A brief history of wind power - part one.

Harnessing the power of the wind is nothing new - it’s as old as a ship’s sail

These things we might now call windmills were first developed some time between the 7th and 9th century, in modern day Iran. There’s a reference to one in Yorkshire in 1185, though there might well have been some earlier in Europe too. They were possibly brought by crusaders, or - as it was a slightly different design - perhaps the Europeans came up with the idea themselves. Either way, it caught on. Partly because of the winds, but also because of the new economic opportunities it could offer to new people. In medieval England, for example, rights to waterpower were often confined to the very rich, so windmills offered something new for the middle classes.

Here’s a medieval illustration of a windmill, c.1340, which for some reason also seems to involve some sort of sex scandal and a giant mallet:

The history of turning wind into electricity is slightly newer, but not that new. For the pioneers of wind electricity, it was all about ways to bring electricity to people and places that otherwise wouldn’t have it, or a simple curiosity about what we could make electricity from.

We’ll start with James Blyth, born in 1839 in the village of Marykirk, a bit north of Dundee. Today, a lot of the local economy is weighted to the offshore oil industry, and it's just 50 miles south of that big golf course Trump gets his knickers in a twist about the wind turbines nearby. But in the 1830s, it’d be farming, fishing on the coast, some business around the universities, and the odd bit of whisky.

Blyth’s parents weren’t exactly rich - his dad was an innkeeper and farmer - but he got an education at the local school, and then won a scholarship to study in Edinburgh. He worked as a school teacher for a bit and, in 1880 got a job as a professor at Anderson's College in Glasgow.

Anderson's College sounds pretty amazing. It had been set up at the end of the 18th century in memory of radical physicist John Anderson who'd left some of his estate to set up a school for people who'd normally be left out of the university system. It offered part-time evening classes for working-class students, and admitted women on the same terms as men. It’s where David Livingstone - of “I presume” fame - trained, and George Birkbeck was also a professor there, before he moved to London and set up what’s now Birkbeck College. It’s now part of the University of Strathclyde.

Anyway, when he wasn’t working as a prof at Anderson’s College, Blyth had a holiday cottage back home in Marykirk. It was there, in 1887, that he built a cloth-sailed, 33-foot wind turbine and used it to charge a sort of battery which in turn powered the lights. It was the first house in the world to be powered by wind-generated electricity.

Here’s a picture of his machine. I’m not sure if that’s his wife standing by it. They look happy, whoever they are though.

So the story goes, Blyth tried to sell the idea to the local villagers to light the main street, but they branded these new-fangled sparks 'the work of the devil' and turned him away. Still, he got a patent for his invention, and managed to build another, slightly improved turbine for a nearby lunatic asylum, where it ran for the next 30 years, only being dismantled in 1914.

Around roughly the same time, over in the US, a Charles F. Brush was playing similar games. Born in 1849 on a farm about 10 miles from Cleveland, he loved science as a child, tinkering to build his own, home-made static machine. His parents managed to find the money to allow him to study, and after school, university and a PhD, he made a small fortune in electrical lighting, eventually retiring to a large mansion he’d built for himself on Euclid Avenue (aka Cleveland’s Millionaires' Row).

It was in his mansion that, in 1888, Brush built his 60 foot wind turbine. With 144 blades and about 1,800 square feet of surface area, all feeding a basement full of hundreds of jars which made up 12 batteries, it gave electrical lighting to his home - without failure - for twenty years.

I think it looks a bit like one of the monsters in Stranger Things.

Charles F Brush's wind turbine.

Charles F Brush's wind turbine.

If you’re thinking it’s weird Denmark’s not featured in this story yet, they’re up next. Enter Poul la Cour, he’s another inventor born on a farm, this one on the central east coast of Denmark, in 1846. He had initially wanted to be a priest, but wasn't good enough at languages, so ended up in meteorology instead. From meteorology, he got into the emerging technologies of telegraphy, and then - after a stint teaching science as part of the Danish Folk High school movement - wind power.

La Cour was excited about the possibilities of electricity, and keen other people would be too. Apparently he wrote a children’s book about electricity as ‘our great servant’. But he was worried - understandably - that the allure of electrification would draw more and more people into the cities, and wanted to find ways electricity could help and inspire the rural working class. For la Cour, wind power was the answer, especially considering how much of an abundant resource it was in Denmark.

With financial support from the Danish government, he worked to improve both wind turbine design, and ways to store electricity from it, and in 1895 used this tech to illuminate his local Folk High School. His designs soon spread throughout rural Denmark, not least through setting up training courses, the Society of Wind Electricians and a journal. 

Meanwhile, back in the US, wind power was an established part of the rural economy. As Alexis Madrigal describes in his history of US green tech, it was particularly important in the arid West, where wind-powered irrigation could make the difference between starving and surviving. You could buy a cheap factory-built windmill, or make your own out of whatever local junk was to hand - nails, screws, bits of old buggies. As Madrigal describes, each town would have its own windmill style, often based on whatever the first person to build a mill in the area happened to have made, with neighbours swapping tips for tinkering.

