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New climate stories blog

Every fortnight I’m posting a short story from the history of climate change over at the climatehistories site I’ve set up.

Here’s post number one. If you want to read more, head over to climatehistories.


Story one. The chemist with a broken heart

The history of climate change science is, at least in part, a story of side-projects – things people do when they probably should have been working on something else.

Humans knew climate change was a thing from roughly the start of the 19th century, but it was a while before anyone bothered investing much energy properly investigating the topic. It just wasn’t a big deal, there were other more pressing things to be looking into. So, at least in the early days of unravelling this thing we now call global warming, research was left to the enthusiasts, the easily distracted, the bored or the eccentric.

Here’s a story of one such side-project. One that wasn’t taken seriously at the time, but is now considered central to the history of climate change science. It’s also a story of a broken heart (or at least a broken relationship), maths and volcanoes.

Meet our chief protagonist, Svante Arrhenius – Nobel winning Swedish scientist and, for several decades, director of the Nobel Institute. Trained as a physicist, a lot of his work bordered on chemistry, and arguably he helped found what we now call physical chemistry. He looks terribly serious in photos, but his Nobel Prize bio assures us he was “a contented man, happy in his work and in his family life.”

Arrhenius was born in 1859, in Vik in the South East corner of Sweden where his father managed land for the University of Uppsala. There are stories about him being a bit of a prodigy – teaching himself to read aged 3, then learning maths by watching his father add up his accounts. But there are always stories like that about great scientists. What we do know is that he did pretty well at school and went on to study maths, chemistry and physics at the university.

In 1883, he published a PhD thesis exploring the electrical conductivity of salt solutions. It did not do well at first, only receiving a fourth class mark. Perhaps it was just a bit ahead of its time, or a little too much like chemistry for physicists to really get a handle of. Still, a chemistry professor picked it up, publishing a favourable review, and Arrhenius took it upon himself to send copies to prominent scientists across Europe, some of whom were really impressed. Job offers and opportunities to travel and develop his ideas followed. Arrhenius bagged the Nobel prize in 1903, humanity gained a load more knowledge of electrolytes and a whole field of physical chemistry opened up.

Or at least that’s the potted history you might get in the box at the side of your textbook, possibly placed for a bit of a break from acid/ base equations. But as any historian of science knows, it’s the stuff you find behind those boxes that’s the most fun.

Enter Sofia Rudbeck, one of the first women to earn a bachelor degree in science from Uppsala University. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography describes her as Arrhenius’ “best pupil and assistant.” But the entry is more interested in the conductivity of salts than scientists’ personal lives. So if you want details of them shagging round the back of the conical flask cupboard you’ll have to make it up yourself. What we do know is that they married in 1884 and had a son, Olof, but the marriage was unhappy, and they divorced in 1886.

This is where we get to the side project. The divorce was stressful. Arrhenius was worried he’d lose contact with his son. He found temperature calculations soothing. So, for months and months he’d scribble away with his pencil calculating the atmospheric moisture and radiation entering and leaving the Earth for each zone of latitude.

This was not the sort of project that, at the time, was seen as a sensible thing for a scientist to be devoting their energies to. The data Arrhenius was basing his calculations on wasn’t even that rigorous, and he simplified the climate system in immensely. But it wasn’t necessarily meant to be scientifically significant. It was just therapy. Maybe he picked it precisely because it wasn’t all that important – it was something he could have a play with.

Crucially, Arrhenius wasn’t really concerned with the idea that the planet might warm up. He was much more worried it’d get cold. This was not a new idea, or a new concern. People had long puzzled about why the ice age and other climatic changes had come about. Scientists had worked out the greenhouse effect, even if they didn’t call it that then (we’ll do that story another week, it includes a truly outstanding scientific beard). They’d wondered about the carbon emissions from volcanoes, and how soils and oceans absorb carbon too, and worried that if volcanoes stopped erupting, maybe global temperatures might take a nose dive. Arrhenius gave a mathematical basis to these concerns, and his calculations showed that halving the amount of CO2 in the air would cool the world by 5 degrees C – enough to bring on another ice age.

This might have stayed a footnote to Victorian obsessions with the ice age if it wasn’t for a colleague of Arrhenius, Arvid Högbom. He’d been studying the carbon emissions of volcanoes and how things like the oceans absorbed carbon and had what was, for the time, a pretty weird new idea. What about all these new factories that had sprung up over the past century? What about man-made carbon emissions?

