SINCE the Second World War there has been a vast growth in environmental concerns and a subsequent explosion of environmental activity. This has resulted in the elevation of the subject into motherhood status and a great proliferation of the official bodies working in it.
According to the Directory of Environmental Organisations in the UK there are currently 659 such agencies at work. Similarly, membership of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, EAUC, totals more than 220. In 2020/21 the departments represented by this latter body catered for some 32,400 students studying the environment as a natural science and 12,230 as a social science, a total of 44,630. The number of papers on ‘sustainability’ in five leading environmental journals increased from 384 in 1987 to more than 2,400 in 2010.
This adds up to the emergence of a very powerful lobby, with a strong interest in keeping the public nose to its grindstone lest the flow of money into research and academic jobs dries up. As always in such circumstances, the financial pressures can distort priorities and judgement. In particular a major query can be raised over the origins of the No 1 environmental concern – global warming.
The identification of carbon dioxide as the villain goes back to research in the 19th century, principally by Svante Arrhenius, who was a giant in Swedish scientific circles in the 1890s. He created the discipline of physical chemistry and was a key figure in setting up the administration of the Nobel Prize. He bought into the concept of atmospheric warming by carbon dioxide and laid the foundation for the modern theory of the greenhouse effect and climate change.
Another Swede, Bert Bolin, was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Stockholm, having been a scientific adviser to the Swedish prime minister. He was a shoo-in to be the first chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, having been much involved in its creation within the United Nations system, and he reigned there for the next ten years. There were 3,500 scientists on the panel, and Professor Bolin, to quote Wikipedia, ‘is credited with bringing together a diverse range of views among them into something resembling a consensus’.
The range was indeed diverse, including those who believed global warming was caused by cosmic rays, by changes in the earth’s orbit, by changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis, by water vapour and by waste heat from fossil fuel combustion. The consensus that Bolin created was that Arrhenius was right, that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion was threatening to cook the planet. As an extremely competent international civil servant (there seem to be no criticisms of him or his stewardship in the literature) he did an impeccable job in assembling this international agreement.
In any event this achievement brought him great honours. In 2007 the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice President Al Gore and Bolin was asked to accept it, though he was too ill to attend the ceremony and died soon afterwards. He had reverenced Arrhenius. In his posthumously published account, A History Of The Science And Politics Of Climate Change, there are 40 mentions of his name.
To step back, when a fossil fuel is burnt there are three products that can cause atmospheric warming: carbon dioxide, water vapour and, yes, heat. The assumed predominance of the first of these is such that it is now simply referred to as ‘carbon’, and as might be expected there are a lot of references to it, 470 to be precise, in Bert Bolin’s history of climate change politics. There are only 20 references to water vapour and none at all to waste heat.
His consensus lives on, with the 27th ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) to be convened at the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El Sheikh in November. As a recent contribution to TCW noted, the last such gathering brought together 120 world leaders and more than 40,000 registered participants. And that was in Glasgow . . .