Sunday, April 09, 2017

Early Warning

Although I was not paying attention at the time, the very first paper on climate change appeared in 1981, the year I graduated from high school. In those days, I was focused on linguistics and thought of my one geography class as an extended trivia quiz. Little did I know that learning and teaching about earth systems would soon become my life's work.

That first article appeared in the August 28 issue of Science, under the title Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, by NASA scientist James Hansen and six other atmospheric physicists used the term "global warming" six times. The bulk of the article is difficult to read, as it details the evidence for warming trends in the language of, well, science.

Data from the first publication on climate change.
No responsible scientist could ignore these trends.
The last couple of pages, however, are relatively easy to understand, and they describe the range of possible implications of this warming. If these pages were to be characterized by one word, it would be variability. That is, these scientists understood from the very beginning that because the planet and its climates are not uniform, the warming of the planet would have effects that would vary across space and over time.

I mention this because people who have not been reading the literature carefully sometimes assert that scientists introduced the term climate change once contradictory "evidence" began to appear. In fact, the words variability and variation appear a combined 35 times in this short article. More importantly, the phrase climate change appears 9 times in the ten pages of the very first scientific paper on the topic.

For more on Hansen's decisions to speak publicly on this topic, I recommend What Makes a Scientist Take a Stand? on the most recent installment of the TED Radio Hour.


At the end of last year, I finally worked up the courage to watch Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary about the denial of the science. I wrote about it in a post of the same name -- Before the Flood.

Several years before that, I wrote Frosty Denial, which outlines the physics in simpler terms and asks why those who deny the physics have not offered an alternative explanation. Not only is climate change evident, in retrospect it was inevitable. How could we not have a different climate, after shifting so much carbon to the atmosphere in such a short period of time?

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