Gradually wind started to catch on as a means for generating electricity too - offering lights, radio, and other appliances for people living in rural areas cut off from the electricity of cities. Brothers Joe and Marcellus Jacobs were a good example. They lived on the family ranch in the north east corner of Montana and, like many in their situation, they found it hard to keep refuelling their gasoline-based generator. They’d been playing about with old surplus WW1 aircraft, learning to fly and making propellers for sleds to get through the snow, and used this knowledge to build a wind generator too. After they own was such a success, they started building 'wind plants' for neighbouring farms and ranches, finally setting up the Jacobs Wind Electric Company in 1928, and opening a factory in Minnesota in 1932.

In 1933, when Richard Evelyn Byrd made a trip to Antarctica to set up a 'little America' base there, he took a Jacobs machine to give the camp radio and light. 

But until the middle of the 20th century, wind power stayed reasonably small - often maintaining a fair bit of DIY, it was a way for remote sites to have power, it wasn’t going to light up cities. Wind power today is on a totally different scale. At the end of last month, Germany generated enough wind power one weekend, it gave consumers energy for free. Where I live, in England, we have a rather frustrating political block on onshore wind at the moment, but there’s been enough investment in offshore wind that on a good day - like today was - about a third of our electricity comes from wind.

How did we get from wind as a reasonably small scale way to offer remote communities some energy independance to the big player of today?

That’ll be in part two, in a fortnight.


Climate change’s malthusian moments

The last post makes a reference - almost in passing - to one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund, Julian Huxley, being a massive eugenicist. It’s a topic worth picking up in a bit more detail, not least because it’s a knotty one.

Long before there were people who worried about climate change, there were people who worried about overpopulation. As worries about climate change grew, the concerns would sometimes intersect, and the augheat that climate change should be addressed via birth control comes up every now and again. When it does, it tends to be controversial, managing to annoy the religious right, socialists, and a host of other ideologies between and around them.

Let’s start the in the 19th century, story with Francis Galton. Born in 1822 in Birmingham, his parents were ‘lunar children ’ - they met via their fathers’ membership of debating dinner club called the Lunar Society, so-called because meet on the full moon, which meant they had light to travel home by. As part of the extended lunar family, Galton shared a grandfather with Charles Darwin, and grew up in an environment steeped with science, invention, industry and politics.

Galton was a bit of a polymath. He invented the weather map, researched synesthesia and fingerprints, played all sorts of games with composite photography, and popularised the statistical term ‘regression toward the mean’. If you want to know how to scientifically cut a cake, he’s your guy. He also infamously produced a ‘beauty map’ of the UK secretly rating local women’s attractiveness, and declaring Aberdeen the ugliest (he had a special counting glove to study without being notice, the creep).

Galton started to obsess about the topic of hereditary after cousin Charlie finally got round to publishing Origin in 1859. For Galton, Darwin’s ideas of evolution via natural selection were a starting point for a programme of social selection, where people deemed ‘the fittest’ - be this because of their strength, intelligence, beauty or something else - would be encouraged to reproduce. As a former child prodigy, Galton was especially interested in intelligence as a form of fitness. In case you were wondering, he had no children himself.

He coined the word eugenics - from the Greek for eugenes for good in stock - in 1883 and soon after established a lab at the South Kensington Museum (now split into the V&A and the Science Museum). He also financed a eugenics laboratory and professorship at UCL, which still bears his name. UCL dropped the reference to eugenics in the early 60s but it continues to cause a fair bit of controversy.

Eugenics speedily became popular with a range of academics and social reformers. UCL wasn't the only university in the early 20th century where it was studied - see, for example, Charles Davenport, director of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in the US. There were international conferences, several states even developed sterilisation policies based on eugenics, and organisations like the Immigration Restriction League would draw on eugenics to argue particular groups should be barred from entering the US.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the growth of eugenics sometimes overlapped with fights for reproductive rights too - just one of the many ways white, middle class feminism has a history of being deeply problematic. Marie Stopes being one of the most prominent names in the UK (fact fans: she was also really into coal, but that’s a totally different story). In the US, there was Margaret Sanger (your largely irrelevant fact for Sanger - her niece was one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman, some say Sanger was an inspiration for it too).

Eugenics wasn’t simply a position of the extreme right wing, but of the centre right, centre left and some strands of socialism too, especially in the UK. George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, HG Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb - they all supported eugenics. The liberal economist William Beveridge - highly influential in the establishment of the British welfare state - was staunch eugenicist, for example. In 1909 he wrote that men who couldn't work should be supported by the state, but loss any right to fatherhood. There’s a fascinating bit in Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s book Genes, Cells and Brains where they explain that, as junior academics at the University of London in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year for each of their children - a policy brought in by Beveridge, to encourage all those bright young academics employed at the university to reproduce. If you’re shocked by this, Sir Paul Nurse cracked a joke along these lines in reference to a new lab in London a few years back.

