100 years ago, Alexander Graham Bell warned us about the ‘greenhouse effect’

Back in 1917, the inventor of the telephone foresaw a future where coal and oil were replaced by renewable fuels.

Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago. CREDIT: Library of Congress, text by Patrick Smith, ThinkProgress
Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago. CREDIT: Library of Congress, text by Patrick Smith, ThinkProgress

In a 1917 paper, Alexander Graham Bell wrote that the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels “would have a sort of greenhouse effect.” The man who invented the telephone four decades earlier added, “the net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.”

Bell was also concerned about the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels — “What shall we do when we have no more coal and oil?” So in a 1917 article for National Geographic Magazine, he urged the development of renewable ethanol fuel from agricultural waste, corn stalks, and saw-mill dust.” As one biographer wrote, Bell would “also explore ideas in energy conservation” and “solar heating.”

And all this time you thought the Chinese invented the greenhouse effect to beat us at manufacturing.

Bell didn’t coin the term “greenhouse effect.” That appears to have been the English physicist John Henry Poynting in 1909. And it was experiments in the 1850s by the Irish scientist John Tyndall that first explored the heat-trapping ability of what we today call greenhouse gases.

In 1896, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, was the first to predict that human-caused carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels were able to warm the globe. He calculated that temperatures in the Arctic would soar “if the carbonic acid [CO2] increased 2.5 to 3 times its present value.”

The point is that a full century ago, the science behind the human-caused greenhouse effect was well understood — and a brilliant inventor like Bell could imagine a future based on renewable energy.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Bell himself was inspired to work on acoustics and hearing aids and ultimately invent the telephone because his mother was deaf, as was his wife. He understood a century ago that there was going to be a necessity to replace fossil fuels some day.

That day has long since passed. Now we must start replacing climate-destroying fossil fuels with renewable sources as soon as possible. Fortunately, we have invented the key clean energy technologies we need to slash emissions.

Sadly, though, the new administration and congressional leaders are actually taking us into the distant past — by removing regulations on carbon pollution, restricting clean energy development, and boosting production of the dirtiest fuels. They are deaf to the necessity of urgent climate action.