The Greenhouse Effect Was Discovered by Eunice Foote, Many Still Ignore Her Warning
Commentary by Pete Haug | FāVS News
Hot enough for you?
That cliché pre-dates climate change by a lot.
Hot summer days are expected, but these days are different. Heat records shatter almost daily throughout the northern hemisphere, even as climate change denialists downplay or ignore evidence accumulating since the mid-19th century.
July 17th marked the 204th birthday of Eunice Foote, the woman who, in 1856, first demonstrated warming effects of carbon on the atmosphere. You may never have heard of her, reports Smithsonian Magazine, because this suffragette-scientist was a woman. Her findings were initially ignored.
Historic AAAS Meeting
Foote didn’t even get to present her own findings at the eighth annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Albany, NY, where “scientists from around the United States” shared “groundbreaking new discoveries.” They discussed advancements in their fields and explored new areas of investigation. There, for the first time, they learned that carbon could warm the atmosphere. There, Foote “identified the greenhouse effect, now a seminal concept in climate science,” Smithsonian reports.
Foote’s paper, “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” anticipated “the revolution in climate science.” It explains “how she had experimentally demonstrated the effects of the sun on certain gases.” It describes “interactions of the sun’s rays on different gases through a series of experiments.” Foote then theorizes “how those gases would interact with Earth’s atmosphere.”
But the male-dominated culture prevented this scientist from personally sharing her research. Her paper was read by a man from the Smithsonian Institution. (Her husband, however, read his own paper, also on gases.) The following month, Scientific American reported Foote’s accomplishments in a column titled “Scientific Ladies.” It praised her for “supporting her opinions” with “practical experiments,” noting, “this we are happy to say has been done by a lady.” (Such condescension appears headed in the right direction!)
Beyond this, Foote’s discovery was largely ignored.
Her paper was omitted from the AAAS Proceedings, the official record of papers presented at annual meetings. The only complete copy of Foote’s paper appears in The American Journal of Science and Arts.
But somebody was paying attention.
Three years later, Irish physicist John Tyndall published similar results “demonstrating the greenhouse effects of certain gases.” He speculated that ice once covering Northern Europe melted due to atmospheric changes and that “carbon dioxide emissions could have profound effects on global climate.”
Until this century, Tyndall’s work was considered “the foundation of modern climate science.” Then, in 2011, an article about Foote, apparently the first in a century and a half, appeared in an oil-industry publication: “Eunice Foote’s Pioneering Research on CO2 and Climate Warming.”
Years earlier, in 1988, the danger fossil fuels pose in driving global warming was widely publicized by climate scientist James Hansen. Testifying before Congress, Hansen warned that human-caused climate disruption had arrived. That same year, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Since the IPCC’s inception, fossil fuel interests have excoriated this global environmental research agency and its findings. Yet in 1977, eleven years before IPCC’s formation, Exxon’s scientists warned executives “that carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere and that the burning of fossil fuels was to blame.”
Throughout public forums, Big Oil sowed FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about IPCC research. Then, in 2021, some of the world’s top oil and gas executives testified before Congress “that their firms had never misled the public about the science or severity of climate change.” That story is headlined, “It never happened.”
Last January, Science published “Assessing ExxonMobil’s global warming projections,” an evaluation of the company’s modeling techniques and research. It reported, “in private and academic circles since the late 1970s and early 1980s, ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully,” despite claiming publicly that causative links were “too uncertain.”
ExxonMobil’s internal models “projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast” by independent researchers. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe.
Sexism in Science
And it all started with a woman, unrecognized because of sexism.
Many sciences and technologies began to burgeon about the same time Foote demonstrated the effects of carbon on the atmosphere.
In addition to scientific advances, the 19th century experienced religious fervor here and abroad.
Today, women populate all fields of science and technology, yet they’re still not equal with men. In many cultures, including some in the United States, they’re considered second-class citizens, based on religious interpretations.
I’m still hoping climate change denialists will read this and check out local chapters of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Perhaps Eunice Foote’s ghost will greet them with, “Hot enough for you?”