And it’s within the tradition of liberal, academic British eugenicists that we can circle back to Julian Huxley. As discussed in the last post, Huxley was a key player in the founding of the World Wildlife Fund, and the first director general of UNESCO. But he was also active in the British Eugenics society - their vice-president 1937-1944, and president 1959-1962. The latter of these two dates is worth noting - this wasn’t someone who dabbled in some liberal eugenics in their youth then clocked where the Nazis were taking things and came to their senses post-war.

I should stress, Huxley was a vocal critic of the more extreme ends of eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, dubbing Nazi idea of race 'pseudo-science' and co-authoring an explicitly anti-Nazi book, We Europeans, in 1936. Still, he stuck to an idea that some people were better than others, and if we let inferior people breed without control, he worried, we'd all be doomed. As historian Paul Weindling points out, Huxley was a complex character, playing a sort of ‘bridging role’ between the old eugenics of the early 20th century and a newer, more molecularly-based and socially acceptable one. He reminds us that Huxley advocated restrictive immigration controls in the 1920s, and that although in his role at London Zoo in the 30s and 40s, he supported refugee scientists fleeing Nazia, this could be linked to his evolutionary agendas (i.e. save the brains)

Huxley was also clearly worried about the size of the human population in general - not just of specific groups. He wrote concerns about overpopulation into the 1947 founding manifesto he wrote for Unesco (Its purpose and its philosophy, pdf), arguing there is an optimum population size or the world, and that ‘man’s blind reproductive urges’ should be controlled. You can also see a worry about overpopulation in the essays which inspired WWF, the header of the first article crying: "Millions of wild animals have already disappeared from Africa this century. Does the wildlife of the continent now face extinction – threatened by increases in population and the growth of industry in the emergent nations? What, if anything, can be done to safeguard it?"

His emphasis on Africa is worth picking up. Maybe that was just where he was looking at, right then, and it wouldn’t be fair to think he was being a massive racist. He had just come back from a tour of the continent. But I personally can’t shake a sense that there was quite a lot of racism going on there - a worry about black bodies and, arguably, a romanticisation of a sense of wildness wrapped up in a very colonial idea of Africa. What was he trying to save in Africa, from what and who for?

But let’s park that - you can make your own mind up - and wind back to the late 18th century to unpick some of the history of worries of overpopulation. Although eugenics and worries about population have sometimes travelled together, they do have their own, independent history.

Enter Robert Malthus. Born in Surrey, England, in 1766, he was the first professor of political economy in Britain and is most famous for a 1798 essay on the topic of population growth. This argued, loosely, that the growth of people can outstrip our ability to grow food.

Malthus was responding in part to his father’s interest in the French Revolution, and the work of William Godwin (aka Mary Shelley’s dad, fact-fans), who argued we could perfect society and diminish suffering. Contrary to more utopian political thinkers of the time, Malthus felt improvements in society would just mean more people, which in turn would mean more mouths to feed, and so at least some of the population pulled back into to poverty. So we couldn’t just make the world better, it’d always be pulled back into suffering.

As you might have guessed already, Malthus wasn’t massively popular with everyone on the left. Marx and Engels called him the ‘lackey of the bourgeoisie’, arguing the problem of overpopulation was really one of economic structure. Foreshadowing debates about the Limits to Growth a century later, Engels also emphasised the role science might play in help solve the problem of food supply. Still, Malthus was pretty influential, not least via his role as professor at the East India Company College - where apparently students would call him ‘Pop’, short for population - and public debate over the 1834 Poor Laws. Some people argue he was an inspiration for Dicken’s character of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Various flavours of neo-malthusian thought crop up throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Malthus himself wasn’t a fan of contraception, there are connections between Malthusian groups and those promoting/ offering forms of ‘family planning’, just as there was with eugenics. A contraception organisation named the Malthusian League was active from 1877 to 1927 (founded in part by Annie Besant who I wish had more to do with climate change because she is super-interesting). Julian’s little brother Aldus weaves a reference to it in Brave New World - there are ‘Malthusian belts’ for carrying contraceptives.

Wherever they cropped up, neo-malthusian beliefs would anger people, either because they don't like contraception, or they don't like the idea of controlling people’s bodies, or they find it pessimistic, counter-revolutionary in some way, or simply misanthropic. Attitudes to malthusianism didn’t simply fall along neat ideological lines. A belief in women's rights, for example, might draw you to malthusian groups, but equally might well mean you find them repellant. The same could be said for environmentalism, or conservatism, or socialism. Malthusian ideas aren’t simple, and neither are any of the groups which love or hate it.

