Climate Stories is having a summer holiday - have some JD Bernal as a filler

Climate Stories is having a summer holiday. I'll be back in September. As a filler, he’s an old piece about JD Bernal I wrote a few years ago. He was a biophysicist, and this has almost nothing to do with climate science, but it's still an interesting case in 20th century science, offering some background music for our story. 

Born in 1901 in County Tipperary, John Desmond Bernal was one of those scientists people feel the need to say “he never won a Nobel” about, presumably because they think he could have.

It’s sometimes argued that he just spread his expertise a bit too thin for that sort of prize. He was largely recognised as a bit of a general clever-clogs, picking up the the nick-name “sage” at university. A couple of his PhD students – Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – did win Nobels though, as did his old supervisor, William Henry Bragg. Rosalind Franklin worked with him for a bit too, as did Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick (if you’ve not heard of any of these, google them, they’re all super-interesting in their own right). So he had a bit of Nobel sparkle around him.

He was possibly as famous for his socialism as his science though. At school, he had been rather insulated from politics. But he started attending Socialist Society meetings at Cambridge and, as a PhD student living in Bloomsbury later in the 1920s, he joined both the Holborn Labour Party and the Communist Party (it wasn’t especially remarkable to be a member of both at the time).

He marched in the General Strike in 1926, and there’s a lovely story of him being especially moved by the experience of walking through London that day, the streets left at a relative standstill. But his years in Bloomsbury, if anything, weren’t especially inspiring politically, and it was in the 1930s, back in Cambridge, that he got more active. There’s another great story about a Russian delegation crashing a major history of science conference held at the Science Museum in 1931, and inspiring Bernal as they ripped the ideologies of bourgeois science to bits. 

Apparently he wasn’t strictly a “card carrying” commie, having absent-mindedly dropped his actual card sometime in 1933 and not bothering to replace it (see Fred Steward’s chapter in Swann & Aprahamian). Some said Bernal eventually took to Marxism with a religious fever, a replacement for the Catholicism of his youth (a point others also have made about his adoption of Freud). It seems a bit patronising to describe people being religious in their political zeal. But I don’t know though, maybe Bernal was.

Bernal wasn’t unusual as a politically active left wing scientist in 1930s Britain. Eric Hobswam cites CP Snow as saying if you were to poll a couple of hundred of the brightest young physicist in the mid 1930s, you’d have found around fifteen communists, a good fifty more on left and a hundred admitting to leftie sympathises, with the rest neutral apart from the odd handful on the right.

Bernal was not simply a scientist who was interested in politics, he felt strongly the two should be connected. A good example of this was his 1939 book The Social Function of Science which argued science wasn't just an aloof intellectual matter but, to put it simply, a way to make the world better. The book was highly influential, instrumental in the development of the social studies of science and arguably, aspects of post-war science policy.

As Chris Freeman summarises, for Bernal science is the most important thing humans do and so, in both short and long term, it’s own justification. It provides such a huge capacity for social change and improvement of people’s lives. It just had to be planned out in the right way. To quote Bernal's biographer, Andrew Brown: “The sense of impending war clearly emerges. Bernal deplored the application of scientific discoveries in making war ever more destructive, while acknowledging that the majority of scientific and technical breakthroughs have their origins in military exigencies, both because of the willingness to spend money and the premium placed on novelty during wartime.”

At the heart of Bernal’s book – and his political legacy – is a call to organise this great human power of science, and to organise it to serve the many, not the few. Bernal’s particular approach contained, arguably, somewhat of an over-idealisation of the USSR’s. But that doesn’t mean his central desire to try to organise science is necessarily wrong, just that we might disagree about the best way to go about it. There are a range of ways we might organise science, and a range of ways we might be explicit and hope to involve others in this process.

Bernal’s view of organising science was basically a sense that great names could fix things. Bernal venerated expertise, or at least he had a strong belief the benevolence of the scientific expert when it came to distributing the power to make decisions about science.

Freeman agrees with Bernal’s enthusiasm for ambitious well-organised use of science and technology for human welfare, but stresses need to be complemented with equally explicitly commitment to promotion of open critical debate (see also Freeman’s Vega lecture on Bernal). In reference to Bernal’s much publicised support of Lynsenco, Freeman argues that the best way to criticise and expose reactionary ideas in science remains to point out they are unscientific in public, not to rely on political labels.

In 1938, Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck, but at the onset of the Second World War he was pressed into service. Apparently John Anderson (yes, that’s Anderson as in Anderson shelters) wanted Bernal as a scientific adviser “even if he is as red as the flames of Hell”. Together with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Bernal gave analysis of bombing a quantitative basis, which helped make a case against exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of Allied bombing, going on – with Patrick Blackett – to advise against the bombing of several German cities as a waste of manpower and resources. Later, Bernal and Zuckerman were seconded to General Mountbatten’s D-Day planning team, and a strong friendship sprang up between Bernal and Mountbatten.

After the war, Bernal resumed his professorial duties at Birkbeck, setting up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948. Post war, he helped put the S in UNESCO (i.e. the science) though his politics sometimes got him into trouble with the scientific establishment. He was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, after speech he gave in Moscow critiquing the nature and control of science in the capitalist west, and Julian Huxley refused to work with communist scientists.

