Over the last 170 years, climate science has evolved from a collection of observations and hypotheses to as close as we’ve got to a crystal ball, revealing what lies ahead for Earth and those who dwell here.
In this issue’s cover story, contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze details the remarkable story of scientists’ efforts to learn how increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere might affect our planet. It’s a saga that starts back in the 1850s, when Eunice Newton Foote, a women’s rights activist and amateur scientist, devised an experiment showing that carbon dioxide heats up more quickly than regular air. As so often happens in science, other people were asking similar questions about the planet, climate and heat. But since our planet’s climate systems are astonishingly intricate, these have not been easy questions to answer. It wasn’t until 1938 that the burning of fossil fuels was linked to rising temperatures worldwide, and not until the late 1950s that scientists showed that atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and that human activities, including fossil fuel burning and land use changes, are to blame.
Now the relatively new field of attribution science is showing us how climate change is fueling extreme weather, including the 2021 extreme heat wave in western North America. But as Witze notes, leaders in government and business worldwide have largely failed to act to prevent even more extreme consequences.
There’s good reason to be furious at the fossil fuel companies and politicians who have invested vast effort into denying the legitimacy of climate science, thus delaying the coordinated efforts required to safeguard our future on Earth. But few of us are blameless.
My life is entwined with fossil fuels, from the gas stove I just used to make a cup of tea to the airplane I’ll take to visit my dad next week. His life, I realize, mirrors a century of change. As a child in a Pennsylvania coal town, he traveled by horse and wagon and read by kerosene lamps. He took a bus to college, shipped off to the South Pacific in World War II and later flew worldwide for business and pleasure. Now retired in Oregon, he has had to evacuate due to wildfires, and he suffered through last summer’s 115° Fahrenheit “heat dome.”
Humans have been ingeniously adapting fossil fuels for millennia. The bricks in Mesopotamian ziggurats were set with bitumen from oil seeps, and people in China were drilling oil wells in the fourth century. It’s time to apply the same ingenuity, industriousness and attention to inventing a world where we can flourish without having to rely on burning fossil fuels.
Last month we got a letter from 14-year-old Nico Santin. He had read an article in Science News on how seabirds are threatened by ocean heat waves (SN: 2/26/22, p. 15). Nico lives in Hawaii, and he writes eloquently on how essential seabirds are to his island home. “Most of Hawaii’s native plants would not have been there without the help of birds,” he writes. “It would be devastating if seabirds native to Hawaii would starve and possibly go extinct because of rising temperatures.” It’s time for us all, he says, to take practical steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m with Nico.