Högbom’s sometimes ignored in the history of climate change science. He certainly doesn’t have the profile of a Nobelist like Arrhenius. But arguably his contribution was one of the most important. He brought the idea of man-made global warming to the table.

The amount of carbon dioxide Arrhenius and Högbom were talking about wasn’t that much though, atmospherically speaking – for every thousand bits of atmosphere, the coal burnt in 1896 would add maybe add just one more bit of carbon dioxide. But these additions could make a difference if they continued long enough. Arrhenius ran the maths, just as he had run the maths imagining a lack of carbon dioxide, and calculated that doubling carbon dioxide emissions could raise the Earth’s temperature by five or even six degrees Celsius.

Still, Arrhenius wasn’t too worried. Like most 19th century Europeans, he tended to see technological changes as progress. And if it caused new problems, the scientists and engineers would create new ways out of them. Plus, anyway, these calculations still figured five degree warming would take thousands of years. The global population in the 1890s was only a bit over a billion (compared to the 7.4 billion it’s estimated to be today), with the bulk living in poverty. The idea that humans could impact the planet in such a way was the stuff of science fiction stories.

As historian Spencer Weart puts it, this was common sense at the time: “Hardly anyone imagined that human actions, so puny among the vast natural powers, could upset the balance that governed the planet as a whole. This view of Nature – superhuman, benevolent and inherently stable – lay deep in most human cultures. It was traditionally tied up with a religious faith in the God-given order of the universe, a flawless an imperturbable harmony. Such was the public belief, and scientists are members of the public, sharing most of the assumptions of their culture.”

There were, at the time, good scientific reasons to doubt Arrhenius’ work. Simple lab measurements seemed to refute the idea. Other scientists argued convincingly that the oceans would soak it up, or clouds would reflect the sunlight back into space. And this Arrhenius dude, he always had crazy new work going on. Climate calculations weren’t his only side project – he had ideas about immunity, bacteria, and an explanation for the origin of life involving seeds being transported from interstellar space by the pressure of light. He was just a super-clever guy playing around with ideas and numbers to see what would come out.

By 1910 most scientists had thrown out Arrhenius’ work on climate change entirely, even if later they were to come back to it. They were, in a way, the first climate sceptics. Back then, arguably, it was a pretty sensible position to hold, even if that was to rapidly change as the 20th century got underway. But more on that another time.

And I don’t know what became of Sofia Rudbeck. If anyone has any clues, I’d love to hear them.

Next up: A Cold War yarn about a father, a son and their very curvy graph.

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Update

This blog was active when I was an academic but now I work primarily as a journalist, I tend to write elsewhere.

You can read my work on How We Get to Next, where I’m editor, the Guardian science policy blog or, for climate coverage, ICSU’s Road to Paris. You can also follow me on Twitter or check out my main professional site.

If you want to read something I’ve written recently, here are a few:

Climate Change: What shall we tell the children?

I have a chapter in a new collection of essays on climate change narratives; Culture and Climate Change: Narratives edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler. My contribution is entitled ‘What shall we tell the children?’ and explores the stories – fiction and otherwise – constructed to talk to young people about environmental issues. A pdf of the whole book is downloadable from the Open University, and he’s the last section and conclusion to my piece as a preview:

There is an interesting question about the materiality of kid’s eco-media. Because amongst that discussion of eco superheroes is what amounts to a pile of dead trees telling kids to recycle. Take, for example, a recent ‘eco’ reprint of 1971 classic the Lorax on 100% recycled paper. Because the ‘The Lorax loves trees and so do we’, some how managing to forget that we might be better off just picking up a second hand copy. There is also the infrastructure of the bookshop to consider (air conditioning, etc) not to mention all those never-read books picked up on a 3-4-2 deal. Books have become such a disposable product that “Healthy Planet” bookshops have popped up with stock offered for free saved from landfill.

One of the many ironies here is that, for all its relationship with a particular thread of Romanticism which privileges the outdoors over shopping, children’s literature as a product has been a force in consumer capitalism. Which, in turn, is arguably, part of the problem. The New York Times might complain that children’s books tend to cast consumers as villains, but the Romantic spirit has long helped sell things, in bookselling as much as anywhere else. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to children’s books, be they piles of Harry Potters, the purchasing of a ‘classic’ (or edgy new science fiction for that matter) to express a form of identity, cross branding and spin-off toys or topping up formal education through revision primers. Arguably, the types of consumption at work here, including its apparent discontinuities, intersect with 21st century green consumerism very neatly, as it can be a form of middle class performance through consumption even via the shunning of other products.

