Guest post: Nothing New Under the Sun

This is a guest post from John Russell. I won’t describe what it says as it speaks for itself, but it is quite remarkable that our basic understanding of how CO2 will influence our climate has changed little in the last 100 years or so. I won’t say anymore. John’s post starts now.

AtticEvery so often, usually to do with some form of household maintenance, I find myself up in the loft. There, surrounded by the boys’ old and broken Star Wars toys; remnants of Amigas and Sinclair Spectrums; piles of tattered school exercise books with scrawled handwriting; my dad’s paintings and mother’s German lessons on audio cassette; and my collection of hippy-era LPs, I come across something that stops me doing what I went up there to do and I spend the next half an hour sitting on a box, reminiscing.

So it was that today I, literally, stumbled across ‘PHYSIOGRAPHY’, ‘by Huxley and Gregory’. As I picked it from the floor where it had fallen from a box I’d knocked over, I remembered it from my childhood: tatty olive-green cover, yellow-edged pages, and that musty smell that anyone who goes in old book shops knows so well. Although it had my name inside the cover—scrawled in the days when my signature was still spidery and yet to evolve into its adult form—it had belonged to my dad. Nostalgia flooded me: I couldn’t remember a time before it had been around, though I doubt I’d seen it for the best part of 50 years.

I turned its pages: ‘AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF NATURE’. ‘Copyright’. …’First edition 1904.’ ‘…Reprinted 1919’. ‘Contents… Chapter I, Maps and Map Reading; Chapter II, Springs and Rivers; Chapter III, Clouds and Rain…’.

I stopped in my tracks: ‘Chapter V, Composition of the Atmosphere’. I wonder… I flicked the pages, skip reading until I finally arrived at page 88. There it was: ‘Carbon Dioxide and Climate’.

At this point I’ll stop waffling and leave Huxley and Gregory to tell you the state of climate knowledge more than 100 years ago.

Carbon Dioxide and Climate.—The atmosphere surrounding the earth may be compared with the glass of a greenhouse, which permits the bright rays of the sun to pass through, but prevents the escape of the dull radiations from the heated surfaces below it. This action is due to the carbon dioxide and water vapour in the air; but as the proportion of the latter varies very considerably, while the quantity of the former is almost the same in the open air everywhere at all seasons, evidently the protective action of carbon dioxide gas is of prime importance. If the proportion of this gas in the atmosphere could be increased, the temperature of the ground and of the air surrounding us would be raised, and if it were to be diminished all parts of the earth would become cooler. This conclusion appears astonishing when the small concentration of the gas in the atmosphere is borne in mind. In ten thousand cubic feet of pure air there are only three or four cubic feet of carbon dioxide; that is to say, only one third per cent. of air consists of the gas to the protective qualities of which we are so much indebted. Tyndall suggested long ago that the intensely cold periods of the earth’s history—Ice Ages—could be caused by variations in the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and more recent investigations have given support to this theory. It has been shown that a diminution of carbon dioxide to two-thirds of its present amount would probably lower the average temperature of the northern regions of the earth by at least 99°F., and hence produce the climate of the Great Ice Age. On the other hand, and increase to triple the present amount, that is, to about one per cent. in the air, would probably produce a rise in temperature amounting to thirty to forty degrees, and thus convert the deserts of polar ice into regions warm enough for the development of a rich and flourishing flora as they were in former ages. There is thus substantial reason for believing that variations of climate in the past could have been caused by slight variations in the proportion of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.


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30 Responses to Guest post: Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. If I have this right, the Huxley here is Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as Darwin’s Bulldog. This book (PHYSIOGRAPHY) was first published in 1877, but an updated edition was published in 1904 by Gregory, Huxley having died in 1895.

  2. Kingb says:

    Not terribly surprising, in 1859 John Tyndall demonstrated that selected gases including, water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane can intercept/absorb Infra-red (IR) radiation. A few years later Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius did the first experiments/calculations to estimate how changes in the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should affect global temperatures. By 1904 (date of first edition) the theory was almost 30 years old and was well-established in the scientific literature.

  3. Richard says:

    Thanks John. A wonderfully eloquent description and amazing loft excursion. Just as there are many who deny the brilliance of Darwinian natural selection (long before the mechanism of DNA made this beyond irrefutable), how long before the naysayers recognise the cumulative knowledge from 1861 and since in respect of carbon dioxide’s impact on climate?

