In 1896 Svante Arrhenius was the first recorded person to claim a link existed between the use of fossil fuels, the subsequent level of atmospheric CO2 and a correlating link to temperature rise within the atmosphere. He coined a phrase to describe the ensuing cycle as ‘The Hot House’ effect. At the time hot house was the name given to glass structures used to accommodate exotic plant collections. By the 1980’s, the term had been replaced with a more conventional term of the time; The Greenhouse Effect.

He and Thomas Chamberlin calculated that human activities could warm the earth by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This research was a by-product of research of whether carbon dioxide would explain the causes of the great Ice Ages but was not actually verified until 1987. Why not?

My guess is that Al Gore’s coined phrase ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ summarizes the complex reality.  Just as Arrhenius and Chamberlin discovered the potential damage fossil fuels might wreak upon our health and environment, innovation was starting to take place directly facilitated by that which was identified as having a potential cost in the long term.  As the 20th century heralded auto-mobiles (and with actual mobility comes social mobility), fossil-fueled power stations (offering ubiquitous energy), global shipping routes and long-haul flights.  These are all things which define the 20th Century and all of these innovations rely on industry with their own powerful lobbying bodies.  Is it any surprise that so little was done by so many?

After the discoveries of Arrhenius and Chamberlin, the topic was forgotten for a very long time. At that time it was thought that human influences were insignificant compared to natural forces, such as solar activity and ocean circulation. It was also believed that the oceans were such great carbon sinks that they would automatically cancel out our pollution. Water vapour was seen as a much more influential greenhouse gas.

In the 1940’s there were developments in infrared spectroscopy for measuring long-wave radiation. At that time it was proven that increasing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide resulted in more absorption of infrared radiation. It was also discovered that water vapour absorbed totally different types of radiation than carbon dioxide. Gilbert Plass summarized these results in 1955. He concluded that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would intercept infrared radiation that is otherwise lost to space, warming the Earth.

The argument that the oceans would absorb most carbon dioxide was still intact. However, in the 1950’s evidence was found that carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 10 years. Moreover, it was not yet known what would happen to a carbon dioxide molecule after it would eventually dissolve in the ocean. Perhaps the carbon dioxide holding capacity of oceans was limited, or carbon dioxide could be transferred back to the atmosphere after some time. Research showed that the ocean could never be the complete sink for all atmospheric CO2. It is thought that only nearly a third of anthropogenic CO2 is absorbed by oceans.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Charles Keeling used the most modern technologies available to produce concentration curves for atmospheric CO2 in Antarctica and Mauna Loa. These curves have become one of the major icons of global warming. The curves showed a downward trend of global annual temperature from the 1940s to the 1970s. At the same time, ocean sediment research showed that there had been no less than 32 cold-warm cycles in the last 2,5 million years, rather than only 4. Therefore, fear began to develop that a new ice age might be near. The media and many scientists ignored scientific data of the 1950s and 1960’s in favour of global cooling.

In the 1980’s, finally, the global annual mean temperature curve started to rise. People began to question the theory of an upcoming new ice age. In the late 1980’s the curve began to increase so steeply that the global warming theory began to win terrain fast. Environmental NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) started to advocate global environmental protection to prevent further global warming. The press also gained an interest in global warming. It soon became a hot news topic that was repeated on a global scale. Pictures of smoke stags were put next to pictures of melting ice caps and flood events. A complete media circus evolved that convinced many people we are on the edge of a significant climate change that has many negative impacts on our world today. Stephen Schneider had first predicted global warming in 1976. This made him one of the world’s leading global warming experts.

In 1988 it was finally acknowledged that climate was warmer than any period since 1880. The greenhouse effect theory was named and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. This organization tries to predict the impact of the greenhouse effect according to existing climate models and literature information. The Panel consists of more than 2500 scientific and technical experts from more than 60 countries all over the world. The scientists are from widely divergent research fields including climatology, ecology, economics, medicine, and oceanography. The IPCC is referred to as the largest peer-reviewed scientific cooperation project in history. The IPCC released climate change reports in 1992 and 1996, and the latest revised version in 2001.

In the 1990’s scientists started to question the greenhouse effect theory, because of major uncertainties in the data sets and model outcomes. They protested the basis of the theory, which was data of global annual mean temperatures. They believed that the measurements were not carried out correctly and that data from oceans was missing. Cooling trends were not explained by the global warming data and satellites showed completely different temperature records from the initial ones. The idea began to grow that global warming models had overestimated the warming trend of the past 100 years. This caused the IPCC to review their initial data on global warming, but this did not make them reconsider whether the trend actually exists. We now know that 1998 was globally the warmest year on record, followed by 2002, 2003, 2001 and 1997. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990.

The climate records of the IPCC are still contested by many other scientists, causing new research and frequent responses to skeptics by the IPCC. This global warming discussion is still continuing today and data is constantly checked and renewed. Models are also updated and adjusted to new discoveries and new theory.

