Svante Arrhenius, the first climate activist

fumes from fossil fuel use
Svante Arrhenius recognised the issues of climate change over one hundred years ago but we are yet to fix the problem. Source: ISTOCK (via GreenMatters)
The effects of climate change have been known for longer than expected, dating back to the work of Svante Arrhenius in the 19th century.

By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor

Climate change is a common term now and it is common for students all over the UK to learn about the effects of fossil fuels. However, these effects have been known for longer than expected, dating back to the work of Svante Arrhenius in the 19th century. Svante Arrhenius was a Swedish physicist and a physical chemist known for his theory of electrolytic dissociation and his model of the greenhouse effect.  

He was born on the 19th February 1859 to Svante Gustaf Arrhenius and Carolina Christina Thunberg. You would be right to recognise that surname:  Greta Thunberg, one of today’s youngest climate activists, is distantly related to Svante Arrhenius.  

At school, Arrhenius was very good at mathematical equations and in 1876 he became a student of Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics at the University of Uppsala and then in 1881 he went to Stockholm to work under Professor E. Edlund at the Academy of Sciences.  

It was here that he started his work on electrolytes that won him the Nobel prize: a connection between chemical and electric phenomena became apparent in the 19th century and Arrhenius began studying the way that electrical current is conducted in chemical solutions. In 1883, he proposed a theory that when rock salt is dissolved in water, it splits into sodium atoms (positive electrical charges) and chlorine atoms (negative electrical charges). It is these charged atoms that allow electricity to be conducted. 

A man of many talents, Arrhenius was a pioneer in climate change research. In the Stockholm Physics society, there were debates over how ice ages occurred, which led Arrhenius to create the very first model of climate change. 

In the 18th century, there was evidence of mass extinctions in the fossil records as well as geological evidence of glaciation which scientists used to propose that the planet had experienced multiple ice ages. While there were many theories suggested to account for these glaciation periods, including shifts in the Earth’s orbit and changes in the brightness of the sun, Arrhenius suggested an entirely different concept.  

He knew that carbon dioxide (in this period known as carbonic acid) absorbs infrared radiation, felt in the form of heat to the human body. He was also aware of the Industrial Revolution’s steam engine-powered machines that burned coal, which produces carbon dioxide.  

This knowledge led him to question the result of increasing and decreasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. He asked, “is the mean temperature of the ground in any way influenced by the presence of the heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere?” 

Other scientists had attempted to figure out the relationship between the atmospheric gases and the planet; for example, John Tyndale had already identified methane, carbon dioxide and water vapour as the three main greenhouse gases. 

Using Tyndale’s research, Arrhenius quantified the influence of carbon dioxide on the greenhouse effect through complicated calculations. 

Arrhenius was the first scientist to focus on carbon dioxide as opposed to water vapour (the dominant greenhouse gas) as the most prominent influencer. He recognized that water vapour cycles depend on temperature whereas carbon dioxide is not affected by the weather and remains in the atmosphere for centuries. Taking this into consideration, he realised that increasing or decreasing CO2 would change the Earth’s temperature, in turn changing the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, which would then affect the temperature again. This cycle places carbon dioxide as the central source of global warming.  

 He published his research in The Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science in 1896. He concluded that if the carbon dioxide emissions were halved then the existing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would decrease causing a drop in the planet’s temperature of between 4 and 5°C. Such a large decrease in temperature, he concluded, would cause a significant cooling of the Earth’s surface which would trigger an ice age. He then concluded that if the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide should double, then the Earth’s temperature would increase in the same way. 

A true pioneer of scientific research, Arrhenius laid the foundation of climate change science. His climate model has helped scientists in their research into all types of areas; ranging from the way that weather patterns will be altered, to genetically modified plants that can withstand the dramatic future temperature changes. 

Cardiff University is playing a part in the fight against climate change; it is part of an organisation called the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST) along with the University of East Anglia, the University of Manchester, the University of York and Climate Outreach. This global hub is currently working on a range of different projects, one of which includes rethinking transport methods. Transport accounts for one quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, linking in with Arrhenius’ theory that fossil fuels are one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases. 

There have been few signs of progress in the attempt to reduce climate change in the travel sector, with car usage increasing every year and airplane usage similarly increasing. The official government advice is that all cars should be electric by 2030 or soon after which will be a major change to the status quo: in 2017 only 2% of vehicles were electric.  

The CAST transport project is looking at ways to combat society’s reliance on cars and airplanes; they are working with Cardiff City Council to test interventions with households that recognise the importance of physical infrastructure in influencing people’s choices. For example, the improvement of bike lanes and places to lock your bikes could have a considerable effect on the number of people comfortable cycling instead of driving. 

Their research looks at the lessons learnt from towns and cities that have already taken the leap into more sustainable approaches.  

CAST is also working to examine workplace initiatives in order to reduce air travel.  

Reducing pollution is important not only because it  impacts the planet and our future, but also the influence it has on our health. There is no positive for maintaining high pollution levels, which leads us to question why more has not been done.  

Arrhenius was aware of the impacts climate change would have in the 1900s, and yet more than 100 years later we, as a society, have changed very little – instead we have increased our consumption of fossil fuels.  

The unfortunate reality is that, while there are organisations like CAST which are attempting to reduce human consumption of fossil fuels, there is still not enough being done. There is a strong sense of complacency within society, and if our attitude, and that of our governments, do not change our futures are set to be very unstable. We need more projects, more interest and more research being done to combat climate change. That being said, we have hope that the work done by Cardiff University CAST centre will help in this effort, as well as directly challenging fossil fuel consumption in the way Svante Arrhenius hoped.


Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin

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