In August 1912, an article from a New Zealand newspaper called the Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette discussed what was, at the time, a relatively new concept: climate change. They linked coal burning to greenhouse gas emissions and these emissions with a warming atmosphere.
Which is exactly what we’re seeing now.
It was a succinct passage, but one which definitely does a good job at describing the general mechanism of climate change: carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, leads to global warming.
“The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
Well guess what — a century passed, and we’re already feeling the changes! Congrats, Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette — your prediction was pretty good.
There were some skepticism regarding the article’s authenticity, and it’s always good to be a bit skeptical with things like this. In this case, however, the newspaper article can be found in the digital archives of the National Library of New Zealand. Furthermore, as Snopes points out, an identical story appeared in the 17 July 1912, issue of The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, as found in the digital archives of the National Library of Australia. Another remarkably similar aticle came up in the March 1912 report in the magazine Popular Mechanics titled “Remarkable Weather of 1911: The Effect of the Combustion of Coal on the Climate – What Scientists Predict for the Future.” No doubt, climate change was a known topic in the early 1910s.
In fact, this fits very well with the evolution of our understanding of climate change. The first person to discuss the effects of greenhouse gases was a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius in 1896. In a paper he published (and several subsequent works), he describes how greenhouse gases can make changes in the Earth’s atmosphere and alter our climate’s planet.
Climate change was gradually given more attention, but a turning point happened in the 1970s, when big oil companies figured out that they were causing climate change and decided to hide this and sow disinformation about the population.
Just imagine, we knew about climate change since the early 1910s! It certainly wasn’t a well-understood concept, but in 1912, people were realizing that coal and other fossil fuels can affect the climate. If only we’d started acting a century ago, we’d be in a very different situation now.