Scientists warned us about the dangers of using fossil fuels. We didn’t listen. Now, we’re paying the price.
Global temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates. Deadly heat waves made June the hottest month on record, and shortly after July 3 the hottest day ever for our planet. In Spain, land temperatures soared above 140F. Obviously, this is not good for humans. But if you think climate change is a problem now, just wait until you see what’s coming.
According to the latest projections, we’re still not doing enough to curb global emissions. If we don’t stop using fossil fuels now, scientists have raised the ultimate warning that we will land ourselves in a whole new, and very hot, world of pain.
To appreciate the urgency of climate change from the scientific community, it’s important to understand how we got here. Contrary to popular opinion, the science of climate change is not new. In fact, it’s really quite old, all things considered.
As with all disciplines of scientific inquiry, the scientific process builds upon itself with new observations and discoveries over many generations. In this way, although our current models of climate change are far more advanced than prior years, the foundation of studying the Earth’s climate dates back to at least the 1800s, if not earlier.
According to NASA, the earliest related climate observation was in 1824 when Joseph Fourier first mathematically proved the Earth should have been colder than it was based on its size and position relative to the Sun. The novel finding led Fourier to hypothesize that perhaps the Earth’s atmosphere was somehow acting as insulation.
Fourier’s work led scientists to pursue a better understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and how it functioned. In 1856, Eunice Foot observed that heat was being trapped by the atmosphere due to a combination of carbon dioxide and water vapor. A decade later, John Tyndall realized the Earth had a natural greenhouse effect, noting that small changes to the chemical makeup of the atmosphere could lead to big changes in the Earth’s climate.
Then, in 1896, Svante Arrhenius made the first direct prediction that changes to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could significantly alter the Earth’s surface temperature.
Of course, by this time the industrial revolution was well underway and humans were already increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Despite scientific concerns, nothing changed, and we created the world we know today using fossil fuels to power the way.
Since the 1800s, our scientific understanding of how humans are artificially accelerating the Earth’s natural greenhouse process has flourished. In 1938, Guy Callendar directly linked carbon dioxide to increased global warming. By 1956, Gilbert Plass proposed the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change. Today, countless scientists use advances in technology to track and predict the impacts of continued fossil fuel use, all continuing to warn us of the long-term dangers of burning carbon.
All combined, that’s over a century of accumulated scientific warnings of burning fossil fuels while humans continue to pump excess greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. No wonder scientists are frantically pointing to data saying that we’ve reaching a tipping point and that this is our last chance to mitigate the worst of climate change. It’s not a hyperbolic statement, it’s simply true.
Here it’s important to remember that as scientists, we are not trained to be alarmists. Rather, we read. We think. We ponder. We observe. We analyze. We think some more. Sometimes too much. Point being, emotions, to the extent possible, are not part of the process.
But sometimes, the data itself becomes so alarming that we can’t help but be alarmed ourselves. Such is the case with climate science. From a data perspective, the Earth is now blinking red. It’s telling us that the natural conditions that have permitted humans to survive and thrive on this planet are under grave threat. It’s also telling us that we are the cause of this duress, which in a way is a good thing. It means that we still have the power to fix it.
And we do. All we have to do to mitigate the worst of climate change is modernize. Where we currently use old technology to source our energy from the ground, now we can source our energy from the sun and air. That’s it. We have the technology. There’s nothing standing in our way but our own pride.
The problem is climate scientists are also right when they say we’ve run out of time, in part because they aren’t talking about inaction over a few years or even a few decades. They’re talking about an accumulated history of more than 100 years of humans bloating the Earth’s atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide. And when it comes to trapping heat, there’s a cumulative effect, meaning that small changes can make a big difference. And we didn’t make small changes, we made big ones.
So let’s circle back. Right now, current projections by climate scientists show we are still not on track to mitigate the worst of climate change. In fact, if things continue as is, we will almost certainly blow by our target of limiting warming to 1.5C by quite a bit, and could face serious climate consequences as early as 2040. That is to say, what we’re experiencing now will only be the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg.
We didn’t listen to scientists in the 1800s or the 1900s. But we can listen now. This is our last chance to once and for all ditch fossil fuels and avoid the worst of climate change. We have the ability, and we need to do it. The only question is if we have the will, because until we stop burning carbon, the Earth’s temperature will continue to rise, and the science is clear that we’re getting dangerously close to a tipping point we may not be able to come back from.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.