Until recently, humans did not significantly affect the much larger forces of climate and atmosphere. Many scientists believe, however, that with the dawn of the industrial age—and the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil—humans began to significantly add to the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, enhancing the planet’s natural greenhouse effect and causing higher temperatures.
“Climate change . . . is the single greatest threat that societies face today.” —James Gustave Speth, environmentalist and dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The Industrial Revolution began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Great Britain when manual labor began to be replaced by machinery fueled by new sources of energy. The first sign of this change was mechanization of England’s textile mills, the development of iron-making techniques, and the increasing use of coal rather than wood and water power for heating, industry, and transportation. Around 1850, steam power was invented as a way to use coal energy more efficiently, and soon steam engines were used to power trains, ships, and industrial machinery of all sorts.
Around 1850, steam power was invented as a way to use coal energy more efficiently, bringing enormous changes in society and commerce. Here, a worker operates a steam engine in 1854. By the end of the twentieth century, the world was completely dependent on and rapidly depleting the planet’s fossil fuels— resources such as coal, natural gas, and oil that are formed from the decomposed remains of prehistoric plants and animals. As Hillman explains, “Fossil fuels contain the energy stored from the sun that took hundreds of thousands of years to accumulate, yet within the space of a few generations—a mere blink of the planet’s life so far—we are burning it.”
Scientific Study Of Global Warming
Scientists have long suspected a link between industrialization and global warming, but serious study of the issue did not begin until the second half of the twentieth century. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to suggest that the burning of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide gas to the Earth’s atmosphere and could raise the planet’s average temperature. At the time and for decades thereafter, however, Arrhenius’s discovery of the greenhouse effect was dismissed by the mainstream scientific community, which reasoned that such a major climate change would not likely be produced by humans and could only happen slowly over tens of thousands of years. Most scientists at the time also believed that the vast oceans would absorb most of the carbon dioxide produced by industry.
By the 1950s and 1960s, however, improved instruments for measuring long-wave radiation allowed scientists to prove that Arrhenius’s theory was correct. At that time, studies also confirmed that carbon dioxide levels were indeed rising year after year. In 1958, Charles D. Keeling, a scientist with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, conducted the first reliable measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory and found concentrations of the gas to be 315 ppm and growing.
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