Papers past, climate future

By Robert McLachlan

Next Monday, 22 August 2022, is the 21st birthday of a terrific project of the New Zealand National Library, Papers Past, a sweeping attempt to digitise vast range of old newspapers, books and magazines. A series of public events and online panel discussions marks the occasion.

Thanks to Papers Past, the now-famous “Coal Consumption Affecting Climate” article, from the Rodney and Otamatea Times of 14 August 1912, was rediscovered and became known around the world. (Its 110th anniversary has been noted by James Shaw and Toby Manhire, among others.)

Here’s another early climate change article, from the Christchurch Press of 19 December 1969:

Scientists issued a warning to the human race yesterday that that pollution could change the temperature of the oceans and alter the climate of the earth.

Mr E. D. Goldberg, an oceanography chemist, told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union that man was changing his environment almost as much as nature itself.

Mr Goldberg, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California, said that effects of pollution were not known but they posed some “haunting” questions. “Will it alter the ocean as a resource?” he asked. “Will we lose the ocean? There are some complex ecological questions.”

Mr Goldberg urged the establishment of monitoring programmes to measure the increasing loads of such chemicals as lead, mercury, pesticides and petroleum. Mr J. O. Fletcher, a physical scientist for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, said that man had “only a few decades to solve the problem” of global warming caused by pollution.

“Very substantial changes have taken place during our lifetime,” Mr Fletcher said. “There is good evidence that man’s influence is small compared with natural ones. However, within another generation, man will become important, the carbon dioxide pollution apparently being the most important.” Carbon dioxide, causing one-third to one-half of the warming in the first part of the twentieth century, has had a much greater impact than particulate matter (dust, dirt and smoke), Mr Fletcher said. Global warming could cause further melting of the earth’s ice caps and affect its climate, Mr William Kellogg of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, said that the situation points up a problem of educating earthlings that “man has got to change his ways.”

Messrs Kellogg and Fletcher agreed that population control would be one of the stickiest problems.

“Sooner or later, it (global climate) will have to become a manageable problem,” Mr Fletcher said. Documenting his assertions of ocean pollution, Mr Goldberg said that 250,000 tons of lead drifted annually into the oceans of the northern hemisphere. “This compares with the natural leaching in the hemisphere of about 150,000 tons a year,” he said, “and we’ve just been using lead the last 15 years as an anti-knock agent in petrol.”

Mr Goldberg said that a million tons of petroleum are introduced to the oceans each year by ships. “The result has already been felt,” he said. “There have been cases of fish tasting of petroleum.” But the oceanographer called pesticides such as D.D.T. “perhaps even more insidious.” He noted that mackerel had been taken off the market in Los Angeles because they contained a higher content of D.D.T. than was permitted by law.

The article holds up pretty well. Within a generation, carbon dioxide did become important, dominating natural factors.

The context of the article is interesting, too. The Vietnam war, the cold war, terrorism, the Middle East, and attempts by the UN to solve world problems (including a treaty on the seabed) dominate the world news. And flying saucers.

This was just a few years before the first oil shock of 1973 which is now seen as a turning point in the post-war era. Some countries responded with a shift in their long-term energy strategies: Britain moved from coal to North Sea gas, France to nuclear, Sweden to nuclear and biomass. Emissions in these countries are now less than half their 1970s peaks.

But we’ve also learned that in most cases, turning off the tap on a cheap energy source is not that easy. Attempts to do so will be met with all kinds of resistance.

Now we are again seeing an energy crisis, with the main trigger being the war in Ukraine, at the very time that we need to accelerate the move off fossil fuels, while simultaneously coping with impacts on food prices due to the combined effects of the war with drought in Europe.

In fifty years time, will 2022 look like a turning point?

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