If oil, coal and gas are fossilised sunshine, why not take a more direct route?

If oil, coal and gas are fossilised sunshine, why not take a more direct route?

Meet Augustin Mouchot, a man with an amazingly vertical moustache, and a vision for sunshine-power way ahead of his time.

Born in Semur-en-Auxois - a medieval town in Eastern France, roughly halfway between Paris and Lyon - in April 1825, Mouchot started working life as a maths teacher, but managed to get government funding to study solar power full time.

He started playing with Saussure’s solar ovens - which, you might remember, also helped Fourier come up with the idea we know call the greenhouse effect - as a way to develop steam power without the need for coal. Put a cauldron inside a glass box acting as a small greenhouse, sit it in the sun till the water boils, then power a small engine off the steam.

But, wanting more power than a solar oven could produce, Mouchot developed the first parabolic solar trough - a sort of massive funnel of mirrors that concentrates the sunlight. The tech’s still used today, in concentrated solar plants (though it looks a bit different).

His first model was presented to Napoleon, but sadly seems to have been a casualty of Franco-Prussian War, as machine was not found after the siege of paris in 1871 ended.

Because it’s not just fossil fuels which have histories wrapped up in colonialism, Mouchot received a grant from the French government to conduct a ‘scientific mission’ to Algeria to experiment with their, especially abundant, sunshine. He returned to Paris for the 1878 Exposition Universelle - a World's Fair to celebrate the recovery of France after the Franco-Prussian War - to show off his new solar developments, which is where the illustration above comes from. Apparently part of the idea used ice to concentrate the solar energy, which sounds super-clever and it won a prize, though I'm not sure what he did exactly. His assistant Abel Pifre also developed a solar powered printing press too. Apparently, even when it was cloudy, the press could work continuously all afternoon, producing 500 copies an hour of a special solar-themed publication produced for the event, the ‘Soleil-Journal’.

But coal was cheap. And solar power wasn't really all that efficient. Yet. So the French government cut Mouchot’s solar research funding, and he went back to teaching maths.

The movement of electrons we’d now generally think of as solar power - solar photovoltaics, those shimmery, blue squares your neighbour maybe has on their roof - took a bit longer to get going. But the basic principle that you can make electricity when sunshine falls on particular substances also dates back to the mid-19th century.

In 1839, a young scientist (just 19, working in his father's lab), Edmond Becquerel first observed what we’d now call the photovoltaic effect, noticing he could create a very small electric current when plates of some metals were immersed in an acid solution and exposed to sunlight.

Next up, English electrical engineer, Willoughby Smith, discovered the a photovoltaic effect of light on selenium and published his results in the journal Nature in 1873. Then in 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts built what could be described as the world’s first solar cell (though there are a few stages along the way that also claim that title) using selenium and a very thin layer of gold. It was only 1% efficient, so wasn’t exactly going to compete with coal yet. But it was a start, and there followed a flurry of patents and proto solar entrepreneurs around the turn of the century, even if the tech had to wait till the Cold War to really get going.

The next key step in solar energy was an accidental discovery at Bell Labs in 1940. Russell Shoemaker Ohl was playing with some silicon samples, and noticed one with a crack in it. Impurities had built up on either side of the crack, one side positively charged, the other negative. When he shone light on this odd little broken and dirty sample, a current would flow. Ohl had inadvertently made a positive-negative junction, the basis of the modern solar cell. A load of positive charge builds up on one side, and a load of negative charge builds up on the other, creating an electric field. Photons can then kickstart the flow of electrons (aka electricity). This was the first silicon based solar cell, and though it was still no more efficient than Fritt’s 1880s selenium idea, was the basis of a lot of our modern solar industry. Diodes - like LED lights - are also descendants of this research.

Over a decade later, in 1953, another Bell Labs researcher, engineer Daryl Chaplin was looking into power for remote humid locations, and dug up the idea of solar power. He teamed up with chemist Calvin Fuller and physicist Ferald Person, who convinced him to switch from selenium to silicon, and then tinkering with adding different impurities to make them more efficient, eventually settling on mix of arsenic and boron.

Bell Labs proudly presented their new 6% efficient cells to the world in April, 1954, using a strip of them to run first toy ferris wheel, and then a radio transmitter that could broadcast music to top scientists gathered at a meeting DC (solar PR started a long time before Elon Musk…). Happily getting on board with the solar hype, the New York Times wrote the new invention ‘may mark the beginning of a new era… the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.’

The serious application wasn’t toys or radios though. It was space. In March 1958, Vanguard 1 used Hoffman Electronics new 9% efficient solar cells to power the first solar satellite. By the 1960s, solar had become the main power source for most Earth orbiting satellites - it's partly because there isn't much else to choose from up there, so it’s worth the cost, and the money the space programme poured into solar research helped bring down prices for terrestrial applications.

Vanguard 1 is still up there - the oldest manmade satellite in orbit, even though we lost communications with it in 1964 - if you want to give it a wave some time.