Bernal was also an active peace campaigner, involved in the World Peace Council. When the British Peace Committee attempted to host the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a number of delegates ended up stranded in London, including one Pablo Picasso. Bernal organised a party in his flat for them, and Picasso drew a mural on the wall of Bernal’s sitting room. Bernal later gave it to the ICA, and it’s currently at the Wellcome Collection (only a few blocks from Birkbeck).

I haven’t really gone into his personal life here, but Hobsbawn describes Bernal as having a “purple” approach to sex to complement his otherwise “red” characteristics. Brown says Bernal and his wife took to their open marriage “with gusto”. You can google around a bit for more if that’s your sort of thing. He had a few kids. His mum sounded pretty cool too. You can read the first few pages of Brown’s book for details on her. There are a few portraits of him in the national collection and a plaque outside his old flat in Camden. He died in 1971 and is buried in South London.

Climate stories will be back in September.


A terribly big experiment – the story of Roger Revelle

When, in the early 1930s, Roger Revelle explored carbon dioxide in seawater as part of his PhD, he probably didn’t imagine the political hot potato he was handling.

Born in Seattle in 1909, Revelle grew up in a middle class family in Pasadena, California. He was identified as ‘clever’ at an early age, even included in Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman’s study of children with high IQ. When he started college, he’d planned on journalism, but soon switched to geology. In 1931 he took up a post as research assistant in oceanography at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Because oceanography is awesome, this meant he got to go on loads of boats out into the Pacific ocean and do a PhD on stuff he found there (yes, I am still bitter my high school science teacher failed to tell us how awesome oceanography is). 

In 1931 he also married Ellen Virginia Clark, grandniece of Ellen Browning Scripps, who’d been key to establishing the oceanography institute (I’m mainly saying this so I can also tell you to look up Ellen Scripps, because she’s super-interesting).

Being the age he was, by the 1940s, Revelle got pulled into the war. Despite his flat feet, the Navy took him on and he ended up reaching rank of Commander. He also acted as a key liaison with military research, ended played a key role in shaping research priorities, both during the war and as it ended, being moved back to DC to work for the Office of Naval Research when Japan surrendered. In 1946, he was assigned to the first postwar atomic test at Bikini Atoll, studying the environmental effects of the bomb.

Fast forward to the mid-1950s, and Revelle was Director of Scripps - out of the Navy, but still taking a lot finding from them. Racelle was the sort to enjoy puzzling over a range of different topics at once, and sounds like an exciting time. As Revelle put it in a 1989 speech: “In those heady days of the 1950s one could hardly go to sea without making an important, unanticipated discovery.”

One of the questions interesting Revelle was what we might call the age of the ocean. If a bit of seawater absorbed something or another, how long would it take for that bit of water to mix through? Oceans being pretty massive, people thought that second stage might take a while. But they didn't really know. Thousands of years? Less? Was there “fossil water” that had been around even longer? If we assumed that loads of the carbon dioxide the industrial revolution was belching out was simply being absorbed by the sea (as many people did at the time) how long did that take?

Enter the new whizzy new techniques being developed around a radioactive form of carbon, carbon-14, which could be used to work out how old things are. So-called “carbon dating” was useful to archaeology, and there were medical applications, but research in the topic could rely on generous support from the military too. A chap called Hans Suess picked up these new techniques and, working with the National Park Service, applied it to the rings in old trees. He figured it'd be interesting to explore how carbon travelled through the planet, and funders were keen to let him if it meant they could learn more about carbon-14.

Revelle spotted Suess’ work, and invited him to Scripps to apply it to the sea. They worked out that a carbon dioxide molecule would hang around the atmosphere for around 10 years before surface water would pick it up, and then the oceans would take a few hundred years to turn over. So it wasn’t exactly a speedy carbon extraction, but from where they were sitting, this seemed fast enough to swallow up all the extra CO2 humans were pumping out. In 1957. They started to prepare a paper on the subject for an oceanography journal.

And yet there was still that work from Guy Callender, suggesting the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was going up, that it wasn’t being absorbed by the oceans. Had they just miscalculated how much carbon the forests were dealing with, or were they getting something wrong with the sea calculations? Revelle knew from his PhD and the research he’d done at Bikini Atoll that seawater was very sensitive to change. Yeah, the sea would swallow up all that carbon dioxide we’re pumping out at it, but then it’ll regulate itself to avoid getting too acidic, and split a load back out again at us. This wasn't new chemistry, but it hadn't been applied to this question before.

Or, to put it another way, the idea that we could just keep pumping carbon dioxide out in the atmosphere because the seas would soak it up was dead in the water (or, rather, not dead in the water, that being the problem...). It was one of the key “oh shit” moments in the history of climate science.

Revelle added a note on this in his paper with Suess, but it doesn’t seem to have entirely seeped in yet. As Spencer Weart describes in his book the Discovery of Global Warming, it is literally taped on: “The incongruity of the paragraph had already been clear to me on repeated readings of the published paper, but it was gratifying confirmation to find the paragraph [in archives] typed on a different kind of paper and taped onto the earlier version.”

By way of conclusion, Revelle also noted that "Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future." It’s a line that has haunted a lot of climate policy since.

Moreover, he highlighted there’d be an opportunity with the International Geophysical Year to study this issue more. He also spoke in Congress in 1956 and 1957 about the issue, lobbying for funds. Revelle was then key to recruiting Charles David Keeling to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and getting him his first swathe of funding. That research project is still running, and has been crucial to our current knowledge of global warming (there’s a whole other post about that if you want to read about Dr Keeling and his curve).

