The Citizen Scientist Who Discovered Modern Climate Change

January 24, 2018


I’m excerpting a small part of a fascinating, long piece in Wired – describing the research of the early 20th century engineer Guy Callendar – who detected and predicted the greenhouse effect well before it took hold in the mainstream of science. Although Svante Arrhenius had theorized (presciently) about the problem decades before, Callendar made some of the first observations actually demonstrating the effect.


TODAY GUY CALLENDAR is a historical footnote, but tomorrow he will have a chapter of his own. Born in 1898, Callendar was the son of Britain’s leading steam engineer, a successful academic and inventor who raised his children in a 22-room mansion. A greenhouse on the grounds was converted into a laboratory for the children until one of Callendar’s three brothers blew it up trying to make TNT. The same brother put out Callendar’s left eye. Undeterred by the subsequent lack of depth perception, he became his father’s successor as the nation’s most important steam engineer.

None of this is why Guy Callendar’s name will be boldfaced in tomorrow’s textbooks. Instead it will be because he was willing to delve into fields he knew nothing about, atmospheric science among them. Nobody knows why he got so interested in the air. Callendar himself attributed it to ordinary curiosity: “As man is now changing the composition of the atmosphere at a rate which must be very exceptional on the geological time-scale, it is natural to seek for the probable effects of such a change.”

In the early 1930s Callendar began collecting measurements of the properties of gases, the structure of the atmosphere, the sunlight at different latitudes, the use of fossil fuels, the action of ocean currents, the temperature and rainfall in weather stations across the world, and a host of other factors. It was a hobby, but a remarkably ambitious one: He was producing the first rough draft of the huge climate models familiar today. After years of calculation, in 1938 he came to a surprising conclusion: People were dumping enough carbon dioxide into the air to raise the world’s average temperature.

Below, Mike MacCracken’s famous talk at Sandia Labs in 1982 outlined much of what we know today about climate change, and credited Callendar.

Callendar did not have a PhD, but he had enough academic status to be allowed to present his ideas that year in front of a panel of six professional climate scientists at the Royal Meteorological Society. The pros were familiar with the claim that carbon dioxide affected climate, which other researchers—notably Sweden’s Svante Arrhenius—had made in previous decades. But these ideas, in their view, had been thoroughly debunked. Years before Callendar’s presentation, British Meteorological Office head George Clarke Simpson had stressed the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide in the air had “no appreciable effect on the climate.” Now he was one of Callendar’s commentators. Callendar, unlike his predecessors, had a coherent model and decades of new data. Nonetheless Simpson was not kind. The problem with people like Callendar, he sniffed, was that “non-meteorologists” simply didn’t know enough about climate to be helpful. The other five commentators were no more appreciative. Although Callendar had spent years gathering evidence, they were “very doubtful” that his work meant anything.

Aside from snobbery, the biggest reason for skepticism was that there simply wasn’t—and isn’t—very much carbon dioxide in the air. When Callendar was scribbling away, carbon dioxide comprised about .03 percent of the atmosphere by volume (the level has risen slightly since then). If somebody collected 10,000 scuba tanks of air, the carbon dioxide in them would be enough to fill up three tanks. How could anything so tiny be important to a huge, super-complex system like the atmosphere? It was like claiming that a toy bulldozer could level Manhattan. The idea seemed absurd on its face.

Undeterred, Callendar kept working on what came to be called the “Callendar effect.” This was not because he feared the impacts of rising carbon dioxide. In fact, Callendar believed that this warming business sounded like a good thing. “Small increases in mean temperature” would help farmers in cold places, he argued. Better yet, they would “indefinitely” postpone “the return of the [ice ages’] deadly glaciers.”

Callendar died in 1964. By that time, many climate scientists had reconsidered their opposition to his ridiculous-sounding belief that slightly increasing the small amounts of carbon dioxide in the air could affect global temperatures. A few were grappling with an even crazier idea: that people were pumping enough carbon dioxide into the air to reshape the face of the Earth and put human existence at risk. But nobody was imagining that the possible solution to our inadvertent transformation of the planet would be to transform the planet even more.

What follows  at the link is a great discussion on geoengineering, well worth the time for some new ideas.


4 Responses to “The Citizen Scientist Who Discovered Modern Climate Change”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Geoengineering against climate change is nothing but a pipe dream. It doesn’t exist and it will never play a significant role. The cheapest and most efficient way to combat anthropogenic climate change is just not burning any more fossil fuels, and instead generating our energy needs from 100% renewable sources.

    Below a hypertext history, published by the American Institute of Physics, of how scientists came to understand what people are doing to cause climate change => The Discovery of Global Warming

  2. Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:
    Citizen scientist who first discovered effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures in 1938.

  3. redskylite Says:

    A few posts ago I remember I remarked that I would have hoped that we would have advanced from the bigotry of 1958, now reading this Wired article, the times I have conversed with deniers, who repeat the very same skepticism of 1938 – how many deniers have said that there isn’t enough CO2 to make a difference to me. How long does it take for reality to sink in ?

    “Aside from snobbery, the biggest reason for skepticism was that there simply wasn’t—and isn’t—very much carbon dioxide in the air. ”

    The Guardian Apr, 2003 . . . . .

    How the burning of fossil fuels was linked to a warming world in 1938
    This month marks the 75th anniversary of Guy Callendar’s landmark scientific paper on anthropogenic climate change

    “In hindsight, Callendar’s contribution was fundamental. He is still relatively unknown, but in terms of the history of climate science, his paper is a classic. He was the first scientist to discover that the planet had warmed by collating temperature measurements from around the globe, and suggested that this warming was partly related to man-made carbon dioxide emissions…People were sceptical about some of Callendar’s results, partly because the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere was not very well known and because his estimates for the warming caused by CO2 were quite simplistic by modern standards. It was only in the 1950s, when improved instruments showed more precisely how water and CO2 absorbed radiation, that we reached a better understanding of its importance. Scientists at the time also couldn’t really believe that humans could impact such a large system as the climate – a problem that climate science still encounters from some people today, despite the compelling evidence to the contrary.”

  4. nickreality65 Says:

    Over 9,000!! views on my WriterBeat papers which were also sent to the ME departments of several prestigious universities (As a BSME & PE felt some affinity.) and a long list of pro/con CAGW personalities and organizations.

    NOBODY has responded explaining why my methods, calculations and conclusions in these papers are incorrect. BTW that is called SCIENCE!! (Well, I did get a lecture on water vapor which sort of misses the CO2 point.)

    SOMEBODY needs to step up and ‘splain my errors, defend 33 C and “back” radiation, ‘cause if I’m correct (Q=UAdT runs the atmospheric heat engine) – that’s a BIGLY problem for RGHE.

    Step right up! Bring science.—We-don-t-need-no-stinkin-greenhouse-Warning-science-ahead-

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