When I was an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech from 1976-79, in several environmental science, geography, and ecology classes we were taught about global warming and climate change due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The physics behind warming due to increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases had been well known for nearly a century by that time, and the fact that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were increasing was also firmly established. Empirical evidence suggesting that human-caused climate change was already occurring was beginning to accumulate.
These were undergraduate courses, not specialized upper level or graduate courses. It takes (at least) a few years for cutting-edge science to make its way into undergraduate textbooks and lecture notes, so it is safe to say that climate change due to humans was common scientific knowledge 50 years ago. The Carter administration sponsored a study of potential impacts of global warming in the 1970s. This is not to say that all was proven by the 1970s. But the warnings were there, based on solid science, and the overwhelming weight of evidence ever since has supported the idea, now fact, that we are changing Earth’s climate in ways that are often problematic for humans, other species, and the planet in general. By 1981 I was involved in teaching this stuff myself as a teaching assistant in freshman-level physical geography.
Now, the fact of global warming and climate change is undeniable. I guess there are a few holdout deniers (as there are still a few who maintain Earth is flat, evolution didn’t happen, moon landings were staged in a desert somewhere, and Biden didn’t win the 2020 U.S. presidential election). But even the utility companies who burn fossil fuels and the automobile manufacturers who make fossil fuel burners are adjusting to climate change—late to the game, of course (hopefully not too late) and not always for the most noble of reasons—but 50 years on, they know they can’t avoid it and want to keep making money, if nothing else. We’ll know the corner has been completely turned when the right wing press begins to blame ever-higher sea surface temperatures on Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama.
All of the following, and more, in the news just within the past couple of days: Droughts and wildfires in the western U.S. More and stronger tropical cyclones. More frequent and intense floods and heat waves. Accelerated sea-level rise. Climate-driven refugees. Increased coastal flooding. Power outages linked to climate and climate change. Military and security risks due to climate change. Loss of polar ice. Conflicts over water resources. Climate impacts on agriculture.
Every one of these, and more, predicted and warned of decades ago.
Yes, the details were not known. Yes, there was some uncertainty at the time the predictions were made. But though the exact timing, severity, and nature of these climate impacts cannot be known until they actually occur, the basic fact that these things are happening is no surprise at all to anyone who’s been paying attention for the past 50 years.
So, is there a point to all this beyond “told you so?”
If Earth, environmental, climate, and ecological scientists have been right all along, maybe we should start paying attention!
We told you so, and are still telling you so. We/they will not be right on all points, all the time, and uncertainty will never be completely banished (“prediction is difficult, especially the future,” as Yogi Berra famously said). As my professor in one of those long-ago Virginia Tech classes (Robert Giles) said, “When the house is on fire, there is no time to calculate the BTU’s of heat energy being released. There might be time to get a bucket.”
Posted 25 October 2021
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