Revelle actively raised the issue of carbon dioxide and global warming with politicians and the media throughout the latter decades of the 20th century. He was also, infamously, the guy who taught Al Gore Jr about climate change, after Gore took a class from Revelle at college. Perhaps for this reason, his memory has been used in a fair bit of skeptic vs. activist football.

In November 1990, when he received the National Medal of Science from the first President George Bush, we reportedly remarked: "I got it for being the grandfather of the greenhouse effect." A I’m not sure grandfather is the right word. We’d have to go back a lot further for that title – Arrhenius maybe, or Fourier. Midwife might be a better description.

He died in 1991 aged 82, in a medical centre he'd co-founded.


That hole in the ozone layer

It’s the 1980s, and Antarctic research wasn’t feeling all that loved. Research stations had been set up in the late 1950s in a wave of Cold War enthusiasm. But a few decades on and people were starting to wonder what the point was.

As one scientist with the British Antarctic service, Joe Farnam, described it in a British Library record of their work, there was a general sense that scientists had been down there measuring stuff for decades, and maybe they didn’t need to bother any more: “You know, an awful lot of people say, oh, you’ve measured this for so many years, do you really need to keep on doing it?  Well, what can you say? I mean you can’t say, oh, but keep doing it for another twenty years, you’ll find an ozone hole [laughs].” 

But they did keep measuring.

And they did find a hole in the ozone layer.

Kinda of.

[NOTE: the story of the ozone layer isn’t, by everyone’s definition, part of the history of climate change. But their stories intersect a bit, so I hope you’ll excuse me the slight deviation. If you want an explainer on the distinction between the ozone layer and global warming, Nasa has a great one.]

Let’s wind back a bit, and say a bit about WTF ozone is anyway. Normally, it exists as a pale blue gas, but if you can get cold enough to solidify, it turns dark blue, finally violet-black. It’s a form of oxygen – O3, compared to the standard O2, because it’s made up of three oxygen atoms. It whiffs a bit – a bit like chlorine – and was first found in 1785 when a Dutch chemist, Martinus van Marum, was messing about shooting electricity above water, and found it created something a bit stinky. A few decades later, German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein noticed a similar stench after a bolt of lightening and, after successfully isolating the chemical in 1839, named it ozone after the Greek word ozein meaning ‘to smell’.

The thing we call the ozone layer was discovered in 1913 by French physicists Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson as they tried to work out why radiation sent out by the sun was different from the radiation that ended up on Earth. Something must be absorbing the missing ultraviolet radiation. British meteorologist GMB Dobson, while exploring how meteors travelled through the atmosphere, worked out that there must be a layer that’s especially hot, and figured out this was the sun’s ultraviolet radiation heating up ozone. He developed an instrument for measuring ozone – the Dobsonmeter – and, working between the 1920s and 1950s, set up a network of ozone monitoring stations around the planet.

This layer of ozone is pretty important to our ability to live on Earth. It’s often gets discussed in terms of saving us from cancer. That’s part of it, but not all. The ultraviolet radiation the ozone absorbs could harm animals too, and can reduce crop yields. If we lost the ozone layer entirely, ultraviolet radiation could steralise the Earth's surface. (If you want an intro the chemistry of the ozone layer, there’s a great Nasa booklet).

For a lot of the 19th and 20th centuries people seemed to think ozone was good for you – you sometimes read about people being sent to the seaside to breathe the ozone in old books. But if anything, today, we should be aware that it's a reasonably harmful pollutant. A major component of smog, ozone gets created when sunlight sparks chemical reactions with nitrogen oxides (e.g. from cars) and can cause major damage to lungs and plants. On the ground = bad. Up in the sky = yay, useful!

Concerns that we might be damaging the ozone layer started in the 1970s – could the exhaust from spaceships harm the make up of the stratosphere? That’d put a shitter on the Space Race.

But it soon turned out that the main danger was a lot more prosaic – hairspray, fridges and shaving cream. In 1974, chemists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland published a paper in Nature on the theatre that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases could have on ozone. Not long before, James Lovelock had developed an apparatus for measuring CFCs, and established that these exclusively man-made gases had already spread globally throughout the atmosphere. Molina's and Rowland's research led to some restrictions on CFCs, and some further research. They also got the Nobel Prize in 1995, but that’s rushing a bit ahead of ourselves.

Nasa researcher Pawan Bhartia started working on the ozone layer in 1977. As he describes it, when they got satellites to study the ozone layer (satellites named Nimbus-4, Harry Potter fans) in 1970, it was mainly just ‘curiosity driven research’ – something just for the sake of knowing. By the time Nimbus-7 was launched in October 1978, it was a hot topic, and there was a lot of political pressure on scientists to get a better sense of what was going on up there. Should we be banning CFCs, or was this Molina and Rowland stuff just scaring us all unnecessarily?

The real shock came in 1985 though, with the discovery of an especially thin patch in the ozone layer – the thing we’d now call the hole.

And this is the point I should let you know there’s isn’t really a hole, as such. (The Earth’s not really round either, sorry.) It is maybe better described as a bit of a graze, or just a slight thinning.

Who exactly we can credit with dreaming up the phrase ‘a hole in the ozone layer’ is unclear. According to Joe Farnam, it turned up in the pages of the Washington Post, possibly via a Nasa press release, and no one really owned up to coining it. According to other reports though, it was Sherwood Rowland.

