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Climate change: For two centuries a lot of debate, not much action

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 1:9

The concept of climate change is far from new, says Richard Carson, a Mississippian said to be the most cited environmental economist in the world.

“The science community has been thinking about climate change due to increased carbon dioxide levels as far back as 1827,” he said at the Mississippi State University Agricultural Economics Department’s 100-year anniversary symposium.

“In 1896, a Swede developed an estimate of how much the planet would warm from CO2. It was debated whether planet warming or cooling was a better thing. At the time, the Swedes were more worried about a new Ice Age than global warming.

“The main outcome from all this discussion,” says Carson, for the past 25 years economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, “was that nobody thought the theoretical notion that you could warm the planet really counted for anything. Their position was that the oceans would absorb almost all the extra CO2.”

That theory was debunked in 1957 by UC San Diego scientist Roger Revelle, doing research in the Pacific, who figured out that oceans wouldn’t absorb a large portion of the CO2.

“Revelle then got a young chemist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Charles Keeling, to measure CO2 at a fairly pristine location in Hawaii. Keeling found that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere goes up and down every year, due to changes in vegetation cycles in the northern and southern hemispheres.”

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In 1965, Carson says, “President Lyndon Johnson mentioned climate change as a problem the country would have to deal with, and scientists started building fairly complex models that were almost impossible to run on the computers of the day, but which you could easily do on your cell phone today.”

There were numerous revivals of Thomas Malthus’ 18th century warnings of overpopulation leading to mass starvation and  popular books such as “Limits to Growth,” by three MIT scientists “with a pretty dim view of the world — that people would either starve to death a la Malthus, or choke to death on pollution, or freeze to death from not having enough energy. Of course,” Carson says, “if that had come to pass, we’d all be dead now.”

SEE ALSO: How could climate change affect agriculture, forestry?

There followed, he says, international conferences, pronouncements from scientists pro and con, attempts at legislation and remedial measures (most of which went nowhere), and an intense public relations campaign by big energy interests to discredit the science of climate change.”

Abetted by the rise of the Internet and social media, the debate rages still — with resolution little closer than it was almost 200 years ago.


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