The second half of the 20th century, saw a particularly strong neo-malthusian revival. In 1948 a book called Our Plundered Planet came out, authored by Henry Fairfield Osborn Jnr - conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society (and son of eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn Snr). Fairfield was also a founder of the Conservation Foundation, a New York based organisation which ran one of the early international conferences on global warming (in 1963) and later, in 1990, merged into the World Wildlife Fund. Another member of the Conservation Foundation - and former director of Planned Parenthood - ornithologist William Vogt, also wrote a 1948 bestseller in the vein of neo-malthusian thought, Road to Survival.

In 1968, another book - the Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich his wife, Anne - was published, deliberately designed to bring neo-malthusianism to the mainstream. Written partly on the suggestion of David Brower (then executive director of the Sierra Club, just before he left and founded Friends of the Earth) the book made provocative, arguably alarmist claims, warning of imminent mass starvation and calling for immediate action to control population growth.

The mid 20th century has seen some rapid population growth, but that was only part of the reason why neo-Malthusianism was catching on. As Thomas Robertson's book, the Malthusian Moment, argues, population intersected with concerns over national security, race, and women's rights. Neo-malthusians caught on in parts of public attention because people weren’t just worried about population on a global level (even if this is what they talked about) they were worried about a threat to the American sense of self. The title Population Bomb might have simply been picked because they thought it’d help the book sell, but they did still go with the word bomb, and that’s revealing (about the market they perceived, if not the authors).

Reagan and the New Right managed to stop the neo-malthusians from gaining much power beyond the 1970s, but population control groups do still run on. Today, they range from the absurdist - like the Church of Euthanasia - to more conventional NGOs like Population Connection (founded in 1968 in the wake of Ehrlich's book), Population Action International (founded in 1965 as the Population Crisis Committee), or Population Matters (which has the darling of mainstream environmentalism, David Attenborough, as a patron).

Many of these groups have worked hard to shake the dodgier bits of population control’s past, presenting themselves as evidence based, with a focus on women’s empowerment.  Still, it’s wrong to simply file environmentalism under ‘progressive’ and imagine everyone involved also holds a load of other beliefs you might put under that umbrella - anti-racist, feminist, socialist, or otherwise. It’s way more complex than that. Immigration has been a particular sticking point for a few environmental groups - see, for example, fights in the Sierra Club, or the criticisms levelled at Population Matters when it comes to their stance on Syrian refugees.

Although there were a few headlines recently along the lines of ‘save the planet, don’t breed’ after a paper by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas on individual climate action (the actual paper’s very accessible if you want to read behind the news), very few mainstream environmentalists campaign on population. Some population control advocates argue this is because the topic is taboo, and climate campaigners need to be up for a fight - whether it’s with the catholic church, or just their supporters who have several kids and don’t want to feel bad about it. Still, there are campaigners who say similar things about veganism and flying.

Moreover, as Dave Roberts points out, yes, population is totally a factor in environmental impact, but some population units emit more than others. So maybe we should be working to avoid the creation of extremely wealthy people, rather than simply the creation of people. And, following this logic, rather that talking about population, maybe we should be asking more questions about income inequality? 


Three NGOs in search of a cooler future - WWF, Greenpeace and 350.org

So far, this project has mainly focused on the history of science, with some global politics around the edges. But the growth of civil society institutions as part this story too.

So here’s a short sketch of three - WWF, Greenpeace and 350.org. It’s just those three, and it’s just a sketch, but I’ve picked them to bring out different parts of the broader picture, and I hope they say something climate movement at large.

So, starting with the youngest and working backwards:


350 is often associated with the writer Bill McKibben, but it’s never just been about him.

As the strapline on the website describes it, 350 was ‘founded by a group of university friends’. To add some detail, as their executive director May Boeve describes it, they were coming to the end of her undergraduate degree in the early 00s, and planning ways to play a role in helping the climate movement up its game. There’s a sweet and very 2000s story of how they made a GIS map overlaying coal reserves, wind energy potential and microbreweries (the latter being a proxy for somewhere they wanted to live) and settled on Billings, Montana as a place to build a base. Then Bill McKibben came to down, with a 5 day walk across the state of Vermont. He asked them if they’d be up for building a national version of this. The Billings idea got shelved, and Step it Up 2007 was formed, with 350.org established from it, in 2008.

These were relatively heady days for the climate change movement, in the run up to the 2009 UN talks in Copenhagen. 350 was fuelled by a sense that even avowed environmentalists were not taking the huge challenge of climate change seriously and it was time to wake up from such complacency. But they weren’t alone in feeling this, and people were at least talking about climate change a fair bit at the time. Still, although 350s was forged in pre-Copenhagen energy (dubbed Hopenhagen at its most crass), the bulk of their successes happened later, in the wake of Copenhagen’s failure. Indeed, it could be argued that 350 is very much a post-Copenhagen NGO. Or, at least, we should credit them with building momentum when many others in the climate movement had retreated to lick their wounds (literally in the case of some activists). While others were weighed down by their own histories of hope, these younger, fresher upstarts not only kept the movement running, they brought in new participants and took it in whole new directions.