Whatever the history of the term, it stuck, and we can probably thank that anonymous Nasa press officer/ Prof Rowland for such a powerful metaphor. If we follow the idea that metaphors structure our thinking, it’s easy to see how a hole invites us to actively try to fix something. In contrast, we think of a graze as gradually healing itself, or a thinning patch of hair as irreversible.

Back to the discovery of this ‘hole’.

Nasa satellites weren’t the only people interested in the topic. A load of scientific bases had been set up in the Antarctic in the 1950s, as part of the International Geophysical Year, and one of the things they measured was ozone. By the 1980s, the justification for keeping these research stations was getting more and more shaky, especially with the context of massive government cuts back in the UK. As Joe Farnam describes it, there was a general sense that scientists had been down there measuring stuff for decades, and why would they need to keep on doing it. There wasn’t a universal acceptance of a need for on-going, continued data collection: “You know, an awful lot of people say, oh, you’ve measured this for so many years, do you really need to keep on doing it?  Well, what can you say? I mean you can’t say, oh, but keep doing it for another twenty years, you’ll find an ozone hole [laughs].” 

When, in the early 1980s, Farnam and his team started reading a drastic drop in ozone levels about the south pole, their first instinct was to blame the equipment. Surely the experiment was wrong? By they tried again, and got the same results came up.

After a few years of further research and careful analysis, the team were eventually convinced not only of the thinning of the ozone layer, but that it had been caused by CFCs. Deciding they must publish as soon as possible, the team popped a paper in the post to Nature on Christmas Eve. It was far from settled though – these sorts of extreme claims always inspire push back – and the head of Farnam’s division tried to suppress the paper, writing to the Met Office that he was worried that it'd just lead to embarrassment if it all turned out to be an error.

Around the same time, satellite data from Nasa also spotted this ‘hole’ and, in the words of Pawan Bhartia “all hell broke loose, particularly in the media”. One campaigner described it to Newsweek as “like AIDs from the sky" (arguably, a much less helpful metaphor than describing it as a hole).

Bhartia was slightly surprised by the impact the research had: “the significant ozone loss was not happening in areas where people were living. It was occurring mostly over Antarctica. There are penguins there, but no human beings, and it happens for only two months a year. Regardless, it had a huge impact on people.”

By 1987, there was an international agreement to phase out the production of substances harmful to the ozone layer, aka, the Montreal Protocol.

The Montreal Protocol was unusually successful for a global agreement. People signed up for it – lots of people, and reasonably fast. And then it didn’t all fall apart when a new President was elected or anything either. CFCs didn’t disappear entirely, or overnight, but they have greatly reduced, and it seems to be making a big difference to the ozone layer. Research last year that the hole had shrunk by more than 1.7 million square miles since the turn of the millennium and could be ‘healed’ by 2050, a change they could put down to the success of the Montreal Protocol. As New York Times puts it, it was the little treaty that could.

Why? We should remember that people had been building up for it for a while – Nasa already felt it was a hot topic. The data that popped up from the Antarctic base and the satellite was crucial, and it ended up turning up on the world stage with some drama, but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. It’s not as simple a case as Nature published a paper and Nasa ran a press conference and BOOM global policy. Things are never that simple.

There’s a theory that Reagan allowed it to pass because he had skin cancer, or he just loved nature. Several people also argue that it wasn’t that hard to shift from CFCs – at least compared to the challenge we have in terms of quitting oil – and companies could sell products labelled ozone friendly, helping customers to feel good about themselves and, ultimately, boost sales of stuff no one needed in the first place. Plus the PR gods were aligned – rightly or wrongly, the media and public were spooked by this idea of a hole in our atmosphere. And on the topic of PR, never discount the power of saying something causes cancer.

Humanity’s ability to spot the hole in the ozone layer and work together do something about it is often touted as a sort of inspirational case study for climate change action. We should remember that for all that both issues involve stuff in polar regions and apparently-invisible harm humans are doing to stuff up in the sky, they are slightly different issues, and the problem of climate change is much bigger and more complex. Still, it’s inspiring, it’s interesting, and there are similarities. It’s a story people interested in climate action should at least know.

Back to the future - a brief history of the electric car

Earlier this month, there was a small flurry of headlines about the rapid growth of electric vehicles (EVs) – whizzing past the two million mark globally in 2016.

Before you get too excited, 2 million is very little compared to the total number of cars on the planet right now – it’s only 0.2% of total passenger light duty vehicles.

Still, that two million is 60% up from 2015, and as a lot of the press picked up, electric vehicles were pretty much unknown a few years ago (unless you count milk floats, lunar rovers and golf buggies…).

A few years ago, maybe, but go back further – a bit over a century, to the early 20th century – and things might would been a different matter. Because today we’re getting used to thinking about electric cars as the future but, once upon a time, that’s been true before too.

Look, for example, at this beauty. It’s a London electric cab from 1897.

electric cab 1897

The first electric cars date back a lot earlier, with small-scale models developed in Hungry, Scotland, the US and the Netherlands in the 1820s and 1830s.

The problem with the early electric car designs is that until someone had invented a rechargeable battery that you could store in the car and drive around with, they weren’t really all that much use.

Long before Elon Musk and Tesla, there was Thomas Parker and the Elwell-Parker Company which and sold electric trams, helped electrify the London Underground, and put the first electric car into production Parker tinkered with the more advanced battery designs available by the later 19th century, and had a marketable electric car in 1884.

