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

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 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 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 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 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.


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