History of Climate Change

Climate change is at the forefront of scientific and political concerns. Also known as global warming, climate change refers to the change in climate patterns that has emerged in recent years. Scientists attribute these changes to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a warming effect caused by greenhouse gases. Climate change is thought to stem from the use of fossil fuels.

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While global warming is a serious twenty-first century concern, the history of climate change science began early in the nineteenth century. Scientists of that era suspected ice ages and other natural changes, which led to their identification of the greenhouse effect. By the late nineteenth century, scientists argued that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases could cause changes in the climate patterns.

Even in ancient times, people suspected that the climate could change over the centuries. The Greek scholar Theophrastus speculated that deforestation caused the land to become warmer due to sun exposure. Renaissance theorized that irrigation and other activities that altered lands could also affect the weather. However, the most striking changes came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the conversion of North American forests to croplands.

By the 1960s, some scientists were convinced that carbon dioxide gas created a warming effect around the globe. Others thought global warming stemmed from aerosols and other pollutants created by human activities. Still others disputed this, pointing to the cooling effects of pollution and their fear of a coming ice age.

During the 1970s, most of the scientific community favored the global warming viewpoint. By the 1990s, a consensus formed that acknowledged the involvement of greenhouse gases in the changing climate patterns. It was generally accepted that human emissions caused serious global warming.

Based on this foundation, current research centers on multiple theories and includes many disciplines. It aims to increase the world’s understanding of climate change models and their links to historic data. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global scientific body established by the United Nations, has summarized the most recent work in various assessment reports.

Climate change science has grown from a subject of interest in the scientific community to a national and international policy issue. Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize winner and energy research consultant, authored “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.” In it, he documents the history of global warming from its early scientific beginnings to its current political controversies.

In the past twenty years, as the scientific consensus on global warming solidified, countries around the world have adopted goals that call for reduced carbon emissions. In Europe, the European Union (EU) created such a policy. Similar efforts failed to create a national policy in the United States, but other policies – automobile fuel efficiency standards and renewable fuel requirements for utilities – limit carbon emissions.

As policy makers continue their climate change debate, public opinion has changed over the years. According to a Pew study, two-thirds of Americans accept the “solid evidence” for global warming. Recent natural disasters across the United States further increase climate concerns. As Yergin points out, the discussion has shifted from “Is climate change happening?” to “How can it be stopped?”

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