By the turn of the century, electric vehicles could compete with petrol, horse and steam based options. In the US, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest motor car manufacturer in 1899. EVs weren’t the fastest, and they couldn’t go long distances without needing a charge, but they were quieter, smoother, and cooler (as in they didn’t produce a load of excess heat). They were, apparently, Edison's choice.

The cab company that owned the EV above had a fleet of over 75 cabs. In New York, the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company started with twelve Electrobats (the first US electric cars) in 1897. Two years on, and they had several hundred.

Petrol might rule in the countryside, and steam would take us up and down the country, but electricity would work for cities. Indeed, many felt it might do for a fair bit of inter-city travel too. As Alexis Madrigal puts it in his book on the history of US green tech, Powering the Dream, a betting man at the end of the 19th century might well have invested in centralised, electrical transport – something more akin to a fleet of electric Ubers or Zipcars than the oil-based model of personal ownership that ended up dominating the 20th century.

The big problem with electric cabs was that the batteries needed changing if they were going to compete with petrol-based equivalents. As Madrigal describes, the New York outfit cooked up an intricate design for swapping batteries in and out of cabs quickly, converting an old skating rink on Broadway into a central battery-swapping station. In London, a battery swapping station at Lambeth similarly employed a hydraulic lifting system, turning them around in a few minutes.

So where did the EV go? Was it just that petrol cars were better, faster, able to go further? Histories of technological choice are rarely so neat. It was partly improvements in the design of petrol cars, and a drop in the price of oil. It was partly that roads developed, and that people bought into an idea of independence that the petrol car offered (though that’s partly marketing and infrastructure – there’s a 20th century imagined future, as well as a very possible 21st century one that has a concept of EVs as freedom at its core). It’s also been suggested that EVs were seen as women’s cars, and the rather monopolistic zeal of some of the American electric transport entrepreneurs put people off, or led to bad business decisions. In London, the cab company had an expensive problem with tyres (amongst other issues).

Whatever the mess of reasons, in the 20th century, petrol-based transport was allowed to dominate, and we’ve built a whole load of our lives around that.

And why does this matter? Because transport is one of the things we need to electrify if we’re going to kick the fossil fuel habit. It accounts for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The figure is even higher in some parts of the especially polluting parts of the world, like the US or the EU.

Electrify a system, and you can feed it with a range of energy sources – so you’re options include wind, hydro, solar and nuclear, not just coal, gas or oil – whereas you’re a bit more stuck if you’re working with an engine based on petrol or diesel. We’re a long way from an electric plane – for all the hype around that solar plane – but when it comes to cars, buses and trains, that’s something we can get on with now. With increasing evidence of the dangers of air pollution caused by oil-based cars too, it’s about time we got a wiggle on

It's the 25th anniversary of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change. Happy birthday!

Last week, Donald Trump announced he’d be withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. This month, it’s also the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UNFCCC — the larger system which gave birth to the Paris Agreement — so it seemed timely to trace some of its history.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or the UNF-triple-C to its friends) was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in June 1992.

As Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN secretary-general, said at the start of the event: “Ultimately if we do nothing, then the storm will break on the heads of future generations. For them it will be too late.”

Before the event, there were the now-familiar rumblings from the US that all this climate change stuff was a waste of time/ communist plot.

It wasn’t the first UN meeting on climate change. There had been discussions of the issue in and around the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (aka the Stockholm Declaration) though arguable, they didn't talk about climate change nearly as much as they could have, or some scientists would have wanted.

Amongst other things, this 1972 conference had given birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had, in turn, worked with the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to set up the (IPCC, no not that IPCC, the other IPCC, the one that shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore). This collects global expertise on climate change, issuing regular reports assessing what we know about the issue. The first came out in 1990, helping prepare the ground for the 1992 summit, the most recent was 2014, part of the drum-beating before the Paris talks at the end of 2015. It's split into different working groups: WGI no the physical science basis (i.e. is it happening?), WGII on impacts (i.e. what’s happening/ will happen?) and WGIII on mitigation (i.e. can we stop it?).

Small diversion: the point in history where climate change starts inspiring UN conferences is also the point it starts to turn into an alphabet soup of acronyms. And it only gets worse as the meetings get going and thy start talking about stuff like AOSIS (the Alliance Of Small Island States), LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry), BAU (Business as Usual), or DAI (Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference with the climate system… aka we’re screwed).

There were also World Climate Conferences in 1979 and 1990. Politicians were increasingly talking about the issue, and it was picking up press coverage. I highly recommend reading Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the UN, if only for the steampunk image of Charles Darwin in a spaceship. It should be noted, however, that the growing media interest in climate change included a fair bit of sceptical coverage, stressing uncertainty and lack on climate consensus, and Thatcher herself ended up rather on the sceptic side as she got older. Climate politics was slightly different back then, but a lot of the seeds of our current situation were already sown in the early 1990s, indeed in some areas they’d already grown some pretty sturdy roots by then too.

In the end, the 1992 Convention didn’t include any binding limits on carbon emissions for specific countries, nor any enforcement mechanisms (in contrast, for example, from some agreements on control of weapons). Instead, it’s an agreement to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Or, in human language, they agreed to take action on greenhouse gas emissions so we might stop climate change really kicking our bottoms sometime in the future, but they put off agreeing a precise definition of what such a kicking might look like, or whose bottoms they were going to worry about in particular, and didn’t really build in any way to keep anyone accountable, other than plan to have more meetings about the topic.

