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Thirty Years Ago Today, Global Warming First Made Headline News

In 1988, building on global concerns about deforestation, acid rain, and damage to the ozone layer from certain synthetic chemicals, global warming jumped from an esoteric news item to front pages.

ByAndrew RevkinNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Global warming first became a big news story in 1988, with record heat and fires from the Amazon rain forest to Yellowstone National Park (where this photo was taken) making headlines.

From the late 1800s onward, driven by the findings of Sweden’s Svante Arrhenius and successors, there was a sprinkling of news coverage of the basic hypothesis that carbon dioxide emitted by fuel burning could warm the planet’s climate. A 1912 item, originally printed in Popular Mechanics and reproduced in newspapers as far afield as Australia, concisely summarized the basics:

The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons [1,814,000,000 tonnes] of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons [6,350,000,000 tonnes] of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

Of course, the pace of emissions far exceeded early projections as demand for coal surged and was matched by the rise in the use of oil and natural gas, driven by expanding populations, transportation, industrial production, and electricity use. Science continued to refine the basic picture of a rising human influence on climate, particularly from the late 1950s on.

In 1988, building on global concerns about deforestation, acid rain, and damage to the ozone layer from certain synthetic chemicals, global warming jumped from an esoteric news item to front pages. On June 23, a NASA climate scientist, James Hansen (b. 1941), told a U.S. Senate committee that human-produced greenhouse gases were measurably heating the climate.

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Hansen had stepped out ahead of most peers, but there were plenty of cues from nature, as well, including a record North American heat wave and a wildfire in Yellowstone National Park.

That summer, scientists and diplomats gathered in Canada for the “Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere,” and recommended global reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was also formed that year under the auspices of the United Nations to advise the world’s nations on climate risks and responses.

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Reprinted with permission from Weather: An Illustrated History: From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change by Andrew Revkin, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved. Read Revkin’s longer reflection on what it’s been like to report on climate since 1988 in the July 2018 edition of National Geographic Magazine.

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Photo courtesy Hansueli Krapf