Like wind, the oil dramas of the 70s led to a bit more investment in solar energy, including some investment from oil companies. In 1973, the University of Delaware also unveiled Solar One - a super energy efficient solar house - to showcase domestic solar living. It was visited by over 100,000 people in its first year, before being repurposed into a student home, and then university offices.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House, which were later infamously removed by Regan, and reintroduced by Obama. As Nature points out, in the meantime, some solar panels quietly installed in the White House garden under George W. Bush, seemingly without his knowledge, or interest “which seems to sum up his attitude to greenhouse-gas emissions rather well”.

Carter also introduced feed-in-tariffs in 1978 - a way of encouraging investment in renewables. One of the impacts of feed-in-tariff policies, around the world, has been to encourage everyday homeowners and community groups to get involved in energy production by tapping into the relatively easy deployment of technologies like solar and wind, and that they can be built in a range of different sizes.

In the last few decades solar’s steadily got a lot bigger. It’s also got incredibly cheap. It remains ridiculously popular with the general public, and the press retain an enthusiasm for stories of gee whiz solar awesomeness (from solar made from tofu to spray-on solar).

The popularity might be something in the association with sunshine as pleasant weather - at least compared to wind - or maybe the tech has never worn off the space age sense of shiny futuristic utopia (even if that utopia is a good 60 years old, even 120 years old in places). It could also be that so many of us have the chance to interact with solar, putting it on our schools, houses or community buildings ourselves, not just looking at it from afar, in a field and expecting other people to deal with energy supply for us. Solar isn’t democratic or decentralised by its nature - it could all just be done in large scale, closed systems - but it has the possibility to be so.

When it comes to solar’s future, it’s safe to bet we’ll see a lot more of it, and it’ll be a lot cheaper. Possibly it’ll be made from tofu and/ or beamed down to us from space, but it probably doesn’t need to be it. Coupled with storage, it’ll applied on domestic level more and more, as well as on a large scale. Similar to possible futures for wind energy, who’ll own it is another matter though.

But this whole post has mainly an excuse to share one of the corniest songs in the history of climate change - Pete Seeger’s Solartopia. So press play, and allow yourself a few moments of cheesy hope.

When wind power got big

You can read the first part of this story - the early history of wind power - if you want, or skip that and treat this as a stand alone post.

If we want to pinpoint the moment wind got big, we should start in the USSR. In 1931, the Soviets built a 100kW, 100 foot turbine in Yalta. To put that in some context, the turbines Joe and Marcellus Jacobs were pushing out at their factory in Minnesota around the same time were just 1.5 to 3 kilowatts. There were bigger ones, but this was still a whole new magnitude.

I’d love to know more about this turbine - if anyone has any tips, do send them over. I just know it was weirdly big for its time, and reportedly ran well for a good decade.

Over in the US, a man called Palmer Putman figured he could better. Ten times better even - the first megawatt.

The story of Putnam’s massive turbine is a good one, but not exactly illustrious. An MIT trained geologist, Putman had no particular background in generating electricity. But he had ambition, he was charming, and he was well-connected enough to raise some cash and interest. Before long, his 1250kW turbine was taking shape on top of a mountain in Vermont named Grandpa’s Knob (British people: stop sniggering).

As Alexis Madrigal explains, this was a huge undertaking. The turbine’s tower came from a bridge builder in Pennsylvania, where the blades were also built, but then everything was put together in Ohio before being shipped to Vermont (some great photos at the Wind-Works website). It was too heavy for local roads, so they had to temporarily reinforce bridges. It took 10 hair-raising trips, and even then they were just at the bottom of the mountain - reaching the top was another two thousand feet trek. And there was no road. So they had to build one. Finally it was all there, and assembled.

On October 19th, 1941 it fed electricity into the grid. As Time magazine exclaimed (a little pre-emptively, a month before): “Slowly, like the movements of an awakening giant, two stainless-steel vanes — the size and shape of a bomber’s wings — began to rotate” and Vermont’s mountain winds were harnessed to generate electricity for its homes and factories.

But a bearing broke in 1943, and by then, American engineers had other troubles to be dealing with. So for another two years, Puttnam’s turbine just sat still, on top of Grandpa’s Knob, while the world went to war.

Finally, in 1945, someone found enough time, and it was switched back on again. And it promptly broke again. After 1100 hours of operation, a blade fell off, sailing 750 feet through the night and knocking Perry off his feet.

Speedily dubbed the Blade that Failed, congressional hearings in 1951 cited it as reason to write off the tech altogether. Putnam himself turned away from wind too - arguing instead for nuclear and solar - and today, a phone tower stands on the top of Grandpa’s Knob. Still, the the company that bankrolled the project put the patents in the public domain and got Putnam to write a book detailing everything that happened - making the whole experiment open for future generations. As Madrigal argues, this helped other engineers to built on Putnam’s vision, and be inspired by him, and it’s referenced in a 1974 Nasa report on alternative energies. That blade might have failed, but it failed well. 