The .org in the name dates them a bit as a 00s project too. A lot of there work is online but - again, arguably, characteristic of a late 00s group - it’s always been about mixing digital with an investment in offline interaction. The org in 350.org is maybe better understood as embodying the spirit of web culture as connected, networked, and international. Boeve puts it well when she talks of 350 as “less on central control and more interconnectedness among networks.” These are all attributes of many environmental groups - long before the web, let alone before 350 (Friends of the Earth being an obvious example) - and many older organisations have grown as leaders in digital campaigning, but 350 personifies it particularly strongly.

Another way in which 350 is rather 21st century organisation is their connection with the mantra ‘keep it in the ground’. Articulated so iconically in Mckibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone essay, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, this puts the focus very squarely on the burning of fossil fuels. Crucially, the problem isn’t a sense that we’ll run out of oil, coal or gas - the 70s idea that we’re too speedily ripping through the planet’s resources and so need ‘renewable’ fuels instead - but that we can’t burn even the stocks we have relatively easy access too.

The 350 in 350.org is a nod to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as measured on Dr Keeling’s graph) as a 'safe upper limit'. We were already hurtling 400ppm by the time it was founded. In fact, some of the younger members of 350’s staff have probably always lived in a world over 350. That doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for action, if anything it helps power it.



A lot of the modern green movement can trace some of its history to the late 60s/ early 1970s. The civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements all influenced activists, as did anti-colonial struggles and principles of nonviolent direct action.

The newer social movements of the time often celebrated notions of change coming from the bottom up and/ or developing shared power (even if this was sometimes little more lip service). A network of groups would work on a local level to take action and raise awareness. They might also fundraise to help support a national office which would, in turn, coordinate actions, offer administrative support, work to seed new local groups, develop relationships with the press and possibly politicians, run investigations and develop expertise. National offices would sometimes also be subsidised by further fundraising efforts - either from very rich individuals or trusts and foundations. Unlike the workers movement, these groups would work in social spaces outside of the cultures of work, and focus on cultural and social change, rather than just an economic lens.

Greenpeace is one of these movements. Friends of the Earth is a good example too, one I wish I had space to discuss on it’s own. There’s a great story about a building in Poland Street, Soho, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to offer office space for a mix of single-issue pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, which was dubbed by the papers ‘the counter-civil service’ (and, I’m guessing, was heavily bugged). But that’s for another time.

Greenpeace started in 1971, infamously, in a fishing boat off the coast of Vancouver. In fact, Greenpeace was, initially, just the name of the boat, funded from a benefit concert to campaign against nuclear weapons testing.

There is some controversy over who exactly was part of this first group, with the role of Paul Watson (who founded Sea Shepherd) and Patrick Moore (not the astronomer, later somewhat controversial in environmentalist circles) particularly contested. Names that often get mentioned include Dorothy and Irving Stowe, Marie and Jim Bohlen, Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, Bill Darnell and Robert Hunter. If anything, Greenpeace itself celebrates the ambiguity of its origins - joking that you can walk into any bar in Vancouver and meet someone who claims to have founded Greenpeace - it doesn’t belong to one individual or another, it’s always been about collecting around the cause.

The campaign itself was the ‘Don't Make a Wave Committee’. Specifally, they were opposed to the US testing nuclear weapons near the Alaskan island of Amchitka. People had been worried the nuclear explosion would trigger a tsunami, hence ‘don’t make a wave’. Frustrated that large, established environmental organisations - like the Sierra Club - weren’t doing enough, they’d taken matters into their own hands. There’s a story that at one of the early planning meetings, Irving Stowe flashed the peace sign (something he did a lot) and the usually quiet ecologist Bill Darnell replied, offhand: "Make it a green peace." When they tried to put both words on the 25c badges they were selling for the fundraiser, there wasn’t room, so they cut the space and merged them: Green Peace became Greenpeace.

They wanted to let the US military know that even if they were going to go ahead with this test, the campaigners weren’t happy about it. They’d turn up, get in the way and be seen. But the voyage wasn't exactly a success. There was bad weather. And they were tiny, up against military tech. Plus the activists fell out. As Marie Bohlen put it later, "Here we were, supposedly saving the world through our moral example, emulating the Quakers, no less, when in reality we spent most of our time at each other's throats, egos clashing, the group fatally divided from start to finish."

Still, it created media interest. And off the back of that, they built a global movement. First shifting focus from Alaska to French nuclear testing at the Moruroa Atoll and then, later, to include whaling. By the mid 1970s there nearly 20 greenpeace groups around the world.

It took until the 1990s before they really got active on climate change, though it’s now a core part of their work. Still, in contrast to climate specific NGOs like 350, it does sit within a broader range of campaigns, saving forests and oceans, for example, for the sake of forests and oceans, rather than just their ability to help us sequester carbon (and having a very particular historical relationship to nuclear).

