A Brief History of Global Warming


With the plagues that have befallen many parts of the world in recent times, it is only fair to admit that global warming is one of the most serious issues threatening humanity in the 21st century. To manage the future of the condition, it would help to look at its past.

In this article we summarily journey through the history of global warming successively driving through five chronological roads: 1700 to 1896, 1896 to 1930, 1930 to1999, 1999 to 2013, and Post-2013.

1700 – 1896

In 1712, a Briton—Thomas Newcomen—invented the steam engine and officially initiated the Industrial Revolution. And by the end of the 18th century, human population clocked 1 billion people. It was not until 1824 that a French physicist came up with a description of the “greenhouse effect” of the Earth. He explained that heat that comes with light find it much easier to pass through the atmosphere than it is for non-luminous heat to penetrate out—which consequently results in “trapped heat”.

It took 37 years for an Irish physicist, John Tyndall, to show that several gases including water vapor could cause greenhouse effect. Over 100 years later, a climate research centre was named after him in his honor.

In 1886, Karl Benz produced the so-called first automobile—it was called the Motorwagen.

1896 – 1930

Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, in 1896, was officially the first person to link fossil fuel combustion of the industrial age to global warming. He described the connection between temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations; in fact he figured out that the temperature of the Earth’s surface was 15 degrees Celsius on average because of the fact that carbon dioxide and water vapor absorbed infrared. He suggested that atmospheric CO2 be doubled so as to warm the Earth a little more for future generations. 

4 years later, another Swede, Knut Angstrom buttressed the greenhouse-effect capacity of CO2 as he demonstrated that only a small amount of the gas has the ability to absorb so much infrared. But then the discovery was taken lightly. By 1927, the industrial era was churning a billion tonnes/year of carbon into the atmosphere (from fossil fuel).

By 1930, the population of humans had doubled to 2 billion people.

1930 – 1999

With a doubled population came a new face for climate change. English steam engineer known as Guy Stewart Callendar, leveraging data from 147 weather bases stationed across the face of the Earth, showed the same thing Arrhenius had proposed years ago. He showed that the planet warms continuously as a result of CO2 emissions—this came to be known as the “Callendar effect”, and it came with a lot of controversies amongst meteorologists.

By 1955, just a few years before the Space era, Canadian physicist, Gilbert Norman Plass predicted that that the doubling of the CO2 causes the global temperature to rise by about 4 degrees Celsius. This prediction was confirmed much later. Two years later, in 1957, Chemist Hans Suess and US oceanographer Roger Revelle showed that, contrary to popular assumption, oceans do not absorb as much atmospheric CO2.

The next year, Charles David Keeling, started using his self-developed measurement devices to track the amounts of CO2 in the atmospheres of Hawaii and Antarctica. In 4 years, he established with evidence that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is steeply increasing. 

By 1960, the population of the world reached 3 billion. Serious considerations were now being given to climate change and greenhouse effect. In 1965, a warning was issued from the white house on the sensitivity of matters around global warming, and by 1972, the United Nations environment conference was held in Stockholm for the first time.

However at the event, there was hardly any talk on climate change—the talks were centered on nuke testing policies, whaling, and chemical pollution. For this reason, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was established.

The population of the world reached 4 billion by 1975, and it was the same year that the term “global warming” was brought into the spotlight in a scientific paper by American geophysicist, Wallace Smith Broecker. By 1987, the population of humans has increased by another 1 billion. The next year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to find all the signals and evidences that point to climate change.

And in 1989, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, while speaking to the UN warns about a future that would experience strong climate change turns as a result of the increasing carbon emissions that was going on; at this time, the carbon emissions as a result of burning fossil fuel had reached 6 billion tonnes/year.

In 1990, the IPCC presented a report that indicated that temperatures have risen by 0.3—0.6 degrees Celsius in about 100 years; the report also warned that with the trend, warming is a very likely consequence. Two years later in Rio de Janeiro, at an Earth Summit, governments came together and agreed on the United Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal of the event was to see how greenhouse gas concentrations could be stabilized.

By 1995, an IPCC concretely establishes that human activities were mostly responsible for climate change; and by 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was agreed. Based on that agreement, developed nations would cut down their carbon emissions by 5% by 2008/12; the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

1998 witnessed serious El Nino conditions and global temperature rise the last 30-year average. It became the hottest year. Soon a “hockey stick” graph was published indicating a connection between the high temperatures of the northern hemisphere and the past 1,000 years. The next year, human population reached 6 billion.

1999 – 2013

In 2001, the IPCC finds that within the last 50 years, human activities have been the one biggest contributor to the greenhouse gas concentration causing the Earth’s warming. In the same year, President George W Bush excluded the United States from the Kyoto protocol. By the next 5 years, the protocol became a law for participating nations.

Tony Blair, in 2005, declared climate change the single most important issue on his agenda as president of the European Union and chair of the G8. The next year it was shown that if left unattended, climate change could cost the world 20% of its global GDP; in this year, carbon emissions had reached a record 8 billion tonnes/year. By 2008, US President Barack Obama makes very strong commitments to fight climate change with the rest of the world.

China recorded the highest greenhouse emission in the world in 2009, surpassing emissions from the US. In the same year, the Copenhagen Accord was reached involving 192 world leaders gathered for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen; it was a controversial agreement.

In two years, the world’s population reached 7 billion, the ice in the Arctic also reached its smallest size (3.4 million square km) since satellites measured them in 1979. And in another two years, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii shows that there is an average CO2 emission of over 400 parts per million; it had never been that high since 1958. In that same year, 2013, the IPCC confirms with 95% certainty that human activities were the main contributor to global warming.


Based on temperature data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the mean temperature of the air above the Earth’s surface in 2018 was 14.7 degrees Celsius, 0.2 degrees lower than 2016, which holds the record of the hottest year ever. The data also indicated that the last four years have been the hottest in history. The temperature in 2018 was warmer than the mean temperature between 1981 and 2010 by 0.4 degrees Celsius. And in 2018, satellites have measured the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to have risen by 1.7—3.3 parts per million / year.

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