On August 14, 1912, a New Zealand newspaper’s “science notes and news” section ran a blurb headlined, “Coal consumption affecting climate.” An Australian paper ran the same headline and blurb the previous month.
As the full clipping read (emphasis added), “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons 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.”
The fact-checking website Snopes.com verified the authenticity of those clippings and traced the story to the caption in a lengthy article in the March 1912 issue of Popular Mechanics on “The effect of the combustion of coal on the climate — what scientists predict for the future.”
“It has been found that if the air contained more carbon dioxide, which is the product of the combustion of coal or vegetable material, the temperature would be somewhat higher,” the article explains. “Since burning coal produces carbon dioxide it may be inquired whether the enormous use of the fuel in modern times may not be an important factor in filling the atmosphere with this substance, and consequently indirectly raising the temperature of the earth.”
The truth is, scientists have known that burning coal releases carbon dioxide that in turn warms the planet for a long, long time. Yet coal consumption has continued to rise decade after decade regardless.
Indeed, the scientific understanding that certain gases trap heat and warm the planet dates back to the 1850s. Eunice Foote discovered CO2’s warming properties in 1856, and was the first scientist to make the connection between CO2 and climate change. Irish physicist John Tyndall, who often gets all the credit, didn’t make the connection until 1859.
By the turn of the 19th century, Svante August Arrhenius was quantifying how CO2 contributed to the greenhouse effect and later made the connection between global warming and fossil fuel combustion.
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.”
That’s why stories in newspapers and magazines have appeared many times over the past century. Popular Mechanics alone has run articles on climate change in 1912, 1930, 1940, 1957, 1964, 1988, and on and on — as it explained in an article earlier this year.
But the modern media always seems surprised when the old clippings show up, perhaps because the fossil fuel-funded disinformation campaign has been so pervasive and effective in casting doubt on the science for so long.
Today, “Coal consumption affecting climate” isn’t even news. The main difference between now and a century ago, however, is that having dawdled so long, the headline should read, “Coal consumption destroying climate — and we’re almost out of time to avert disaster.”
Yet tragically, despite over a century of science, President Trump not only traffics in the disinformation, calling climate change a “hoax,” but he continues to vow to bring back coal.