From 1856 to today – The long road of climate science


In 1856, an American researcher laid the scientific premises for the study of global warming today.

The effects of global warming are increasingly present, for example through the intensification of forest fires.


What would happen if the Earth’s atmosphere were enriched with CO2? In 1856, the American Eunice Foote experimented, almost by chance, the bases of climate change, bringing a brick to the sciences which today try to anticipate the effects of global warming.

The scientist had filled glass cylinders with different gas mixtures and found that the one containing carbon dioxide (CO2) retained more heat than the others. “An atmosphere made up of this gas would give our Earth a high temperature,” she concluded in her study published in The American Journal of Science and Arts.

His research coincides with the date, 1850, which is now used as a reference to calculate the evolution of temperatures compared to the pre-industrial period as do the climate experts of the UN, the IPCC, currently meeting. Eunice Foote, whose work has been rediscovered recently, is in the lineage of researchers who have unraveled the mysteries of climate and the human influence on its evolution.

“There was no ‘Eureka’ moment with a dominant figure in the field of climate change science” but an accumulation of knowledge, notes Alice Bell, a climate activist. The idea “to develop the environment so that the climate is more pleasant has existed for a very long time”, explains Marie-Hélène Pépin, of Météo-France. “When the Romans conquered Gaul, they cut down the forests to be able to plant fields and cultivate vines”.

Torrential rains and famine

From the time of Christopher Columbus until the Age of Enlightenment, European settlers justified the brutal treatment of the natives, “seen as” sub-human “because they did not know how to organize their environment”, she continues.

In 1821, after torrential rains, cold spells and food shortages in France, a study was conducted to find out whether deforestation had played a role, without reaching a clear conclusion. A few years later, the French physicist Joseph Fourier “realized that the atmosphere played a role in preventing heat from being immediately dispersed in space”, indicates Roland Jackson, historian. Around 1860, the Irish physicist John Tyndall digs the furrow drawn by Eunice Foote and demonstrates the principle of the greenhouse effect, when gases trap the radiation from the ground heated by solar radiation.

In December 1882, a letter published in the scientific journal Nature referred to his work. “We can conclude that the increasing pollution in the atmosphere will have a significant influence on the global climate,” says this letter from HA Phillips, establishing the link between emissions from human activities and climate change. From the end of the 19th century, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, ancestor of the activist Greta Thunberg, warned against the consumption of fossil energy and its influence on the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. But at the time, scientists were more interested in ice ages.

“A science fiction movie”

In the 1930s, some even believed that moderate global warming could be positive. “The idea that this not only changes temperatures, but also other aspects of the climate has not occurred to them,” said Robbie Andrew of the CICERO Center for International Climate Research. In 1958, an American television program, The Bell Telephone Science Hour, explained that the CO2 emitted by factories and cars could warm the atmosphere and that this affected “life itself”.

But fears of a cooling of the climate linked to a possible nuclear war and to aerosol pollution occupied the minds until the 1980s. In 1975, the American researcher Wallace Broecker, in an article published in the journal Science, “Change climate: are we on the verge of severe global warming? “, is the first to use these colloquial terms. Over time, climate science has become more sophisticated and has had to face lobbying from the industry to minimize the impact of fossil fuel consumption.

With the impacts of climate change increasingly visible, societies must act, scientists warn. “It’s like we woke up in a sci-fi movie. But it’s not science fiction, it’s physics, ”says historian Spencer Weart.


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