A comprehensive new book by climate campaigner and science writer Alice Bell presents a compelling and very readable review of the centuries-long history of events that led to the current climate crisis. The epic history shows how well-known industrialists and inventors revolutionized human civilization with technology that relied on burning fossil fuels while shedding new light on the stories of the many scientists and activists who warned long, long ago that rising CO2 levels could result in the warming of Earth’s climate.

Bell, who has a PhD in Science Communication, took the title of her 330-page book from two quotes often repeated in climate circles. In 1956, American scientist Roger Revelle likened humanity’s burning of vast quantities of fossil fuels to “a large-scale geophysical experiment.” Slightly more than 30 years later, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described the still unchecked emission of greenhouse gases as “a massive experiment.” After another 30-year interval, and decisive evidence that the world wouldn’t run out of fossil fuels any time soon, as Revelle had thought, the superlative seemed warranted. Climate change is “Our Biggest Experiment.”

This experiment began in earnest in the 1700s and continues to this day. Bell’s task in her “epic history” is to explain how fossil fuels came to power modern civilization and also explain how scientists came to realize this was a problem. Covering all commercial forms of energy, describing their sources and uses as well as their impacts, Bell intertwines her tales to include the big names in engineering and science. But with an eye on environmental and social justice, Bell also tells readers who and what has been left out of traditional histories.

A leading early scientist … dismissed because of her gender?  

She starts on the first page, with Eunice Newton Foote, “a scientist, inventor, and women rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who in 1856 first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures soaring.”

Foote’s innovative experiments with carbon dioxide, however, were possible only because other scientists, such as Joseph Black, Antoine Lavoisier, and Joseph Priestley had previously sorted out the components of air.  Aware that burning coal released the gas, it was easy to infer that if CO2 raised the temperature in a bell jar, then an atmosphere richer in CO2 could warm the planet. John Tyndall is the scientist usually credited with making this inference – in 1859. Bell plausibly argues that Tyndall could have encountered Foote’s work but would likely have dismissed it because she was a woman.

Thus the need to follow the story of coal and the technologies it gave rise to, most notably the steam engine, which was first used to pump water out of the mines that supplied the coal it burned. When James Watt significantly improved the power and efficiency of the steam engine, other inventors soon imagined steam-powered railways and ships. And factories.

The demand for light – for work

And when steam engines were adapted for manufacturing, they created a demand for lighting so that production was not limited to daylight hours. Candlelight met that demand only poorly. So a string of competitors arose: whale oil, distillations from coal, distillations from petroleum, and, finally, electricity, which was first generated by burning coal.

Recalling the 1861 Vanity Fair cartoon in which whales celebrate the discovery of oil, Bell nixes the idea that each stage marked a clean succession. Yes, petroleum products replaced whale oil in many places and products, but, Bell points out, “in 1951 more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s ships took in a century and a half.”

It was electricity that finally met the demand for clean, odorless, and safe lighting, but only after the dramatic “current war” (DC vs AC) between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, a war Westinghouse won with a spectacular display of AC-powered lighting at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. (Author’s note: the Benedict Cumberbatch movie about this epic corporate battle is superb.)

At regular intervals, Bell pauses her technological narrative to update readers on developments in climate science. In one of these chapters, Bell points out the interconnections between meteorology and British imperial administration. In others, she reveals unexpected connections between characters in these paired lines of technological and scientific stories. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, for example, crossed paths with James Watt, while Robert FitzRoy, the Royal Naval officer who chose Charles Darwin for the science post on The Beagle, later went on to become the director of one of Britain’s first meteorological bureaus.

Finally, there are the surprising ways developments in science and technology entered popular culture. Bell tours several world exhibitions and fairs in her epic history, including the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, with its Crystal Palace, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and the 1964 New York City World’s Fair.  

Climate in the glossies

As one might expect, newspapers and magazines covered these events extensively at the time, providing good copy for Bell’s epic history. More surprising was how often, and how early, popular magazines published prominent stories about climate science. A March 1912 feature article in Popular Mechanics, for example, described the fierce weather disrupting life in the US and Europe: “The cities baked and gasped for breath, while the burning sun and hot winds withered the corn and cost the farmers a million dollars a day.” Noting that scientists had demonstrated that burning coal produces carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide can warm the atmosphere, the author wondered if enough coal had already been burned to change the climate.   

These early observations of a warming world that Bell highlights in popular media may strike some readers as uncanny – and not just for their vivid details. The high temperatures that prompted thoughts of climate change in the 1910s and 1930s were eventually used to question it.

Many of those resolutely dismissive of climate science often point to the U.S. heat records of the 1930s as evidence that current trends are within the range of natural variation.

The same dismissive commentators also argue that 1930s disasters, like the Dust Bowl or The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, are wholly natural and thus can be used to cast doubt on the severity of the risks posed by today’s ongoing warming.

That later decades, like the 1970s, were cooler than the 1930s appears to lend credence to those views. But the reality is easily explained: Cooling factors, some of them also human-caused, such as air pollution, temporarily offset the warming factors, both human and natural.

By calling attention to early science writers who experienced the pronounced warmings of the 1910s and 1930s as harbingers of climate change, Bell enables readers to infer a lesson she herself does not draw: It’s wrong to think that the burning of fossil fuels exerted no warming effect before it was the dominant warming effect.

Throughout Our Biggest Experiment, Bell also reminds readers that the human suffering that results from weather disasters is never strictly natural. The lethality of the famine in India in 1899-1900, for example, was the result of ideology as much as drought.

So while it is true that humans have learned to better manage natural disasters, dramatically reducing death totals, one should not overstate the case. As climate-enhanced natural disasters put more pressure on international relief systems, the staggering numbers of the past could return.

Recent history, uncertain future

The final 50-plus pages of Bell’s book trace the past 50-plus years of history, from Lyndon Johnson’s State-of-the-Union warning about climate change in 1965 to Greta Thunberg’s now-worldwide and ongoing youth and student crusade. In these pages, Bell provides a shorter version of the story told by Nathaniel Rich in Losing Earth, a debt she acknowledges.

Bell concludes her book by reflecting on her own experience as an activist.

One of the toughest things about campaigning on climate change is that you can’t really win, because in many ways we’ve already lost. [But] because climate change happens by degree, there is always something to fight for. Because 1 C is better than 1.5 C, 1.5 C is better than 2 C, and that will continue to be the case for some time to come. Climate change simply isn’t a pass/fail issue.

And so “our biggest experiment” continues, only now it is as much a social-psychological experiment as it is a geological one. Do humans have the capacity to change their climate-changing ways? Possibly, Bell thinks.

We’ve inherited an almighty mess, but we’ve also inherited a lot of tools that could, if we choose wisely and make the most of them, help us and others survive. If you’re looking for something optimistic to end this story, that’s it.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...