When was the greenhouse effect discovered?

Climate change, at the levels the world is already experiencing, might easily have been avoided. The ‘greenhouse effect’ was first evidenced by John Tyndall in 1859. In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell wrote “[The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect”, and proposed the use of alternative energy forms, such as solar. In 1956 the New York Times headlined, ‘Wamer Climate on Earth May be due to More Carbon Dioxide in the Air‘, and at least some fossil fuel companies appear to have known about climate change since at least the 1960s (Exxon is currently under criminal investigation on suspicion of deliberate misrepresentation). The UN Framework Convention of Climate Change was signed in 1992, in which governments pledged to achieve:

stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

​All the while increasing volumes of greenhouse gases have been emitted, leading to rapidly rising atmospheric concentrations, and corresponding increases in the planet’s retention of the sun’s heat. The consequences of climate change have long been foreseeable, but suppressed or ignored because of the vast profits being made from the exploitation of fossil fuels. It is not that delay in taking action has been in any way necessary or desirable: delay simply makes the inevitable energy transition more challenging.

What happened in Paris?

Governments have spent more than twenty years attempting to reach a global agreement for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions (the primary cause of global warming). In Paris, in December 2015, they agreed to limit warming to 1.5 or ‘well below’ 2 degrees Celsius, but were unable to agree to the actions (or even the framework for action) necessary to meet that goal.The combined effect of the self-determined commitments underpinning the Paris Agreement leaves the world on track for warming of 3-4 degrees Celsius.​​

The story of the 21st Century?

Action on climate change is sometimes presented as being in conflict with economic growth. Since growth in the industrial age has been underpinned by oil, some believe that any attempt to reduce our dependency on oil is an assault on prosperity. In fact the opposite is true. As access to conventional oil becomes harder the twin objectives of:

  • avoiding economic shocks through oil price volatility; and
  • fostering sustainable economic development,

both depend on a managed transition of the economy to alternative sources of energy.

In 2005, Robert Hirsch, in a report prepared for the US Government, wrote as follows:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking…”

Mitigating the peaking of world conventional oil production presents a classic risk management problem:

  • Mitigation initiated earlier than required may turn out to be premature, if peaking is long delayed.
  • If peaking is imminent, failure to initiate timely mitigation could be extremely damaging.Prudent risk management requires the planning and implementation of mitigation well before peaking. Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation. A unique aspect of the world oil peaking problem is that its timing is uncertain …It is striking how similar the argument is to the rationale for urgent action on climate change. Yet Hirsch was not concerned with climate change; he was concerned with safeguarding the global economy.

    Oil is a limited natural resource. Hirsch may not have predicted the shale boom in the US, but that does not change the fundamentals of his argument. Few deny the inevitability of an energy transition in the near future.

    ​As indicated by the graphic above (published in the Finanical Times in August 2016, and derived from sources such as the BP Statistical Review) ‘peak oil’ is not far away. Without a planned transition to alternative energy sources, in Hirsch’s words, ‘the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented’.

    ​The world has just two choices:

    1. Transition to a clean energy base in time to avert catastrophic climate change and sustain economic prosperity; or
    2. Continue to emit greenhouse gases on a scale which causes catastrophic climate change, and then, a short while later, face the social, economic and political consequences of dependence on a diminishing supplies of conventional oil.

    A rapid transition to clean energy:

    • is technically viable;
    • would clean our air and give us and our children longer and healthier lives;
    • ​would enhance prosperity and sustainable development;
    • would provide long-term energy security; and
    • would prevent energy-related conflict.

    If market forces can be harnessed to the long-term climate goal, the 21st Century may yet be remembered as one of the brightest in our history.

    See: Is 2050 decarbonisation viable?

    What are the consequences of global warming?

    If we continue on our present course, and average global warming reaches 3-4 degree Celsius:

    • small island states will disappear and large regions of the world become uninhabitable;​
    • there will be tens of millions of climate refugees;
    • crops and water supplies will fail;
    • climactic conditions will fuel poverty and disease;
    • resulting tensions will trigger national and international conflict.

    Fossil fuels are, in addition, the major contributors to two other related phenomena:

    • Air pollution, ​which is causing 5.5 million deaths a year (more than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined); and
    • Ocean acidification, which threatens the base of the ocean food chain, and is jeopardising food security for millions.

    See: What are the consequences?