How our planet got so hot

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geven the 300,000 or years of modern human existence, it is remarkable how drastically we have changed our planet in the last few hundred years. For almost all of recorded history, our understanding of the atmosphere was negligible, as was our impact on it. As Alice Bell points out in “Our greatest experience: an epic story of the climate crisis, “the word” gas “- derived from the Greek khaos – only entered the scientific lexicon about four centuries ago. The discovery of carbon dioxide was even more recent, having been first identified in the mid-18th century. Yet in a relatively short period of time thereafter, humans pumped enough of this compound into the atmosphere to potentially threaten the survival of our entire species.

BOOK REVIEW“Our Greatest Experience: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis”, by Alice Bell (Counterpoint, 384 pages).

Certainly, we have already lived through dark times. As Bell recounts, the spring of 1815 saw the most powerful volcanic eruption on record. In addition to being heard from over a thousand kilometers away, the explosion of Mount Tambora – located in present-day Indonesia – sent out a huge plume of black dust that lingered in the atmosphere for years. All over the world, sunlight has become dull and temperatures have dropped. The following year was dubbed “the year without summer” as snow fell in New England in June and famine swept through Asia and Europe.

There is a good reason, however, to use pre-industrial society as a benchmark when discussing global warming. We live in a world of abundant natural phenomena, but the strangeness of time is mainly due to man. “[T]The warming we are talking about is not only the kind of climatic fluctuations that would occur whether humans live on this planet or not, “Bell writes,” but was caused by the massive influx of greenhouse gases into the world. atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. ”

A London-based climate activist with a doctorate. in science communications, Bell examines anthropogenic warming through the prism of technological advances. Since the climate crisis is closely linked to energy use and resource extraction, its long chronicle is largely a fuel story. Before 19th-century refining and drilling advances ushered in the petroleum era, a range of fuels were set alight for heat, lighting, and electricity. Our first fuel was wood, although it should be noted that we have probably caused more damage to the planet through deforestation than by burning logs, as trees help keep our planet cool by absorbing large amounts. of carbon dioxide.

Bell estimates that the era of fossil fuels began around the middle of the 16th century. She suggests that global warming could have been a gradual process without the development of the coal-fired steam engine, which has opened up a market for the combustion of fossil fuels. Of particular importance is the coal-fired steamer, as it allowed the expansion of industry and empire while laying the foundation for oil and gas.

Yet, as Bell notes, “Long before we built offshore platforms for fossil oil and gas, we mined our seas for whales. She advocates for the inclusion of these mammals in the climate crisis narrative, saying they extend our problematic history of energy use beyond fossil fuels. 17th-century American settlers boiled whale fat to make oil, which was then used for light. In the 1850s, the nation’s wealthiest city per capita was New Bedford, Massachusetts, home to over 300 whalers and dubbed “the city that lit the world”. Whale oil was eventually supplanted as an energy source, although it could still be found in commercial products like margarine and lipstick until the 20th century. “Arguably, by saving the whale, we simply moved our destruction elsewhere,” Bell writes.

Gas lighting began to spread in the early 19th century, appearing first in factories and then in private residences. A brighter light without a fishy smell, the gas lamp extended the working day into the evening and created a network of homes connected through one of the country’s earliest forms of energy infrastructure.

By the 1930s, electric liberation was marketed to the American middle class in the form of household appliances. Washing machines and refrigerators set a new standard of home comfort that eventually spread around the world and reshaped everyday life. As gas and electricity passed through shared grids, their use created a culture of self-sufficiency that nevertheless depended on complicated supply chains and the burning of fossil fuels.

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Around the same time, the rise of the automobile began to transform the world. Despite all the speed and advancement of the 20th century, Bell suggests that the end result was a mass culture of the throwaway and a surge in greenhouse gases that eventually defined “the aspiration model for the world. life of the 20th century ”. According to her, “the great utopian promise of an abundance of fossil fuel” has fallen flat.

Bell provides a comprehensive record of the scientific findings and denials associated with the dangers of unhindered energy consumption, a problem that took off in the late 1800s. Earlier in the century, in 1856, Eunice Newton Foote s ‘worried about the ability of carbon dioxide to heat the atmosphere. Tragically, the male-dominated scientific community has largely rejected his findings. A century later, Roger Revelle, studying the relationship between oceans and carbon dioxide, called the burning of fossil fuels a “large-scale geophysical experiment”. However, global warming will not become a major concern until the end of the 20th century.

Bell cites the 1970s as the time when climate science began to gain traction, spurred by the oil crisis and a better understanding of greenhouse gases. She describes how the groundbreaking work of Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland in 1973 on the warming threat of chlorofluorocarbons, compounds used in the manufacture of refrigerants and aerosols, highlighted the vulnerability of the ozone layer and widened the climate awareness beyond carbon dioxide. She also writes about “The Jasons,” “a secret group of elite scientists” who prepared briefings for the US government. Towards the end of the decade, they submitted a measured report on the irrefutable threat of atmospheric warming. Meanwhile, the oil industry was conducting its own research on the issue.

In the early 1980s, multinational oil companies were well aware of the crisis they were triggering. They minimized the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels and withheld key information from the public to protect their results. “Of course they knew,” Bell writes, reminding us that the big oil companies’ investment in science was what made them so successful at extracting, refining, and profiting from fossil fuels in the first place. “Sometimes fossil fuel companies and their advocates are portrayed as ‘anti-science’,” she writes. “In truth, they ran on science and always have. They’re just strategic about how they use it.

Bell raises objections to the way the scientific community has traditionally been structured, saying that “the dominant work cultures of science” have made it difficult for climate researchers to receive adequate financial and professional support. She criticizes climatologists’ reflexive tendency to shy away from dramatic predictions, saying this has effectively reduced the credibility of such resounding cautionary notes throughout history. Bell isn’t sparing nonprofits either, asking, “Are environmental NGOs really happy to be content with a 2 degree Celsius warming and the number of people who would kill?” According to her, the punches among professional activists are just one example of the endemic shortcomings of environmental movements. Yet much of the blame for the climate crisis is rightly blamed on the fossil fuel industry.

“Sometimes fossil fuel companies and their advocates are portrayed as ‘anti-science’,” Bell writes. “In truth, they ran on science and always have. They’re just strategic about how they use it.

Because this is a very large account, “Our Greatest Experience” is sometimes overwhelming. As Bell goes through centuries of environmental and scientific history, it’s hard to keep up with the dizzying amount of characters and information. Even so, while almost every chapter seems condensed and capable of being its own book, there are benefits to seeing climate change from Bell’s perspective. Through such a vast history of energy, technology and science, the world we have built seems fragile and our problems interconnected, the crisis fully underway.

Bell notes early on that the impacts of climate change will not be distributed evenly, citing research indicating that “the poorest half of the world’s population is only responsible for about 10% of global emissions”, but tends to increase. live in the places most vulnerable to our warming world. In her conclusion, she nods to the current regularity of extreme weather conditions and the growing acceptance of climate change as an underlying cause. Nonetheless, she expresses a sense of cautious optimism about the potential for collective anger targeting politicians and businesses.

We still have choices, says Bell, even if they are more limited than before. But she insists that any significant change to mitigate the impact of global warming will require radical long-term action: “Climate change is just not about pass / fail. It is not something that you gain or lose.


Andru Okun is a writer living in New Orleans.


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