Roll on a few decades and the oil dramas of the 1970s brought many back to wind. There were enthusiasts who picked up the smaller DIY options for living off grid - check out the archives of people’s tech magazine Undercurrents for some some of the more radical ends of this. But there were also large, government-funded projects aimed which wanted to develop the idea of a megawatt-class turbine and compete with fossil fuels.

As Jakob Whitfield notes, in the US and Germany such projects often applied the skills of aerospace contractors, not always successfully. They knew about the flow of air, after all, surely all this military tech work of the cold war could be applied to energy? But in practise, these aeronautical engineers still had a lot to learn - they’d underestimate the different turbulent airflows around the turbines, so many of the designs only ran for only short periods, if at all.

Still, the tech push of the 1970s wasn’t nothing. There was that 1974 Nasa report that had dug up Puttnam’s old vision, and the world’s first wind farm opened in New Hampshire in 1980.

If you want a flavour of enthusiasm for growing wind power in the US at the time, there’s a great 1981 Nasa video with some fascinating interviews with people doing more experimental work in Rhode Island. There had been some problems with television interference, so they had to turn the blades off during prime time and then by everyone cable TV. But the vox pops suggested the local people seemed keen on the tech - it’d offer them independence from the “foreign oil” everyone was worrying about at the time and, as the voiceover reminded audiences - there were environmental benefits too.

Back in Denmark, the government supported small-scale craft producers, which would use off-the-shelf parts like bits of trucks, rooted in designs developed by la Cour offshoots in the 1950. They also created a national turbine test centre, which speedily became a hub for sharing tips and knowledge. If you wanted tax credits, you had to be approved there and as Whitfield puts it: “Together with the Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association, they provided a useful grassroots exchange for cross-fertilizing design ideas, in contrast to the insular high-tech companies operating elsewhere.”

Generous tax incentives in California in the 1980s led to a mini-wind rush in that part of the world, and Danish manufactures were particularly well placed to capture a chunk of that market. A few went bankrupt when the tax policies changed, but the largest - like Vestas, or Bonus Energy, which was later sold to Siemens - were offered a substantial boost. In Denmark itself, concerns around the Chernobyl disaster also strengthened calls for wind power from the anti-nuclear movement.

And then, in 1991, Denmark gave the world its first offshore wind farm. Though it took until last year for one to be opened in the US, several other European countries followed Denmark’s lead pretty fast - Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and, in particular, the UK - as well as China, South Korea and Japan.

One of the many interesting things about Danish wind is how much of it is community-owned. Throughout the 20th century, they maintained a very decentralised energy system, with a lot of heat and power owned by municipalities and communities. They even have community owned offshore wind - managing to keep some of the community connection with wind power of earlier eras, even as they move into the larger, more expensive types of tech that you really can’t DIY out of bits of old agricultural equipment.

In contrast, according the Labour Energy Forum’s recent report Who Owns the Wind, just 0.07% of the British offshore wind fleet is owned by UK public entities - a single wind turbine off the coast of Levenmouth, between Edinburgh and Dundee.

In this post and the last one, we’ve traced the history of wind-power from offering new opportunities for middle classes in medieval Europe to lighting up the mansions of rich inventors in 19th century Cleveland, then on to isolated Danish farms, ranches in Montana, to Antarctica, and the first megawatt before, finally, the rise of offshore wind farms. Wind has a proud history of giving power to people who otherwise wouldn’t, and giving them more personal control over their electrical supply. For all that wind power has played a key role in decentralised energy systems and people living outside of grid connections, today it competes with nuclear and fossil fuels as a grid supplier. It might still have some hippie associations in the 1970s, the technology can be applied to a range of different ideological ends.

Looking to the future of wind power, it’s pretty safe to predict it’ll get a lot cheaper, in some places it’ll get bigger and, with developments in battery storage making it more and more viable, we’ll see a lot more turbines popping up, in all sorts of places. Where I live in England, onshore wind is slightly weirdly blocked, but even that’ll go, eventually.

These changes in wind power are coming at us pretty fast. An auction in Germany last week put the price of onshore wind at half what the EU’s had expected to see by 2030. But it’s still not as fast as it needs to be to tackle climate change. And if we’re going to achieve the rapid transition we need to keep the planet at some sort of human-friendly temperature, we’ll need to find ways to ensure the public come with us. It’s a total myth that wind power is unpopular, but I worry that as it grows - if it grows without public engagement - it will become so and that’ll backfire on plans to get carbon out of our electricity system.

We've come a long way from the villagers of Maykirk, back in the 1880s, turning down James Blyth's mysterious electric light as "the work of the devil." Still, we could may more attention to that - and other - lessons from wind power's history. 

Seasonal plug: If you’re a big fan of wind power (see what I did there?) why not buy some of these lovely xmas cards? Proceeds to 10:10, a charity supporting public engagement with climate action (the one I work for in my day-job), including a campaign to lift the block on onshore wind in England. 

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.