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51 Years Ago in TR
Concerns about global warming and
how to address it (see Q&A, p. 26)
have a long history. The First World
Climate Conference was held in 1979, and
the United Nations created the Intergovern-
mental Panel on Climate Change in 1988.
Yet even those steps came well after sci-
entists had begun taking the issue seriously.
One example can be found in the Novem-
ber 1960 issue of this magazine, in which
science journalist Robert C. Cowen warned
that “we are performing a carbon-dioxide
experiment which may change our climate.”
To be precise, the carbon-dioxide experi-
ment began with the industrial revolution,
when men started burning fuels in unprec-
edented amounts. Since the beginning of that
revolution they have produced something
like 12 per cent of the total carbon dioxide
already present in the air. The capacity of
the oceans to absorb this gas is enormous,
however. Most of the excess produced in the
past century probably has been removed in
this way. The next century will be different.
Cowen cited Columbus Iselin, an MIT
professor and former director of the Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution, who theo-
rized that higher temperatures resulting
from increasing carbon dioxide emissions
would eventually prevent polar regions
from producing enough cold, dense water
to drive the “thermodynamic flywheel” that
sends tropical waters into northern latitudes.
Stifling the flywheel, Iselin said, would limit
the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by
the oceans, with unpredictable results.
If the ocean’s ability to soak up carbon
dioxide is reduced, this would increase the
greenhouse warming effect as more of that
gas accumulated in the atmosphere. Thus
there may be a climatic persistence effect due
to the oceans which enhances warming after
such a trend has started. Once the climate
has warmed up to a certain point, the oceans
would stop overturning. Because less carbon
dioxide would be removed from the atmo-
sphere, this in turn would accentuate the
warming trend, which would tend to persist.
Cowen stressed the uncertainty of long-
term climate predictions, a problem that
still dogs scientists. He noted that most sci-
entists believed just a slight drop in global
temperatures could spur an ice age. British
geophysicist George Simpson, meanwhile,
speculated that slightly higher temperatures
could bring on a new ice age by increasing
the amount of moisture in the atmosphere,
which could mean heavier snows and grow-
Given that Earth’s climate was so deli-
cate, so variable, and constantly in flux, pre-
dictions were hard enough, wrote Cowen.
Now humans, with their “carbon-dioxide-
producing industry,” had thrown yet another
factor into the mix. Maybe experts couldn’t
predict the consequences, but they felt safe
in saying the results could alter the world.
The influence of this new and geologically
unique factor may be operating in any of sev-
eral directions. It could be tending toward a
new ice age or could just as likely be produc-
ing another great tropical epoch like that pre-
vailing when coal and oil deposits were laid
down. Perhaps its influence is more moderate
than such extremes suggest. The interactions
are so involved that experts do not yet know
how to sort them out. One thing they are sure
of—this influence is at work on a scale to
dwarf all previous changes man has made.
Cowen, now 84 and living in Concord,
Massachusetts, retired this year after 45 years
as a staffer and 15 as a columnist for the
Christian Science Monitor (he’s also a former
member of T R’ s editorial advisory board).
He notes that the theory of global warming
actually dates back to the 19th century and
was gaining ground “around the fringes” of
the scientific community by 1957. He first
wrote about it for the Monitor in 1958, in
an article that he suspects might be the first
on the subject by any American reporter.
He says scientists are partly to blame for
our slow response, because they’ve done
a poor job of explaining why the average
person should care about melting ice caps.
They could have focused more on the effect
that drought would have on food prices, for
instance. But he says that even the most
ardent deniers will come around in time:
“Eventually they’ll be able to look out their
windows and see the results themselves.”
TIMOTHY MA HER IS TR ’S ASSISTANT MANAgI Ng E DITOR.
Warnings about climate change were
coming half a century ago.
By TimoThy maher
EARLY WARNINg Columbus Iselin, former direc-
tor of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institu-
tion (seen in background), examined how global
warming could change ocean currents, which in
turn could accelerate the warming trend.
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