This Day in History

Oct. 15, 1902: Chemist Warns Burning Coal May Lead to Boiling Earth

Time Periods: 1900
Themes: Climate Justice, Environment, Science

In the late 19th century, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that burning fossil fuels will, over time, lead to a hotter Earth. Using the principles of physical chemistry, he estimated that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide were responsible for the Earth’s increasing surface temperature — a phenomenon now known as the “greenhouse effect.” 

On October 15, 1902, the Selma Morning Times printed a stark notice of Arrhenius’s research:

Hint to Coal Consumers. A Swedish professor, Svend Arrhenius, has evolved a new theory of the extinction of the human race. He holds that the combustion of coal by civilized man is gradually warming the atmosphere so that in the course of a few cycles of 10,000 years the earth will be baked in a temperature close to the boiling point. He bases his theory on the accumulation of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, which acts as a glass in concentrating and refracting the heat of the sun.

Clive Thompson writes in his article How 19th Century Scientists Predicted Global Warming:

Arrhenius began calculating how much heat would be trapped if levels of CO and water vapor — “selective absorbers,” as he called them — changed. It was a grind. Arrhenius, as the historian Elisabeth Crawford writes, had to perform by hand “calculations estimated to have been between 10,000 and 100,000.” He spent all of 1895 hunched over his figures, and Arrhenius himself complained loudly about the “tedious” work to friends in letters, at one point miserably noting how it was “unbelievable that so trifling a matter has cost me a full year.”

When he was done, he made a striking prediction: If you doubled the amount of CO in the atmosphere, it would raise the world’s temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.

A graphic showing the greenhouse effects on the climate.

The “greenhouse effect.” The radiative balance between incoming solar radiation (yellow arrows) and the absorption of re-emitted infrared radiation by the atmosphere (orange arrows) drive surface heating. Adapted from: IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 115. Source: Science Direct

Remarkably, that analysis holds up pretty well today, even in an age where climate analysis involves far more information and variables and are crunched by cloud supercomputers. Despite having done his work by hand, using data that even he regarded as woefully inadequate, Arrhenius reached “a conclusion that millions of dollars worth of research over the ensuing century hardly changed at all,” as Isabel Hilton wrote in 2008. The era of modern climate modeling was born. Read more.

Arrhenius received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, was the first Swedish Nobel laureate, and served as director of the Nobel Institute from 1905 until his death in 1927. Learn more about his contributions to modern climate science in the paper “Svante Arrhenius and the Greenhouse Effect,” by Henning Rodhe, Robert Charison, and Elisabeth Crawford, published in the February 1997 issue of Ambio, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Arrhenius’s landmark paper on the greenhouse effect.

This event is included on the Zinn Education Project’s Climate Crisis Timeline.