Arrhenius and current climate concerns: Continuity or a 100-year gap?



In a paper presented to the Stockholm Physical Society in 1895 and published the following year, Svante Arrhenius demonstrated that variations of atmospheric CO2 concentration could have a very great effect on the overall heat budget and surface temperature of the planet. It would be a mistake, however, to consider this work as a direct forerunner of current climate concerns [Uppenbrink, 1996].

Arrhenius, who has recently gained renewed attention as the “father” of the theory of the greenhouse effect, held assumptions and produced results that are not continuous with present-day climate research. For example, he suggested that increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels might be beneficial, making the Earth's climates warmer and “more equable,” stimulating plant growth, and providing more food for a larger population [Arrhenius, 1908]. Arrhenius's view of the potentially beneficial effects of carbon dioxide emissions differs radically from current concerns over the harmful effects of a global warming caused by industrial activity and deforestation [Fleming, 1998].