  4. You’re correct: TH Huxley. ‘Gregory’ was Richard Arman Gregory, Professor of Astronomy, Queen’s College, London (1864-1952).,_1st_Baronet

  5. @Kingb

    I think the interesting thing is that this was written in a way that even a 12-yea- old like me at the time had no trouble in understanding. It was mainstream. As I said to aTTP in an email prior to posting, I knew that I’d always known and understood the greenhouse effect. It was only today that I remembered where I’d first read about it.

    I wanted to post this so it could be used as a resource in future to show those in denial that they have no excuse for their ignorance.

  6. I think the interesting thing is that this was written in a way that even a 12-yea- old like me at the time had no trouble in understanding.

    I wanted to post this so it could be used as a resource in future to show those in denial that they have no excuse for their ignorance.

    A point. Also, whether unsurprising or not, I still find it quite remarkable, probably both because it shows how good the understanding was even more than 100 years ago and – given that – remarkable how some still dispute this.

  7. Kingb says:

    Johnrussell40, My apologies, no insult was intended. My intention was rather to explain that, as you suggested, the theory was well understood by that time. Arrhenius’ initial sensitivity estimate for CO2 doubling (which he published in the 1890’s, I think around 1896) was in the 4-5°C range. Better tools later moved that number down to the current estimate of direct 1.2°C of warming per doubling (ignoring any feedbacks etc…).

  8. Michael 2 says:

    Fascinating, and as you say, remarkable that 100 years ago the principle was well understood. Basic science, whatever exactly that might be, hasn’t advanced all that much in 100 years allowing advanced science to stand on that foundation.

    But basic science must still be taught fresh every generation, and if it isn’t, takes only one generation to vanish. My own children have little comprehension of science despite that I have equipment and a substantial library of books intended to give them a head start in their world. They don’t want it. What they want is a smartphone and unlimited internet with no appreciation of the technology of either.

  9. anoilman says:

    Actually I found a book of Huxley’s on climate and weather in collectible first editions. It was a gift from the original author. At the time I had thought of getting people to chip in and buy it for Michael Mann. *sigh* the details escape me.

    My interest in books came from buying a few leafs from the Nuremberg Chronicle, dated 1493. I also got the exact same leaf from the German edition printed 1 year later.

    What struck me in researching my leaf was just how much history was religious wars\arguments between the various flavors of Christianity. (Was Jesus divine? Lets settle it with a sword.)

    Its not lost on me how current ideologies and arguments seem just as strong. I would point out that to people who don’t do science or math, that the way we are responding to climate change and pointing to data resembles a religious fervor. (I’m saying, they can’t tell… we’re just flinging words they can’t understand at them. To them, free market ideology is equal to math predicting a dire future.)

  10. Kingb,
    Indeed. We discussed this a couple of months ago. However, my understanding is that the 4-5oC already included feedbacks.

  11. Kingb says:


    Very interesting, haven’t looked at that paper in over 20 years. Lots more to learn by re-reading it.

  12. Tom Curtis says:

    I think it overstates the case to say Huxley and Gregory show that climate knowledge has changed little over the last 100 years. To begin with, by 1896, Arrhenius’ “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air on the temperature of the ground” had been published. That first empirical estimate of the influence of changing CO2 content estimated a -3.32 C alteration in temperature at 30-40 degrees North for a one third reduction CO2 concentration, with a little more being allowed for but not calculated from ice albedo feedback (table VII). That contrasts sharply with the 55 C reduction mentioned in Huxley and Gregory, which is also vastly overstated relative to modern estimates of climate sensitivity. It is also telling that Huxley and Gregory estimate a 55C reduction in polar temperature for a one third reduction in CO2, but only a 16.67 to 22.22 C increase for a threefold increase in CO2, thus clearly showing they did not understand the logarithmic relationship between CO2 and temperatures, something understood by Arrhenius who wrote that if “… the quantity of CO2 increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of temperature will increase in almost arithmetic progression”.

    Given all of this, it seems evident that Huxley and Gregory at best reflects the state of knowledge in 1877 (Huxley’s first edition), or just possibly 1895 (the first edition revised by Gregory). I would be interested in the source of the estimate of the temperature change made by Huxley, as I do not know it.

    There is a further (larger) problem with representing Huxley and Gregory as the state of knowledge 100 years ago. Specifically, in 1900 Knut Angstrom published a paper which argued on experimental grounds that the CO2 effect was saturated. Although the results were not accepted by all, the basis for refuting that paper did not emerge until the 1950s with more detailed data on CO2 absorption, and the 1960’s with Manabe’s radiative/convective model of the greenhouse effect. It was not until the publication of that model that the science of the atmospheric greenhouse effect matured, and could refute all the various counterarguments against it.