Back in 2005, Greenpeace ran a campaign comparing international publishers of the book in terms of their use of sustainable fibre. there was a bit of a mini-movement towards ecologically sustainable publishing around that time with Random House having publicly committed itself to making its book production ancient forest friendly, and Leo Hickman asked for his ethical living book (via Eden Project Books) was printed on recycled paper, using vegetable inks. Egmont Press not only decided to source their paper carefully, but encouraged other UK publishers to do similar, sharing knowledge about wood-pulp sources across the industry. It promoted this move with a re-edition of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, a story about a boy ship-wrecked on an island, newly printed entirely on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved paper. Morpurgo noted in a preface: “next time you’re looking for a book or your parents are buying furniture, think of Kensuke and look for the FSC logo” offering a nice example of the environmentalist message of the book being directly linked to its materiality.

Green has long been a marketable property in the consumer cultures of children’s media. to the extent that the BBC publication, the Blue Peter Green Book, is actually orange in colour, on account of carrying the precise hue of its supermarket sponsor, Sainsbury’s. It isn’t just books. The Reverend Billy Talen makes jokes about “Drowning Elmo” toys to keep us entertained while the tsunamis and flash floods “bounced on the horizon like Loony Tunes”. But when the climate change and energy galleries at the Science Museum are sponsored by Shell and BP respectively, do we really need such satire? There are even anti-pollution sweets, or “smog ball” sours (see toxicwastecandy.com). At this year’s Royal Society summer exhibition a stall on energy gave out slices of rock with solar energy written through (discs, yellow, I think they were meant to be the sun). At the Big Bang Fair 2013, BNFL handed out sticks of rock, apparently to symbolise nuclear rods.

It’s hard to see what impact sponsorship has on content, but it is striking that the Sainsbury’s Blue Peter Green Book has notes on green consumerism, but manages to avoid too much discussion of cutting consumption, just as the Shell sponsored Climate Stories exhibition at the Science Museum avoids prominent reference to oil and gas. There also more direct forms of campaigning, without the need for sponsored mediators. A fracking themed colouring in book featuring “Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus” was speedily withdrawn as a giveaway for county fairs after being mocked on US television but other resources have been more resilient to critique. There’s the online game Richie’s World Of Adventure which, courtesy of nuclear enrichment company, Urenco, invites players to pick up energy orbs releasing “facts” such as how reliable and safe nuclear energy is. On the other side, there’s Greenpeace’s equivalent, Duke Anti-Nuke where part of the aim of the game is to doge publicity agents. Such materials might seem funny, but raise a larger issue: when we privatised our energy system, did we also privatise the public engagement with energy, and is that ok? These kinds of communications point to a segmentation of our energy imaginations, meaning we talk of wind, gas, nuclear or solar in isolation, not low carbon as a whole. It may also serve to segment audiences casting them as customers not citizens.

But Captain Planet, Michael Recycle, the Science Museum’s climate change gallery any number of other items in this essay are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too. I’d like to conclude by celebrating participatory and reflexive environmental communication.

Between 1973 and 1994 the BBC broadcast a children’s television show: Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Putting aside the ‘Auntie Beeb’ ideas that television should be rationed for young people and that the outdoors is somehow more healthy, there is a message in this apparently self-critical media stance. Get making for yourself. Hack. Blog. Occupy media culture. Run your own discussion events. Offer alternative tours of museums, either in real space or through podcasts (e.g. http://www.tateatate.org). Heckle literature with comment cards left in books in libraries and bookshops. Follow UN negotiators (e.g. http://www.adoptanegotiator.org). Tear up your syllabus and invite teachers to work with you to produce something more sustainable instead (e.g. http://www.post-crasheconomics.com).

Young people are, all too often, seen and not heard when it comes to environmental issues: they are recipients of knowledge or even simply symbols of a future requiring protection in campaigns aimed at adults. That’s not to say older generations should not offer their knowledge to young people: we should draw on the wisdom of the past. Neither do I want to — in Jacqueline Rose’s words — set the child up as the site of a lost truth. The framing of climate change as an issue of inter-generational justice can also serve to pit one age against another, and we should remember that much youth media was largely constructed simply to segment audiences with an eye on making new markets, with a sense of generational conflict thrown in to emphasis difference. Maybe our energies would be better channeled into a more multi-generational approach.

There is much to be gained from building multi-generational stories that splice together the wit and wisdom of the past, present and future. Or we can give out sweeties at the Big Bang Fair.