Greenpeace is sometimes criticised for putting climate behind other environmental issues - climate change might be the reasons for action, but it’ll hide behind a polar bear or a gorilla. It’s more save the Narwhal, than carbon. Still, this critique doesn’t always ring true, but it is part of what makes them a bit more akin to 20th century environmentalist or conservationist groups like the Sierra Club or WWF, compared to 350.

Greenpeace’s calling card has always been the ability to generate a spectacle, be it in the form of a surprise stunt - sometimes artistic, and only built in high secrecy - or, increasingly in recent years, a well plotted investigation. Although most other NGOs use these tactics too (and Greenpeace itself has more strings in its bow) this is where their expertise really shines.


The World Wildlife Fund

If the civil rights movement and anti-war protests set the scene for Greenpeace, then the World Wildlife Fund (usually known as WWF, or sometimes as the Pandas) is a bit more of a post-War beast, even if it wasn’t founded until 1961.

A key character in the formation of WWF was one Julian Huxley. Yep, one of those Huxleys - his granddad was the chap with the sideburns that gets talked about in histories of Darwin/ Victorian science education reform, and his little brother wrote Brave New World. Julian was an evolutionary biologist and writer. Before the Second World War, he'd run London Zoo, and is sometimes credited for helping make it more child friendly. He also coined the term transhumanism, was a massive eugenicist and, after witnessing the treatment of geneticists in the USSR, a vocal critic of Stalin. But those are stories for another time.

Post war, Huxley was appointed as the first director general of UNESCO. Although this was meant to be a six year term, it was cut to only two in his case (his politics annoyed the Americans, so the story goes). Still, Huxley had a key role in setting UNESCO’s philosophical underpinnings, and was influential in setting up the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) - the people who draw up that annual 'red list' of threatened species.

Jump to 1960, and Huxley got back from an UNESCO trip in Africa, shocked and angered by the destruction of wildlife. Being the opinionated and well connected man he was, he turned this anger into a trio of articles for Sunday newspaper, the Observer.  

A reader, businessman Victor Stolan, read it and, sitting in his home in South Kensington, penned a letter to Huxley, arguing they needed to set up an international fundraising organisation. Huxley replied, fixing him up with Max Nicholson, who had worked on the ICUN, and they took advice from ad man Guy Mountfort, as well as Godfrey Rockefeller (yep, one of those Rockefellers, albeit a slightly less oily end of the family) and ornithologist Peter Scott (who was another one with a famous family, his father was ‘of the Antarctic fame’).

Along the way, they dropped Stolan - according to the Observer, this was possibly due to snobbishness around his work as a hotelier and status as a Czechoslovakian refugee - something Stolan was apparently less than happy about.

After a handful of meetings they had a plan - the Morges Manifesto, named so because it was set up at IUCN's headquarters in Morges, Switzerland - and a name for the organisation, the World Wildlife Fund. It was launched at the Royal Society of Arts, London in September 1961, with the Duke of Edinburgh as the first president of the British appeal.

Today, as with Greenpeace, climate change is a big part of their work, but often hides behind some form of charismatic megafauna or another (panda or otherwise). They are sometimes criticised for being too eager to work with the sorts of corporations others in the green movement are fighting against. At the same time, some would argue this is their strength, or at least they are needed in the ecosystem of green NGOs, alongside more radical voices. The approach to corporate relationships is, arguably, the big distinction between WWF and Greenpeace (though, interestingly, they both recently partnered on an offshore wind campaign in the UK which included companies you really wouldn’t expect Greenpeace to work with).

And the panda? It was inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda that had arrived at London Zoo that year. It was appealing, in danger and black and white (i.e. cheaper to print).  


We can see legacies of these histories still at play today. If 350 is about grassroots organising - often digital - for large scale change, and Greenpeace is about spectacle and mischievously disrupting the status quo, WWF works within large and established pools of political, scientific and corporate power. In practise all three of these organisations are mature and complex enough to use a mix of tactics, and sometimes overlap. But their histories all still have an imprint, making them different from one another, and reflecting the mix of different approaches, relationships and ideologies which have built the modern green movement. It’s easy to lump climate campaigners together - and it’s true that they can be complicit in this, presenting an image of working together - but it’s always been a lot more complex than that. 


Putting a number of catastrophe - the story of two degrees

There’s been a bit of fuss recently surrounding a new paper on how much more carbon we can blow before we’re really, really screwed.

Headlines varied from strong denier – we’re all fine and the scientists lied – to softer variations on this theme – hey guys, stop feeling guilty about that flight, things were going to be ok after all – with only a few really getting the point that this is only an update to current science which may, possibly, offer a tiny crack of sunshine within of what otherwise is still a pretty bleak view.

Let’s be very clear. All the authors are saying is that they now think that it is not geophysically impossible that we might manage to only heat the earth by one and a half degrees. There is still a massive gap between something being ‘not geophysically impossible’ and it becoming a political, economic, social and cultural inevitability (a massive gap, it should be said, we aren’t filling very quickly).