Still, they agreed to update and publish inventories of their emissions as well as developing, co-operating in and promoting programes for both mitigating climate change and adapting to it. These are all important first steps to more. They also agreed to promote public education about climate change and its effects, and public participation projects for tackling climate change (a point often forgotten, especially when government science and climate comms budgets get cut). Another important part of the convention was the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” with responsibility largely on the shoulders of developed countries. So the EU, for example, was expected to dramatically cut emissions, but India was not.

With the signing of the UNFCCC, they also kicked off annual UN climate conferences. They’re also called the Conference of the Parties or, colloquially, a COP the “parties” being the signatories to the convention). These were meetings for representatives of the countries that had signed up to the convention, and they’ve happened roughly once a year since. The most famous of these COP events recently was the Paris talks, but you might well have heard of the Copenhagen one too, or Kyoto.  

A body called the UNFCCC sits alongside the signed document, organizing these meetings. It’s based in Bonn in Germany. The current head of the secretariat is Patricia Espinonsa, who succeeded Christiana Figureres in July last year (more on her in a bit).

These regular COP meetings have lead to the UNFCCC being criticised as a bit of a talking shop. In some ways, this is a very fair criticism, though it’s also fair to say that something as big as action on climate change will take a fair bit of talking. And these meetings have offered up the necessary space to do the sorts of diplomatic work necessary to build the sorts of action we need.

They can get dramatic too. Venezuelan delegate Claudia Salerno lifted a bloodied hand to the UN and Danish hosts at the 2009 talks. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, Yvo de Boer — then head of the UNFCCC — had to be led away from the chamber in tears and at COP19, in Warsaw in 2013, Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano broke down in the middle of his address. He also added an unscripted pledge that — in solidarity with his country people who were struggling to find food in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan — he would be fasting for the duration of the talks.

There’s always been a bit of a fringe too — arts, and protest. The more official ends of things allowing local engagement with climate action, the less official sides being a great opportunity for global networks of climate activists to network. As activist and writer Kevin Smith argues, COP 6, held in the Hague in 2000 was a bit of a milestone in that respect. A series of direct actions took place around the conference, including activists occupying one of the main beams over the great hall and scattering fake carbon credits over the delegates below. Hot on the heels of the World Bank/IMF mobilizations in Prague in September of that year, Smith argues this was influential in developing a coalition of climate activists who sought to highlight the role of corporate lobbyists and the marginalization of the global south.

Back to official business. At the first COP (in Berlin in 1995) they agreed that their initial idea of stabilising their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 wasn't going to cut it, and planned discussions around a larger challenge at the 1997 Kyoto talks, which lead to the Kyoto Protocol.

This was adopted in December 1997, but didn’t come into force until February 2005. To come into force, it needed to be ratified by at least 55 countries, and that their emissions must account for at least 55% of global emissions. Most countries signed the Protocol at the time, but signing was the easy step – a basic nod of support. If you were going to ratifying the Protocol, however, you had to take action, and that proved too much for some key players, namely George W Bush who famously withdrew the US in 2001.

The next attempt to give the UNFCCC more teeth was Copenhagen in 2009. These were accompanied by a massive “Hopenhagen” PR push (yes, really, they called it Hopenhagen, you might be able to still find some of the more cringe-worthy vids on YouTube) and it’s fair to say that climate action was, with or without the UN, picking up momentum at this point. It was more accepted, more normal, even fashionable to want to tackle climate change. The kids who’d watched Rio on television in 1992 were now adults, some with kids themselves — voting, taking a lead in their communities, teaching. It felt as if, finally, something meaningful might happen. And the President of the US wasn’t called George Bush. It was Obama, who was still basking in the glow of the hopey changey election rhetoric.

But the talks ended in what was at best described as a weak compromise, if not complete collapse. Indeed, arguably, Copenhagen left much of the environmental movement in a state of despondency which lasted for years after. At least part of the climate community had pinned a fair bit of their hope on a UN agreement sorting things. As the ambition in this agreement crumbled, so did their optimism.

We also now know, via Edward Snowdon, that the USA spied on climate negotiators before and during the conference, potentially giving the American delegation an edge in discussions. In 2014, the UN announced it was to investigate the UK for doing similar. Naughty.

Six months on. Enter Christina Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat who had worked on Kyoto as well as Copenhagen. (Fun Figueres facts: she has different coloured eyes, she did her masters at the LSE and picked up a taste for British-style tea, her Dad was as President of Costa Rica three times, she received the French Legion of Honor, and though she owns a Prius, she generally takes the tram to work).

Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC in July 2010. As she describes her first few days in office, a journalist asked if she thought a climate change agreement was possible, and she responded - to despair of her press officers - “Not in my lifetime.” But she soon realised that if the were going to change things, they'd have to get out of the post-Copenhagen despondency, and get some of the optimism back. Building a new climate agreement would be, at least in part, a matter of changing the tone.

As Figueres puts it, “impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. And I decided, right then and there, that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.” Drawing on the technological and economic shifts in wind and solar energy, she worked with others across the UN to construct a sense that the move to clean energy was unstoppable.

Arguably, this idea that clean energy is ‘unstoppable’ is more than rhetoric, and this is one of the reasons why Trump pulling out isn’t game over for climate change. According to a report out today, 31k solar panels were installed every hour last year. 31k per hour.

