Global Warming: A Brief History

Human knowledge

on the global warming

 Rolando Delgado Castillo

   Versión en español                                                                            English version


In 1904 chemistry - physical Swedish Svante Arrhenius (1859 -1927) foretold that the increasing industrial CO2 emissions would determine a remarkable change in the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere, causing a global climatic change.  According to this prediction increase could be beneficial when doing more uniform the climate of the planet and stimulate the growth of the plants and the food production.   


A discrepant opinion with the optimistic vision of Arrhenius appears at 1938 when the eminent engineer British Guy Stewart Callendar (1898 - 1964) publishes the article titled "The artificial production of carbon dioxide and its influence on the Earth’s temperature".  This work and others published after demonstrated the existing correlation between the elevation of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from the pre-industrial times, and the information then gathered together by him on the increasing temperature observed tendency.  


For this time the results of Callendar did not find resonance in the scientific community. Scientists supposed that the immense mass of the three fourth parts of the planet, the water of the oceans and seas, would act as regulating system by their absorbent capacity of CO2. Until around the sixty most of the scientists trusted that the human activity could not cause global changes in the Earth’s climate.   


Nevertheless the investigations lead between 1950 and 1960 by the American geophysicist Roger Revelle (1909-1991) with the collaboration of Austrian radio-chemist Hans Suess (1909- 1993) demonstrated of irrefutable way that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had been increased, rejecting the idea on the regulating activity of seas and oceans. 


In 1977 Revelle heads a Panel of US National Academy of Sciences which finds that around 40 % of anthropogenic carbon dioxide it remains in the atmosphere, two third parts as a result of fossil fuels burning and one third of the forests cutting.   


At beginning of eighty the predictions become gloomy when Revelle publishes an article in “Scientific American” in which he announces for the first time a possible elevation of the sea level caused by the glaciers melting accompanying the increasing temperature.  


The Meteorological World-Wide Organization and the United Nations for Environmental Program founded in 1988 an Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that supplies scientific, technical and socioeconomic information for the potential understanding of the climatic change, its impacts and the options for the adaptation and mitigation of the damages.  The IPCC was the first effort on international scale to control the environmental subjects. 


In May of 1992, 154 countries signed the Treaty of the United Nations on the Climatic Change (ratified in March of 1994).  The signatory countries were committed to stabilize, for the end of century, the levels of the carbon dioxide emissions in the values of 1990. 

Hardly a month later, had more than 100 leaders of government participated in the Rio Summit known like the Earth Summit.  There a consensus was reached on the necessity to integrate the development economic to the environmental protection in the objective to obtain a sustainable development.   


More than 160 nations in December of 1997,  attend the city of Kyoto to negotiate the limitations on the emissions of greenhouse gases. The Protocol of Kyoto announces the commitment of the powerful nations to limit its emissions until the levels emitted in 1990. 


Hans Suess (1909- 1993) received its doctorate in Chemistry in the University of Vienna in 1935.  During II World War, Hitler ordered to create a commission of scientists to explore the possibilities to manufacture the atomic weapon.  Suess served then as scientific adviser as the heavy water plant in Norway, that was destroyed by the pumps allied in 1943.  In 1950 he immigrated to the United States and five years later Suess accepted the Revelle’s invitation to work in the determination of the CO2 levels that were absorbed by the oceanic water.  Suess applied the radioactive isotope of C - 14 techniques to approach this problem.  Their results were key pieces to explain the accumulation of CO2 in the planetary atmosphere.



Fleming James R. (2002): What Role Did G.S. Callendar Play in Reviving the CO2 Theory of Global Climate Change?  Presidential Symposium on the History of the Atmospheric Sciences: People, Discoveries, and Technologies.


Universidad de California, San Diego(1997): Hans Suess Papers (1875 –1989). Background.


Weart Spencer (2005): The Discovery of Global Warming. Center for the History  of Physics. American Institute of Physics.


Weart, Spencer R. (1997). "Global Warming, Cold War, and the Evolution of Research Plans." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 27(2): 319-56. En “Roger Revelle’s Discovery”.  American Institute of Physics.