Home > Uncategorized > In half a century what have we done with that knowledge?

In half a century what have we done with that knowledge?

from Edward Fullbrook

A version of this graph appeared in yesterday’s Guardian.  I have a vivid memory from almost exactly half a century ago that relates to it.  It was February 1970 and snowing.  It was rural Wisconsin in the States and I was riding in a car with a woman who was the mother of six and a well-known peace activist but with no connection to science or environmentalism.  We were coming from Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate Taliesin where I lived, and as we neared Madison and got caught in a traffic jam, my friend said, “That man in the car in front of us is one of the scientists who says we are increasing the Earth’s temperature.”

As the decades passed, my friend’s words became a milestone for me because they mark a point when the fact that the world’s economy was heating up the Earth had already become common everyday conversational knowledge.  But now look again at that graph.  What have we done with that knowledge?

  1. Charlie Thomas
    January 16, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    a few years later ’76 I was a grad student in forest ecology, biometrics at UBC. I stumbled on Schneider and Hansen and began reading their work. I was interested in Tree Ring chronology as well. Their papers were convincing then as they have continued to be. It is a continuing mystery that political denial has won the battle for truth this far into the 21st century.
    I blame the short term thinking of economics and economists partially for the tragedy. It is likely too late to avoid so many of the ecological impacts of this short sightedness. The political players are of course the main blame.

  2. January 17, 2020 at 2:58 am

    Let me tell some environmental protection stories about China. Environment was actually and extremely polluted during last 40 years. About five years ago, protective regulations started to tighten. Many economic activities are now banned indiscriminately. Farmers are banned to raise pigs, so pork price becomes sky-high. Many restaurants are closed, because the building holding the restaurants are not permitted for business any longer. Many many “illegal” buildings were destructed by chemical explosions. Coal is not allowed for household use any longer. Constructive activities are ordered to be shielded by plastic coverings, and to be watered from time to time. No public discussion, even few news reports for the “environmental protection storm (even despotism)”. GDP is slowing down. However, air is really becoming clearer, the sky is becoming blue, rivers and lakes are reviving, and the weather in summer these years feels seemingly not so hot as before. This is the Chinese environmental stories, like its barbaric developments.

  3. John Hermann
    January 17, 2020 at 6:04 am

    What is worrying about this set of statistical data is not so much the magnitude of the effect, but rather, the speed with which it is occurring.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    January 18, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    The benefits and costs, including many not stateable or measurable were in the 18th and 19th centuries either not clear or not considered important enough to measure. In the early industrial age, Britain was famous for its dark satanic mills. The industrial revolution, which did so much to raise income and wealth, depended almost entirely on one fuel source: coal. Coal supplied domestic hearths and coal-powered steam engines that turned the wheels of industry and transport. In Britain, emissions of black smoke were up to 50 times higher in the decades before the clean air acts than they are today. The great London smog of 1952, that prompted policymakers to act, killed 4,000 in the space of a week. But even that was not as dramatic as what went before. Unregulated coal burning darkened the skies in Britain’s industrial cities decade upon decade, and it was plain for all to see. But air quality was not measured and monitored until well into the 20th century. And while soot blackened buildings and clothing, the effects of toxic air on health were not assessed, until recently.

    In the absence of data on emissions, economic historians have come up with a novel way of measuring its effects. They combined coal consumption by industry with the industrial composition of the workforce to estimate annual coal use in each district. Not surprisingly, coal intensity was highest in the Midlands the north of England and in South Wales, and so this is where we should expect to see the worst effects on health. As we do.

    As early as the 1850s, higher coal intensity was associated with higher death rates from respiratory diseases, especially among the old and the very young. An increase of just 1% in coal intensity raised the deaths of infants by one in every 100 births. The effect of pollution in India and China today is comparable with that in Britain’s industrial cities in the late 19th century. Also, geography is important. Those located downwind from a coal intensive district suffered from their neighbor’s pollution. And communities in valleys surrounded by hills suffered more deaths as their own smoke emissions became trapped and concentrated. Coal combustion also affected the health of those that survived. It led to repeated respiratory illness, slower growth during childhood and shorter adult stature. Although much of the variation in individual height is genetic, we can nevertheless compare the adult heights of those who grew up in districts with varying pollution. The effect of atmospheric pollution can be measured by looking at men who were born in the 1890s whose heights were recorded when they enlisted in the British army during World War I. Their average height was five feet six inches (168cm), but 10% were shorter than five feet three (160cm).
    Those who grew up in the most polluted districts were almost an inch shorter than those who experienced the cleanest air, even after allowing for a range of household and local characteristics. This is twice as much as the difference in adult height between the children of white-collar and manual workers. The average height of men increased by about three inches (7.6cm) over the 20th century. Increases in height are associated with gains in life expectancy, education, ability, and productivity. Improved air quality may have helped almost as much as better hygiene or improved diet.

    Recent scientific reports warn that we face increasing pollution from a range of sources, especially vehicle emissions. Failure to maintain and further improve air quality risks jeopardizing the improvements in health that have been achieved by technological advances and public policies over the last half century.

  5. davetaylor1
    January 25, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Edward, trying to correlate your graph with events, it seems to me the continuous rise since 1970 corresponds to that in the use of jet aircraft flying at high altitudes discharging transparent fumes. The earlier broad peak corresponds of course to World War II; some of the earlier downs may have been due to dirty volcanic eruptions shutting out light and low level industrial smog not forming a ‘greenhouse’, i.e. not trapping escape of reflected heat. Carbon dioxide being heavier than air, low-level pollution is unlikely to rise to create the greenhouse effect.

    It seems to me, therefore, there is a prima facie case for urgent investigation of this, for if true it may be possible to give ourselves more time by drastically cutting use of high flying aircraft. I don’t know how to do this myself, but worse, I don’t know anyone who could get something done about it. Do you (any of you)?

    BinLi and Ken, your comments on the human as against environmental effects of all this were most interesting. I’m only 5 ft 6 inches. My brothers are all taller the younger they are, and I’d always put that down to my World War II nutrition. Perhaps not. I can remember walking home from school following the tram lines because I couldn’t see a yard in front of my face, and never having that problem after the clean air acts were introduced.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    January 26, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    Until mid-20th century there was no widely agreed upon approach to measuring either air pollution from such actions as burning coal for industry and home heating, let alone an approach agreed upon to measure the impacts of such coal use on human health. That’s begun to change now. In 2017, economists Brian Beach and W. Walker Hanlon published, ‘Coal Smoke and Mortality in an Early Industrial Economy.’ (UK 1851-1860) Their approach is statistical. But they try to keep the statistical work modest, so as not to overwhelm the focus of the study. Such studies have expanded our understanding of the severity of air pollution in historical periods in the UK, US, and even China and Russia. Comparison work is not yet underway in detail, but hopefully that will come soon. The story thus far is that air pollution and its human health impacts was much worse during the first 100 years of the west’s industrial revolution than it is today. Also, that the level of air pollution and health impacts today in industrializing nations in Asia and South America is comparable or worse than that during the western industrial revolution. There’s much work to do so we don’t slide back and to make progress in improving our current situation, particularly in China and Russia. And, the US as well, if Trump’s policies (or lack thereof) about air pollution continued to be carried out. You can find Beach and Hanlon’s article here.

  7. Ken Zimmerman
    January 26, 2020 at 12:48 pm
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