. 

Three Points of Personal Interest:

1. Scientists are almost never in complete agreement. The very foundation of their field encourages skepticism and demands that they question their colleagues and the world around them.

2. The lack of a placebo earth. Unlike almost every other field of science, there is no way to precisely test hypotheses about global warming. We only have one earth; to wait and see if current predictions come true will be to have waited too long.

3. The climate systems of the earth are so complicated that modelers had been trying in vain to forecast weather until advanced computers became available in the later part of the 20th century. Even at the turn of the 21st century scientists have yet to figure out how heat is transported in the ocean, and had only recently discovered that vegetation can change climates.