It’s also important to remember that this figure of 1.5°C global warming isn’t exactly all happiness and unicorns. It’s just a figure various parties have settled on as a line we’d rather not cross. They’ve settled on it based on a load of science, but also some morals, some arguing, a fair bit of compromise and the odd bit of laziness and misunderstanding too.

The production of numbers like 1.5°C (or 350ppm, or the year 2020) are based in science – which itself is based on reading nature – but are also, perhaps inevitably, massively political. Numbers like these can offer an illusion of a weird sort of pure faciticity, a sense of truth beyond human meddling. But they are a long way from that, and we should be careful about endowing them with quasi-religious power. We need to remain attuned to the politics that helped build these numbers and bring them to our attention, along with other human actions which made these numbers, like just being a bit crap and lazy.

So here’s a bit of background on all this talk of 1.5°C to help us get a better sense of what it means.

To start off with, a small sketch of the scientific work that goes into this number. This 1.5°C number refers to the average temperature for the whole world, for the whole year, above what it was before we started pumping out all that extra carbon dioxide in the industrial revolution. By average, it’s the ‘mean average’ which means they added up all the numbers for the year and divided it by the amount of numbers they had. Although both temperatures and climate change impacts vary by place-to-place and time-to-time, this collective temperature check on the planet is a useful signpost, offering an iconic sign of where we’re going. 

You’ve probably seen Ed Hawkins’ gif showing warming over time (it featured in the Rio Olympics). If not, or in case you just want a reminder:


In case you’re curious where we are at the moment, it was a bit under one degree in 2016. It was the warmest on record.

What counts as ‘pre-industrial’ is an interesting question. Most research works from 1850-1900 as a baseline. But maybe that’s a bit too late in terms of when we really started pumping out all that carbon, plus it’s a bit messy because of some big volcanic eruptions around then. So some people argue we should be working from 1720-1800. But on the whole, if you see ‘pre-industrial’ in a global temperature context, it means end of the 19th century.

In terms of how we get this number, we can’t just stick a thermometer under the planet’s armpit and have a row over whether it’s well or enough to go to school. The truth is a pretty awe-inspiring mix of methods, with temperature stations on land, sea and in even in space. There are four major data sets. One in Japan, two in the USA and a fourth in the UK. When it comes to measurements on land, scientists tend not to physically stick thermometers in the ground either, but instead go for the air, usually a meter and a half above the ground in weather stations – so strictly speaking, when scientists say 'surface temperatures' they mean nearish-to-the-surface temperatures. When they measure the water, it usually goes in between 1mm and 20m deep, often over the side of a ship, or using buoys. Up in space, satellites use infrared and microwave data. When scientists make conclusions about the Earth’s temperature they draw on a mix of multiple sources to get the fullest picture possible. (If you want more on this topic, there’s a great Carbon Brief explainer, and a really useful blogpost from Imperial College).

And this C thing? It’s Celsius, which you probably know about from the weather (unless you are American) or school. It’s a system first proposed in 1742 by a Swedish scientist named Anders Celsius. His scale was built from the freezing and boiling points of water – no degrees at one end, and one hundred at the other. Anything colder than the freezing point of water was minus something or other, and obviously it was easy to go above 100 degrees for things that were hotter. Celsius originally called it a centigrade scale, from the Latin for ‘one hundred steps’ and it’s handy for us humans because we like to count using our fingers (i.e. in tens) and we spend a lot of time playing with water. How we came to measure temperature in the ways we do is a story for another time though (read Hasok Chang if you’re interested) the point to remember is that like all ways of measuring temperature it’s made up, but it’s useful. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the numbers that might seem neat and significant to us – us humans with our ten fingers – like 1.5 or 100 or 2 are just numbers on a scale. Nature has its own games to play.

But to really get a sense of why 1.5°C is a big deal, we also need to understand its political history too.

One of the key things to come out of the 2015 Paris climate talks was an agreement to at least ‘pursue efforts’ to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Writing in Nature Climate Change in summer 2016, a group of scientists led by Daniel Mitchell at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford described this as one of the most momentous decisions of the decade (paywall free edition if you want to read it).

This was important because, up till then, people had mainly been throwing 2°C around as the big scary number we should work together to avoid.

And why 2°C?

I’d love to say it was because back at the end of the 20th century, some scientists – well funded to do the best, most comprehensive work – carefully calculated this figure as the safest possible limit we humans and our carbon emissions could push the planet’s climate to. They then collaborated closely with those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change to give advice to politicians who made wise and caring decisions based on that. Then, by 2015, the science had been updated so, again, everyone sagely changed their minds and we upped ambition.

But sadly our approach climate policy didn’t work out like that.

Wind back the early 1990s. Things were hotting up in climate change, and not just in terms of the actual planet getting warmer (although that was a thing too).

