Scientific developments

Scientifically, the question of global warming was not a major issue at the time of the International Geophysical Year. Rather, the general understanding at the time was that the oceans would absorb almost all the excess carbon that humans may put in the atmosphere. Moreover, the war years had unusually cold weather, which made it less pertinent to discuss global warming. If anything was on the agenda, it was the perpetual question of the ice ages and the potential of a returning ice age on Earth. However, experiences of the vast impact of technology from using atom bombs had raised the legitimacy of ideas that people were able to affect the climate. There are examples of both scientists and politicians mentioning nuclear weapons and climate change as comparable threats to civilization. A popular belief was that fallout from the bombs could cause climate cooling.60 This theme resurfaced in the environmental debate in the early 1980s under the rubric of nuclear winter.61

The bombs did not only provide the seed for a new discourse of environmentalism. It also gave rise to new scientific techniques, specifically the use of radioactive tracers which were used to study the dispersal of the fallout. Closely related to this was the development of techniques to date material through its radiocarbon profile. In 1955, an expert on this new science - Hans Plass - showed that carbon from ancient fossil fuel had been added to the atmosphere. This finding was picked up by the director of Scripps Oceanographic Institute, Roger Revelle, who has been described as a key actor in the US scientific elite working on climate change science.62 Revelle hired Seuss to study radiocarbon in the ocean surface and as a result realized that the chemistry of sea water kept the ocean from retaining all the carbon it absorbs. Therefore, the ocean was not likely to retain the human emissions of carbon dioxide.63 In 1957, Revelle and Seuss wrote: "Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future."64 In 1956 and 1957, Revelle testified to US Congress about the potential consequences of this experiment and explained that climate change might turn California and Texas into deserts. Revelle regularly advised US federal agencies and leaders to advance his research program.65 For example, the testimony has been described as a way of trying to get funding for the International Geophysical Year. Revelle was also instrumental in pushing David Keeling to start the carbon dioxide measurement on Mauna Loa that became part of the International Geophysical Year.66

60 David M. Hart and David G. Victor, "Scientific Elites and the Making of US Policy for Climate Change Research 1957-74," Social Studies of Science 23, no. 4 (1993): 643, 647.

61 Constance Holden, "Scientists Describe 'Nuclear Winter,'" Science 222, no. 4625 (1983): 822; R. P. Turcp, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, and C. Sagan, "Nuclear Winter. Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions," Science 222, (1983): 1283; Lydia Dotto, Planet Earth in Jeopardy (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1986).

62 Hart and Victor, "Scientific Elites and the Making of US Policy for Climate Change Research 195774."

63 Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, 26-29.

64 Roger Revelle and Hans E. Suess, "Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades ," Tellus 9, (1957): 18.

65 Hart and Victor, "Scientific Elites and the Making of US Policy for Climate Change Research 195774," 647.

66 Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, 35, 43.

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