Before Paris: The humble beginnings of climate change research


Climate change wasn’t always this high-profile

While headlines are made about the official acknowledgement of human-induced climate change this week, more than 30 years ago it was just an odd result that a researcher observed amongst the reams of other data collected for a project. Here’s what might have happened sometime in those first years before “global warming” was established as more than just a crazy nutcase idea:

The researcher’s boss leaned back in his chair and frowned at his employee. “Well obviously you did the measurements wrong,” he said.

The researcher shook his head. “We checked the instrument calibration and the baseline. The nights have definitely been getting warmer over the past few years.”

“Then it’s most likely a sunspot or solar flare,” the boss said. The researcher drew a slow breath. He knew he should have waited til Thursday to tell him. The boss was always more receptive to new ideas on Thursdays.

“The nights are warming,” he said. “The days, not so much. Kind of thought solar activity might change daytime temperatures more.”

The boss sighed. “Natural anomaly then. It’s not like the temperature has never changed before. Write up your other results and don’t mention the temperature thing.”

That researcher did write up his other results but included a comment in the discussion section of the paper about the increasing temperatures. Another researcher somewhere else read the paper, found the comment which happily concurred with her findings and published her results, citing the first paper with a statement to the effect of “See? It’s not just me.”

Now, several decades on, we come to the epic Paris Agreement. It might not be perfect but it’s definitely a start. This is a triumph of thorough research and an ode to the persistence and perseverance of the researchers involved.

And so, for the people who made those original observations and recordings and noted it in peer-reviewed publications, and for all the other people who read the minor comment in those publications and made this the goal of their research, and for all the people who thought the whole thing was bollocks and set out to disprove it but accidentally found more evidence for it, this is victory is yours. Kind of makes it all worthwhile.