Introducing the History of Climate Change Science

College students selecting a climate change course as an elective or as part of a science curriculum should have a background or foundation upon which to build later in the course, for more advanced courses, and for their life beyond the bounds of college.  One of the ways to accomplish this is by discussing scientific principles such as critical thinking, inductive and deductive logic, scientific methods (yes, there’s more than one), some basic principles developed early in the history of science, thermodynamics, a review of the metric system, scientific notation, differences between hypotheses and theories, and a few examples of scientists and their contributions and methods used to arrive at their conclusions.  The ultimate objective of this approach is to give students a feeling for how scientists work.

A discussion emphasizing the importance of empirical evidence in the development of scientific concepts and how this was used by many of the early scientists is a useful approach for a few early lectures in a course about climate change science.  What is the overwhelming evidence for climate change?  Who are the current workers in the field and what methods are they using to gather empirical evidence?  What are their conclusions?

Early Scientists and Their Methods

There were “scientists” before the written word was introduced to civilization; at least there were humans who used trial and error.  Early humans had to think logically in order to survive.  Natural selection certainly favored those who made intelligent decisions and eliminated at least some of those who were stupid.  We have limited information about early humans and their reasoning abilities but intelligent uses of fire, weapons, food, health, and shelter certainly played a role in the survival of our ancestors.

A treatment of the history of most sciences will begin with the “Ancient Greeks.”  They seem to be given credit for laying the foundation of Western Civilization.  Aristotle is most often credited with the beginning of scientific thinking in the western world and he based his conclusions on empirical evidence.  His influence is still felt today in many of the sciences, especially in medicine and the “natural” sciences such as Earth science, biology, geology, and sub-disciplines.

Climate change science is a relatively recent development in the history of science and some have questioned whether it is a science at all.  Contrarians and deniers of climate change and global warming are among those who continually challenge the science.  However, their views are readily and successfully refuted on this site on a regular basis and their legions are dwindling.

In the new textbook by Farmer and Cook, “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis,” the history of climate change science begins with the history of deduction using empirical evidence and the experiments and calculations by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callendar and others. 

The realization that Earth had undergone a fairly recent “Ice Age” gave rise to much speculation as to its cause and provided the impetus to learn more about possible causes of climate change.  In 1837 Louis Agassiz proposed the hypothesis that Europe had experienced past “Ice Ages” and there has since been a growing awareness that long-term climate observations can lead to an understanding of the mechanisms affecting climate change.

The scientiļ¬c study of patterns of solar energy reaching Earth’s surface due to changes in the Earth’s orbital parameters has a long history. The Earth’s orbital calculations of Milankovitch (1941) led to the astronomical theory (or Milankovitch theory) of climate change and they are well known today.  Historical reviews of early contributions to what is now known as climate change science can be found in Imbrie and Imbrie (1979), Weart (2003) and the IPCC AR4 Working Group 1 report.  Spencer Weart has compiled a comprehensive history of climate change science that can be found at the American Institute of Physics website.  

John Mason has a previous post on this site (20 May 2012) dealing with the history of climate science and one of his illustrations is given below.

Two centuries of climate science - the timeline

Posted by on Friday, 8 February, 2013

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