Another shift we can trace between Copenhagen and Paris is greater networking of mayors and local leadership on climate, and more leadership from large business too. With this, we’ve seen climate power move away from the leaders of nation states, and with it, a slightly smaller (or at least different) role for the UN. It’s also true that more people are consciously experiencing the effects of climate change, and reading about it happening to others. It’s all a lot less far off than it was back in 1992.

So we end up with things like the We’re Still In Group — a letter to the UNFCCC signed by mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and more, alongside companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook alongside university presidents all stating that, whatever Trump does, they’re all still signed up to the Paris Agreement, and they’re taking the 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the US economy they represent with them.

The US — the nation, as a nation, not just people in it as individuals, or via their city, university or company — participating in a global agreement would still help though. It could help a lot if they not only stayed in, but upped their ambition loads too. If nothing else, it’s a big budget loss to the Climate Fund. Plus, as a report from the International Energy Agency issued just today argued, clean energy technologies might be unstoppable, but lack of support from policy at a national government level is really slowing them down. Still, it’s a long way from game-over. Both climate action at large, and the UN in particular are way more powerful than that. 

"Spandex jackets for everyone" - the International Geophysical Year

It’s June 1957, and Prince Philip is addressing the nation, warning about the threat of rising seas caused by melting glaciers.

No, it’s not some new alternative history science fiction. It actually happened. You can watch it on the BBC archive. It was part of a special BBC TV documentary launching something called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the topic of today’s post.

In practice, the International Geophysical Year lasted over a year – it was 18 months – and was a little short of international too as China abstained. But it’s crucial to the history of climate change, and pretty interesting in its own right too.

As we’ll see, there were a lot of players and agendas involved in the IGY, but the initial idea came from scientists, or so the story goes. It was April 1950, and a British scientist, Sydney Chapman, was visiting Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of DC. One evening, Chapman sat with few other geophysicists in James Van Allen's living room, including Fred Singer (now more famous for his climate scepticism). They’d been discussing the International Polar Year that had been held in 1932 and at some point in the conversation someone pointed out that with all the recent technological developments like computers, rockets and radar, maybe it was time for something similar, but bigger – a massive coordinated, worldwide study of our planet.

Fast-forward to summer 1957, and it’s being launched by royalty on the BBC  (Eisenhower gave a US TV and radio address too, but there’s more pageantry and melting ice in the BBC version, so I’m going to focus on that).

The duke stands in the television studio, surrounded by maps and bits of scientific equipment, rubbing his thumbs with an awkward enthusiasm while he introduces a series of films about international environmental science. We go from the Antarctic to Japan, to Canada to what was, at the time, the Belgian Congo, via the Swiss Alps and a high school rocket society in the USA. It’s a bit like the bit at the end of Eurovision when the points roll in from different countries, but with less glitter, thicker beards, and a slightly different political subtext. We see fieldwork in all sorts of locations, scientists’ offices, lab-work and, finally, a rocket launch. Environmental science is presented in the mode of a noble (posh, white, male) quest, an adventure of daring-do, exploration and wide-eyed discovery. The politics of the cold war are implicit, but very much present. The same can be said for the politics of colonialism.

About half an hour in, there’s an especially dramatic bit from Greenland talking about an international project on glaciers involving Swiss, French, Austrian, German and Danish scientists. “Why bother?” the science presenter rhetorically asks the camera, all the time wearing sunglasses and clutching a pickaxe. “Well, for the last 50 years, the glaciers have been receding, and the high snow is melting. The levels of the ocean have been rising. If all the glaciers melted at once, the water would rise halfway up Nelson’s column.”

Today, imagery like that is pretty banal. But in 1957? That’s a while before the Day After Tomorrow.

The central premise of the IGY wasn’t fear though, if anything, the ethos was incredibly beautiful. People around the world working together to understand their planet. As the duke puts it at the end of the BBC doc, “the IGY is the world studying itself, but it’s also a much more than that. It’s a great experiment in world co-operation.” Prince Philip, the old hippie.

It’s worth remembering that this is before we’d put people in space – 15 years before Apollo 17 sent back its “blue marble” shot of Earth. One of the key hopes of the IGY was to use networks of research projects to create a sort of snapshot of the Earth. We couldn’t do that from space back then, so we’d have to find ways to piece one together by connecting a range of different perspectives on Earth. This ‘snapshot’ would be useful, but it could be inspiring too, a cooperatively produced image of the planet we shared.

The IGY could also be credited with starting the space race, in as much as the Soviet Union and the USA both launched satellites for the event – Sputnik 1 in October 1957 and, a month later, Jupiter-C. Unlike some of the other IGY projects, Sputnik and the equivalent US programme could well have happened anyway, but the IGY offered them the costume of scientific discovery and a stage of scientific co-operation on which to play out their more competitive show of military might.

We could argue all this hopey-feely stuff was always a massive smokescreen for Cold War plotting – although there’s a lot of truth in this analysis, it’s also slightly too cynical. As historian Spencer Weart puts it, a variety of motives converged to make the IGY possible. The idea of an IGY offered a lot of real scientific opportunities. Aside from the excitement of a big event acting a hook to get funding, there was also the argument that to study the whole Earth we really did need a broad range of countries to be involved. As a Canadian scientist puts it in the BBC documentary, “oceanography demands co-operation” simply because the oceans touch a range of countries. The government officials who stumped up the cash for IGY projects would have got that – at least in the USA, science policy wonks were up for a bit of basic exciting research. But they did also expect data to come out of the IGY too, data that could be put to use to both civilian and military ends.