Because a refusal often offends (and you look ridiculous)

Institutions of various sorts: if your advisory panels consist of people who can give their time for free, the advice they give you will be limited.

They might even be corrupted, in as much as they will be more likely to serve interests of people with sufficient money and/ or axes to grind for them to give their time.

So stop letting yourselves be unduly influenced and fundraise to do this more effectively.

Similarly, academics who are running public engagement projects or conferences may well wish to include viewpoints from outside to help them share their ideas more broadly and be challenged by a range of perspectives. But they will have to be prepared to pay for some of them.

Because you may run on an informal economy where the prestige of speaking or writing in a particular space is reward enough, but my landlady doesn’t.

Like almost everyone I know, I do a huge amount of work for free and also often ask people if they want to join me in it too. Such work can be worth doing when you want to grow something niche, or when you are actively challenging power in ways there just isn’t money for or a patron might be constraining. Or you might just want to do something for fun. Or you might be caring for something there isn’t funds to protect. There are a host of reasons you might not want or be able to be paid for something. But, so we can put our energies into stuff like that, professional organisations which do have access to funding need to organise their budgets to pay. I am looking at you, universities and learned societies (and a fair few charities) who are simply taking the piss.

The Wellcome Trust engagement and arts grants have an excellent policy when it comes to asking people to do peer review for them. If doing this review is your job, appreciate you are already paid. If not, they can offer £50 for your time. I never took it when I was a full-time academic, I do now. You won’t make a living out of it, but it won’t disrupt you from making a living either. It doesn’t exploit people. And leaves Wellcome’s grants scheme less open to being exploited itself. As research councils increasingly open up peer review to larger stakeholders, this is important concern for them too. They need to budget for that external time.

My favourite example of clueless academy recently was from an eminent professor I used to respect: “oh, you’re not an academic any more, that’s sad, but you still have very interesting ideas you know, I bet you could still publish in journals! Think of that! Then people like me might read you!” Lol. If I want to write and not get paid there are multiple spaces I can take my ideas, all of which are read by many more people than I’d get from a social science journal and, moreover, foster debate with readership so I get something out of the interactions and learn from readers.

Much of science and engineering runs on an informal economy of sharing expertise and time. It often works well, but limits you to either those inside this economy, or those rich enough to show they care. If science is serious about opening up to larger groups, they need to budget for it, else they’re turn themselves into a limited, incestous exercise of capital breeding capital.

And put some of the budget towards childcare too eh? Cos if you’re wondering why you struggle to get women speakers, that might be a reason. And if you don’t have money left over to take the speakers out for a posh dinner afterwards? Well, I’m sure you’ll all cope.

And yeah, that bit of public engagement advice comes for free.

Masters as luxury goods

There were many reasons I left academia. But here’s one. In case it resonates.

To secure my role, and the roles of other staff, I was expected to help recruit masters students. But to do a masters these days not only will you have had to go through massive cultural, financial and social hoops to even be accepted, you need a lot of money on top of it.

(a) I was selling a luxury good. If nothing else, I didn’t feel trained in how to sell this sort of product. But it also wasn’t what I went into academia to do.

(b) As the option to do postgrad study was increasingly exclusive, the student body was less interesting. I mean, each individual student was great. I’ve never taught someone I wasn’t interested by. But as a whole, each classroom was a less diverse place and not so interesting as a result. So the job wasn’t so much fun. Universities are duller places, and get duller the more “elite” an institution you go too.

(c) This luxury good of a masters was often sold to students on the promise of a good job for those with the qualification. Via a mix of nepotism between graduates and the sheer competition for jobs being reasonably arbitrary criteria is used for triage, this worked. So, often the very existence of these courses kept people out of jobs they’d be great at. I couldn’t be part of that and sleep well at night.

So I left. I am currently doing a bit of teaching part-time. I love it and it’s tempting me to think about going back. But I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable being part of the business it’s become. There are other reasons too, but this was a key component to my decision and I thought I’d share in case others feel similarly uncomfortable.

Four thoughts on tackling climate change scepticsm

Last week, I was on the panel for an event to discuss tackling climate change scepticism. The brief was to discuss “the psychology and drivers of denial in order to discuss other ways of engaging hearts and minds around sustainable action”. Here’s a summary of what I said. First published on New Left Project.


1) All this talk of climate sceptics is a bit 2009.
As Leo Hickman put it last month as he said farewell to the Guardian, the era of climate change denial is over. Instead of talking about climate sceptics, we need to target “climate policy sceptics”; those who argue climate change is happening but our policies will have little impact. I’d pretty much agree with that.