  13. Rachel M says:

    Great post, John. I love trips into the attic like this where you get to sift through old memories and where time seems to move at twice the speed. I found something from my past this week too but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as your find. I was cleaning out an old backup that I haven’t used in 20 years and you know how those things have hidden pockets everywhere? I found a hidden pocket and inside it was a love letter from an old boyfriend. It took me a while to figure out where it had come from and who gave it to me and then it all came flooding back. All I can say is thank goodness I gave him the flick despite his efforts!

    Imagine what Huxley and Gregory would say now if they knew the level of denial our species has entertained just to relieve ourselves of the responsibility of fixing the climate mess we’ve got ourselves into. Is it simply that the truth is too hard to bear or is it that we’re inherently selfish and are driven only by profit?

    I can remember learning about the greenhouse effect in the late 80s as a high school student. I don’t remember any resistance to it back then. The last decade or two and the denial of science that has plagued it are an embarrassment to the collective intellect of the humanity.

  14. Pingback: The age of science denial | RachelSquirrel

  15. Tom,

    I think it overstates the case to say Huxley and Gregory show that climate knowledge has changed little over the last 100 years.

    That wasn’t quite what I said 🙂 but, thanks, that’s a thorough summary of the state of knowledge.

  16. Many have surely read the interesting book The Warming Papers edited by David Archer and Raymond Pierrehumbert, but perhaps it’s not familiar to everyone.

    The book contains many of the most important papers related to climate change with some comments by the editors.

  17. russellseitz says:

    A strong example of Victorian prose- with the climate sensitivity numbers corrected for progress in measurement since Arrhenius’ day, it would make a fine and cost-effective replacement for many squirrilly environmental science primers today .

    Cost-effective because English is learnt by example and nor t even Steve gould could outwrite– or outtalk– Huxley

  18. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:

    Interesting find.

    Since Venus and Mars are also not new under the Sun, it’s worth pointing out that our understanding of the climate of Venus goes back to 1960-1961 – when a doctoral student named Carl Sagan published several seminal papers; and for Mars, 1971-2, when Sagan, with colleagues published another series of important papers.

    Some of the details have changed, but the principle hypothesis that small changes in the composition of planetary atmospheres can have a large effect on planetary climates was well established 4 decades ago.

  19. On the variations of the climate of the geological and historical past and their causes by Dr Nils Elkhom 1901

  20. JWhite says:

    From John Russell
    “In ten thousand cubic feet of pure air there are only three or four cubic feet of carbon dioxide”

    From Eli’s site

    “Third, in one cm3 of air there is about 8 x 10^15 CO2 molecules, so that is quite a bit, the average distance between CO2 molecules is about 2 x 10^-5 cm, or about 20 microns, which, amusingly enough is about the wavelength of the IR light that is absorbed, in that very crude sense, the IR light always is near a CO2 molecule that can absorb it.”

    I’m having a bit of trouble getting my brain around these two statements. Perhaps one of you physicists would be kind enough to help.

    Would it be correct to say that if one took those 3-4 packed cubic feet of CO2 and dispersed them equally around the 10,000 cubic feet of ‘pure’ air, the CO2 molecules would be abundant enough to be, on average, about 20 microns apart? 8 quadrillion CO2 molecules per cubic centimeter seems like a lot.

  21. JWhite,
    John’s is simply another way of representing that normal air has 400 parts per million CO2. So, if you took the CO2 out of 10000 cubic feet of normal air, and compressed it to the same number density as normal air, it would occupy about 3-4 cubic feet.

    The average mass of air (averaging nitrogen, oxygen, …) is 28g per mole (1 mole is 6.022 x 1023 molecules). The average density of air at sea level is 0.00125g cm-3, which means the number of particles per cubic centimetre is 0.00125/28 x 6.022 x 1023 = 2.63 x 1019. If CO2 is 400ppm, that gives 1 x 1016 CO2 molecules per cm-3. So, Eli is also right 🙂

  22. JWhite says:

    Thanks ATTP, I think I actually understand your calcs. I never doubted both statements were correct, just seemed anti-intuitive.

    Thanks for the great blog and the opportunity for a teachable moment.

  23. Pekka Pirilä

    Many have surely read the interesting book The Warming Papers edited by David Archer and Raymond Pierrehumbert, but perhaps it’s not familiar to everyone.