It’s also fair to say there were also people involved in the IGY who honestly hoped the world might learn something from 18 months contemplating scientific cooperation and this shared planet we all live on. As Eisenhower put it, the most important result of the IGY was the “demonstration of the ability of peoples of all nations to work together harmoniously for the common good.” In the mouth of a politician, this is rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a serious agenda fuelling at least some parts of the IG too.

In principle, the concept of scientific diplomacy the IGY came wrapped in is pretty neat. In theory, scientists want truth and, again in theory, are happy to work together to get it. This is part of the idea behind CERN and the similar Sesame particle accelerator – get scientists to work together on some shared interesting project and they’ll forge relationships along the way, relationships which can reverberate beyond just that project.

Except the politics of science aren’t that simple. Even if the scientists involved are just in it for the truth (if…), and they’re good at working together (again, if…), there are plenty of other people involved to make it about so much more. And you can hide all sorts of things behind scientific missions and conferences, and just as scientists can broker relationships with each other, they can work with a whole range of different actors too.

Take, for example, IGY trips to Greenland. These allowed scientists to study interesting clunks of ice, and for the US government officials who handled the logistics, it was a chance to learn more about routes to the Soviet Union. Or, when it came to oceanography, the Navy got data they could use to better move their ships around, and in exchange, the scientists could use these ships to travel to bits of the planet they wanted to study. All this data the IGY was to collect as it built a ‘snapshot’ of the Earth was fascinating for scientists, but it was also invaluable for military planners who would otherwise be limited to the data they could collect in their own regions, or trusting data they managed to get somehow wrangle from the other side.

In his book, Arming Mother Nature, Jacob Darwin Hamblin offers further links between the IGY and military imaginations. He notes that buzzword of the IGY was synoptic – this sense it was a chance to view together, and take a mass snapshot of the Earth. The IGY brought this concept of the Earth into military planners’ view, a concept some of them later ran with, at least within a 1960 committee chaired by Theodore von Kármán. As Hamblin puts it “while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation”. All this data didn’t just help the military know more about the Earth to move around, the data could potentially help the military manipulate the Earth too, creating weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. Scientists could already disperse fog (indeed, Guy Calendar worked on that), but could they go further? Could blackening agents be used to absorb light and so quicken the melting of ice sheets, flooding ports? Could targeted nuclear bombing disrupt key food chains? Engineering, chemistry and even medicine had all been weaponised in previous wars, was it now the turn of environmental science?

Hamblin’s book is fascinating, and discusses interactions between environmental science and the military far beyond just the IGY, so I’ll let you read it for yourself if you’re interested.

For all the reference to sea level rise in the BBC documentary, global warming wasn’t explicitly high on the agenda in the IGY. Still, it offered opportunities to nurture research projects that has proved vital to our modern understanding of climate change. As mentioned in an earlier post on David Keeling, researchers interested in tracking the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere took advantage of some of the IGY money floating around to set up a research base in Mauna Loa, a centre which continues to collect data to this day.

IGY was a lot more than just the 18 months it ran. The years running up to it were crucial as a range of international scientific organisations worked together to plan the event, cementing relationships as they also built instruments, projects and research bases. And the IGY was always meant to have lasting impacts too. Central to the IGY, was the establishment of three data centres. Data collected in the 1932 polar year had been lost due to the Second World War, and new concern about how the ‘Iron Curtain’ was limiting scientific debate. As part of building the IGY they established the World Data Center system – one part housed in the USA, another in the Soviet Union, and a third divided up between countries in Europe, Australia, and Japan. Each host country agreed to keep to the IGY principle of open exchange of data between nations, and the idea was that each centre would eventually have a complete archive of IGY data. If one centre was lost, there'd still be a record. This data still lives on, managed by the International Council for Science.

Also established as part of the IGY was the Halley Research Station in Antarctica. There’s a lot we humans now know that we wouldn’t if it wasn’t for that base – the hole in the ozone layer, for example (though that’s another story...). Another key spinoff of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, establishing that part of the planet for peace and scientific research. Like IGY itself, there’s a lot of beauty in the simple principles of science diplomacy at work here, and also a lot more going on behind it too. And, while we’re listing IGY legacies, there was Sputnik too – inspiring, significant, and drenched in Cold War politics.

It’s questionable whether the money needed for something as big as the IGY would have been put up in a more peaceful world. Then again, as decades of pacifist slogans have told us, less war might well mean more money for research, so who’s to know. What we do know is that it wasn’t nearly as simple a matter as old Second World War technology being given the chance to be put to peaceful ends, or the world coming together despite the tensions of the Cold War period with a pure devotion to science. There was a lot more going on.

The cultural impact of the IGY is perhaps less than you’d want from such a massive scientific project – Sputnik inspired all sorts of cultural impacts, and Halley’s had it’s fair share too, as has Keeling’s CO2 measurement, but IGY itself is harder to trace. Still, there’s an interesting song about it from the 1980s, by Don Fagin. I.G.Y. (what a beautiful world) sings for the hope of sunshine-powered cities, a tunnel between Paris and New York, and, er, “spandex jackets for everyone”. It’s a slightly ironic and nostalgic hope, as if we naïve to even want or imagine such a glorious future in the first place. Which analysis you prefer maybe depends on how much you want a spandex jacket, or how comfortable you feel about the funding of environmental science letting itself be used as a cloak for military endeavours.

There's an exhibition about the IGY at the Polar Museum, Cambridge, until the 9th September 2017.