So far not many measures have been taken to do something about climate change. This is largely caused by the major uncertainties still surrounding the theory. But climate change is also a global problem that is hard to solve by single countries. Therefore in 1998 the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan. It requires participating countries to reduce their anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, and SF6) by at least 5% below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012. The Kyoto Protocol was eventually signed in Bonn in 2001 by 186 countries. Several countries such as the United States and Australia have retreated.

From 1998 onwards the terminology on the greenhouse effect started to change as a result of media influences. The greenhouse effect as a term was used fewer and fewer and people started to refer to the theory as either global warming or climate change.

Most recently political effort has been focussed on ‘The Paris Agreement’ (French: Accord de Paris) is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020. The language of the agreement was negotiated by representatives of 195 countries at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Paris and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015.  It was opened for signature on 22 April 2016 (Earth Day) at a ceremony in New York.[5] As of December 2016, 194 UNFCCC members have signed the treaty, 119 of which have ratified it. After several European Union states ratified the agreement in October 2016, there were enough countries that had ratified the agreement that produce enough of the world’s greenhouse gases for the agreement to enter into force.   The agreement went into effect on 4 November 2016.  We can only hope that the agreements which have taken so many, so long to agree and dedicate themselves to will stand as a concrete starting point for action.

Although many thousands of ordinary folk have been engaged in the campaign to save our planet over the years, an equal activist in the effort to combat global warming is Leonardo DiCaprio whose Hollywood celebrity ensures messages shared by so many are given an excellent platform to be heard.  DiCaprio’s environmental focussed films since he narrated ‘The 11th Hour’ and most recently ‘Before the Flood’ and ‘The Ivory Game’ ensure that the audience is a large one.

Whether the average member of the mob starts to hold companies and governments to account is yet to be seen.  What is needed is for each and every ordinary person to make a small yet extraordinary commitment in their lifestyle to help and protect the earth for future generations.  For some of us, this action could be as simple as avoiding meat for one day per week, for others it might be to choose whatever option is least damaging to our world at every opportunity; choose paper over plastic, choose second-hand over new, choose renewable energy over traditional options.  Together we can do something extraordinary.

I can assure you that I am not some neo-liberal, but I am pragmatic.  I can foresee a time when those who come after we are long gone will ask of their own families and communities – “What Did You Do?”.  I believe that our legacy should not be one of inaction but rather a global movement of co-ordinated movement for change.  At least we all should be setting the example and demonstrating the benefits of those choices to the global market.  After all, it is in our common interest.

Of course this approach is easily adopted by those of us who are in the developed world and who live with post-materialist values, where choices regarding consumption are relatively straight forward, but for the majority of the world who live below the poverty line, consumer pressure is something of an unknown entity.  In developing countries, where many fold live their life aspiring to move from subsistence to materialist values, the notion of going without those things which have defined what it means to be successful before they have even had them, seems hypercritical.

So what is the answer?  As consumers from burgeoning middle-classes of emerging economies in ASEAN, India, China et al are increasingly becoming brand conscious; how do we reasonably ask them to make choices we, our parents and grand-parents did not?  Unless the right (environmentally sound) product choices can be presented as ‘better-value’ it seems obvious that the same mistakes which we have seen happen in the past will be made again.

In Thailand, chains of 7Eleven and Family Mart are mushrooming together with Tesco Local mini-marts bringing with them the convenience of every-day sugar-filled processed product at low prices supported by and in support of industrial agriculture.  All this means traditional and seasonal choices are fast disappearing from the daily diet of most urban dwelling Thai people.  As a result modern illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are increasingly forecast for the millennial generation.

It seems to me that the simplest message understood by most poor folk around the world, is the that whilst they choose convenience over a local farmers market for example, the rich get richer whilst the poor get sicker.

Eating healthily, buying local where possible, recycling, reduce and reusing are all things which need to be associated with with happiness, healthiness and success; in short – wellbeing.

If this example of aspirational benefits in life can be linked to responsible lifestyle choices for the 21st Century then there seems some chance those who are about to walk the materialist path, might just turn out as being more responsible than those who had materialist privilege during the 20th Century.   The only positive is that we don’t have too long to find out.  Certainly we won’t need to wait another hundred years to see the effects of the choices being made today.





Source: Maslin, M., Global Warming, a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2004

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Why did no one do anything about it until a hundred years later?

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About Rev Lloyd Hobbard-Mitchell

Rev. Lloyd Hobbard-Mitchell, an Englishman deeply connected to Thailand, was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood on 28th May 2023.

In addition to his religious journey, he has worked as an online English teacher and pursued a career as an artist. He has also operated a tour desk business with his wife within international brand hotels.

Lloyd has extensive experience in the voluntary sector, specifically in addressing homelessness and social welfare.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and embraces opportunities to meet new people, see new places, explore cultural similarities, and celebrate differences.