    The book contains many of the most important papers related to climate change

    Yes, especially the one on page 331 😉

    Seriously though, this is indeed a great collection of important papers and I join you in recommending it. Manabe & Wetherald (1975) and Sawyer (1972) are important early papers on climate models & estimates of future warming. (Sawyer’s estimate can now be compared with reality).

    I remember Mitchell et al (1995) being published when I’d been at the Met Office Hadley Centre for 3 years. Everyone was very excited about it because it was the first time we’d been able to simulate climate change over the 20th Century with any credibility (previously the models had ignored aerosols and simulated too much warming).

  24. russellseitz says:

    The Rav. Hypotenuse should note that some planets present higher levels of theoretical diffuculty than outhers.
    Whle miraculously cooking off all the CO2 in Earth’s carbonate rocks might give a fair approximation to the atmosphere and climate of Venus , predicting the consequences of setting cities and oilfields alight <b<has proved more problematic .

  25. BBD says:

    Seriously though, this is indeed a great collection of important papers and I join you in recommending it. Manabe & Wetherald (1975) and Sawyer (1972) are important early papers on climate models & estimates of future warming. (Sawyer’s estimate can now be compared with reality).

    For the thread, there’s a discussion of Sawyer (1972) at SkS.

  26. BBD says:


    From your blog:

    The sad paradox this end of the history of science presents is that honest climate modelers are obliged to share the cultural stage with more than Heartland Institute carnival barkers like Viscount Monckton and Jay Lehr PhD. They still have to contend with prophets of doom who fail to deliver, many political reductionists of a very low order.

    You are living in the past and this argument is about the future. Let it go.

  27. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse says:


    Asked by Nightline’s Ted Koppel if the effects could rival the catastrophic asteroid impact that caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, Sagan replied: “Precisely.”

    Patrick K. Dowling. “The Meteorological Effects of the Kuwait Oil Fires”:
    In retrospect, it is now known that smoke from the Kuwait oil fires only affected the weather pattern throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding region during the periods that the fires were burning in 1991, with lower atmospheric winds blowing the smoke along the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and cities such as Dhahran and Riyadh, and countries such as Bahrain experienced days with smoke filled skies and carbon soot rainout/fallout.

    Article: Airborne studies of the smoke from the kuwait oil fires.
    P V Hobbs, L F Radke
    Science 12/1991
    ABSTRACT: Airborne studies of smoke from the Kuwait oil fires were carried out in the spring of 1991 when approximately 4.6 million barrels of oil were burning per day. Emissions of sulfur dioxide were approximately 57% of that from electric utilities in the United States; emissions of carbon dioxide were approximately 2% of global emissions; emissions of soot were approximately 3400 metric tons per day. The smoke absorbed approximately 75 to 80% of the sun’s radiation in regions of the Persian Gulf. However, the smoke probably had insignificant global effects because (i) particle emissions were less than expected, (ii) the smoke was not as black as expected, (iii) the smoke was not carried high in the atmosphere, and (iv) the smoke had a short atmospheric residence time.

    Russell Seitz should note that some sad paradoxes present higher levels of theoretical diffuculty than others.

  28. Hank Roberts says:

    > sulfur dioxide were approximately 57% of that from electric utilities in the United States

    Ah, this puts it in perspective. The climate argument has been that it takes a groundburst nuke producing intense heat igniting fires on a high carbon source (or a fair sized volcano) to loft significant albedo-affecting material well up into the stratosphere.

    ” Little Boy was an air burst 580 metres (1,900 ft) above the ground, there was no bomb crater and no local radioactive fallout.[55]” — Wikipedia

    Otherwise early coal fogs should have showed up affecting global temperature, eh?

    I’d asked elsewhere if this week’s oil refinery fire Russell keeps posting about was comparable to the daily smoke coming from China and India, but haven’t seen any numbers on that.

    Also wondering how much worse things would seem if the terrorists set fire to all the tobacco plantations and production, to whose life and happiness depend on that stuff.

  29. Brian Dodge says:

    I wonder why it never occurred to Knut Angstrom that his results would have been different when the experiments were performed on the summit of Mt Everest? Or still different at 100 mbar altitude?

    My uncle Shorty, who was a house painter*, had a firm practical grasp of the changes in optical properties that a few ounces of blue pigment in the paint could make on a 30 ton house, so the “CO2 is only a trace element” argument didn’t cut it with him.

    *It is more accurate to say that he was a fisherman, of the “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work” persuasion, and only painted enough houses to enable him to go fishing.

  30. Pingback: Three years! | …and Then There's Physics

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