The science was building, and politicians and advocacy groups were picking up the pace too. Thatcher had made her speech to the UN in 1989 Nasa’s James Hansen had been getting press for his testimony to the US Senate. And policy makers were, perhaps understandably, asking the question ‘what counts as really, really bad?’ What would count, numerically count, as a catastrophe?

It’s understandable that in order to build international agreements they wanted some simple, guiding numbers. Stuff to talk to voters and businesses and newspapers and each other about. A numbers or two which would offer the basis for target setting, the distribution of various funds and commitments.

Still, it’s arguably also a somewhat disingenuous question to ask, as they’re really kind of asking 'how long can I put this off for?' Plus, it’s not necessarily a fair question to ask scientists. For all that scientist can tell you about the ways in we are warming the planet and might in the future, as well as the sorts of impacts this might have, what counts as 'bad' is a subjective, moral point for the politicians and wider society to work out for themselves.

Researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute did try to offer some sort of detail though, with a report published in 1990 on targets and indicators of climate change (full thing if you want to read it). This referred to two different targets - 1°C and 2°C. They recognised that even with a lot of speedy action we were likely to go beyond 1°C but at the same time 2°C degrees was a long way from safe. Sadly, too many seemed to take this 2°C line as some sort of speed limit to try to avoid (or just feel naughty if you passed) rather than the massive flashing 'toxic danger danger do not go anywhere near this' sign it was meant as.

If you want to scratch back a bit further, 2°C has some history in the 1970s with a couple of papers from Yale economist, William Nordhaus. He refers, almost in passing, to 2°C as a point where we’d have pushed the climate beyond the limits humans were familiar with. As David Titley argues, Nordhaus was thinking out loud about what what a reasonable limit for carbon emission might be, and clear that science alone shouldn't set this limit – it must account for both society’s values and available technologies. Nordhaus himself stressed how ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ his thought process was, and it’s perhaps rather painful to think that it ultimately became a cornerstone of international climate policy.

Back to the policy-chat. The 1992 Rio talks fudged things a bit, saying they didn’t want ‘dangerous’ climate change, but without opening a can of worms over what this thing they called dangerous actually looked like, precisely.

The EU wanted something more though, and in 1996, the European Council of environment ministers formally adopted two degrees as the line they didn’t want to cross. As Carbon Brief point out in their long read on the idea of the two degrees ‘speed limit’, the signatories to that statement included people who now sit at the forefront of international climate politics – the current chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, John Gummer, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. 

As 2°C made its way from the EU to global climate policy, were three key (and conflicting) problems with this idea of two degrees. Firstly, for some, it seemed just way too ambitious. It meant dropping fossil fuels at a rate many would just not stand. Secondly, at the same time, it wasn’t nearly ambitious enough. Letting our planet warm by two degrees would put too many people in danger. Finally, it didn't really help policy makers work out what we need to do and communicate this action to the wider public (in contrast, a set of broader 'vital signs' might be more helpful).  

Roll on to the 21st century, and the Kyoto protocol was due an update. A joint editorial published by 56 global newspapers before the 2009 Copenhagen talks explicitly referred to two degrees as a way in which ‘the science is complex but the facts are clear.’

Except it was far from clear. It made for a good slogan to build momentum in the face of people who would rather keep burning oil than take action, but didn’t ignored the fact that for a lot of the world, two degrees was still very dangerous indeed.

At 2°C, parts of southwest Asia, including places with big populations like the Persian Gulf and Yemen, would be basically uninhabitable without pretty drastic air conditioning. Just that half a degree between 1.5°C and 2°C could half corn yields in parts of Africa, and mean total flooding of many coastal regions and islands. We pretty much loose the coral reefs if we go beyond 1.5°C too. (useful Fread Pearce feature if you want to read more).

And yet 2°C was still way too ambitious for a lot of people. The Copenhagen talks pretty much collapsed, and wasn’t until the following year, in Cancun, that the UN could agree to “hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”

As we moved towards the Paris talks in 2015, climate policy chat was increasingly suffused with the idea of 2°C. If there was doubt, it was more likely to be around whether 2°C was possible than whether it was desirable.

Indeed, the focus was so squarely on 2°C that when the UN negotiators in Paris emerged with a commitment not at least try to keep to 1.5°C there wasn’t even much research to help us work out how to do that. The UN asked the IPCC – an international body that assesses the state of scientific literature on climate change – to issue a special report on 1.5°C, to be published in October 2018. Work like that paper that caused all the fuss the other week is part of the work scientists are doing to find out more.

So, where does that leave us? Is 2°C safe? Depends where you’re standing but no, not really. Is 1.5°C safe? Again, depends where you’re standing, but it does look better. Should we be annoyed that the climate policy of the 1990s and 2000s has left us targets that were both way too ambitious and no where near ambitious enough? Yeah, I think so. Can we manage to keep to below 1.5°C warming? Theoretically, yes. 

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.