[Clarification: I don’t mean we should stifle debate on climate policy. At all. Sorry if it came over as such. I think it’s “target”, which was a bad choice of word considering the various battlescars many hold in this area. In many respects I’d call myself a climate policy sceptic. Depends on what policy. As ever, it’s not whether scepticism is good or bad, but where we choose focus such power. My point, perhaps badly articulated, was that we need to focus on policies for what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening. Calling out various vested interests’ attempts at inaction will be part of that, as will the occasional use of climate scepticism as a technique in this, but it’s only part of it]

2) It’s always been a bit of a distraction. The problem, especially in the UK, has long been less one of scepticism and more of a lack of prioritising the issue. Ask people if they believe in global warming and the answer is largely yes. But ask how much they worry about it, and the response is less heartening (see, for example, the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey)

We continually let other issues trump climate. It’s especially noticeable at the moment in coverage of fracking where the issue of climate change has been all too conspicuous by its absence, but the problem runs deep and wide. I think sometimes this is due to spin as various interests work actively to keep us avoiding the topic, but the truth is we let ourselves be spun-so. I don’t think this is a lack of belief/ understanding in climate change, although maybe it reflects some detachment from enormity of it and some lack of scepticism over how reliable some journalists and politicians are.

There is a way in which the abstraction of climate change can act as a distraction from the more immediate politics of energy. To take a slightly different example, at the Big Bang Fair last year I was shocked/ impressed by how BAE Systems managed to hide details of what their company makes (weapons) with activities based on abstract maths. Forget greenwash, this was a sort of science wash. I worry that battles over climate change offer a similar slight of hand.

3) Demonising sceptics unhelpfully externalises the problem.
Consider, for example, something that’s often said about climate sceptics: that they are all funded by the fossil fuel industry. I think some are. But many aren’t too. A fair bit of scepticism is conducted by independent people who simply care about the issue. It’s a grassroots movement in places; arguably that is part of its power.

You know what is funded by big oil? Loads of universities. And museums. And a fair amount of newspaper and magazine advertising. All to different degrees and with different levels of editorial control, but the funding is there, and it carries forms of influence even if that’s complex. Rather than scapegoating a few individuals who annoy us on the internet, we might be best served starting by looking slightly closer to home. Maybe it’s all fuelled by a shadowy group of deniers; if so we also need to think about how often we all allow ourselves to act as the foot-soldiers for such inaction.

Climate change communications – at its crassest – sees itself as a necessary and magnificent push of all that is correct, pure and true about the future of our planet out there into the big messy world. And that big messy world must. Simply. Listen. The more nuanced approaches understand that we need to appreciate the need to listen to the audience. So we get told we must modify our messages for Tories or business leaders or hip young “optimism driven” professionals/ students, for example. But this still assumes that the problem is out there, not within. And I don’t think we’re ever going to change until we acknowledge problems within.

4) We don’t need a Brian Cox, Jamie Oliver or Jeremy Clarkson for Climate Change any more than we need one for nuclear power/ wind farms/ the peace movement/ women in science/ the left/ sociology/ anti-racism/ the NHS/ re-nationalisation of the rail network/ cycling/ to fight transphobia [insert your own cause].

We need to dissemble the cultures and political systems which assume social change only happens when a white man says it’s important, and find ways to empower people to inspire each other instead.

On a similar note, I find it troubling that so many climate communication people seem to want to focus on making green ideas palatable for Tories or the business sector, as opposed to helping to build the voices of more disenfranchised groups.

If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to remake structures of power and influence, not simply speak to them.

Recycling the news

There’s an oft quoted line from Ulrich Beck about how “modernity is becoming its own theme”. This, along with David Quantick’s warning that “pop will eat itself”, rang through my ears earlier today when I spotted this in the City of London: a flashy new newspaper recycling bin, which provides weather, travel and news updates through sparkly screens running down its side.

That’s a newspaper recycling bin that, itself, gives you the news. I’d say “welcome to the future” but I think it’s quite obvious that the future arrived a while back and we’re trying to find ever more inventive ways to deal with this.

Anyway, here’s a scary new technological object. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d be interested to know how other people feel.

EDIT: 30th Jan. The Guardian are now live-blogging the Guardian. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does demonstrate another way in which news is eating itself (I don’t think this is an especially new development by the way, just interesting to spot new iterations of it).