Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 November 2012
From climate research to climate politics
Climate change has been constantly covered in the mass media in recent years, and this coverage has grown at a phenomenal pace. At the time of this writing, there is virtually no single day that there is not a report on this subject. Policymakers and most of the public deal with it, and the reactions show awareness and concern. The climate debate raises fundamental questions about the future of society, its natural environment, and appropriate policy decisions.
Again, we need to emphasize the role of scientific knowledge in the public debate about climate change. Scientists have brought the issue to the attention of the media and decision-makers, and it is fair to say that we would not worry about changes in the climate system without their warnings. There had been early studies conducted in the nineteenth century, most notably by Fourier (1824), Tyndall (1863), and Arrhenius (1896). However, none of these implied that there was a need for action, and many of these early works were not built upon in later studies. Modern climate change discourse did not emerge before the mid 1960s, when two research fields merged that had been separate before: carbon cycle research and atmospheric modeling. The first was conducted by researchers such as Roger Revelle and Hans Suess, the second by John von Neumann and others. This new research field tried to estimate the atmospheric response to increasing CO2 concentrations in the air. This was the birthmark of the field, which revolved (and still largely revolves today) around modeling. In the mid 1960s, the common perception among the research community was that we were conducting a large-scale experiment with planet Earth, but that this did not pose a threat and required no political action. Revelle stated in 1966 that “our attitude toward the changing content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere … should probably contain more curiosity than apprehension” (quoted in Hart and Victor 1993: 656). The President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) considered as early as 1965 the “deployment of reflective material in the atmosphere as a technological fix to counter rising CO2” (Hart and Victor 1993: 656). In 1970 and 1971 two reports were published, the “Study of Critical Environmental Problems” (SCEP) and the “Study of Man’s Impact on Climate” (SMIC). These subsequently fed into the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in 1972 in Stockholm.