Given the 300,000 or so years of modern human existence, it’s remarkable how drastically we’ve altered our planet over the last few hundred. For nearly all of recorded history, our understanding of the atmosphere was negligible, as was our impact on it. As Alice Bell points out in “Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis,” the word “gas” — derived from the Greek khaos — only entered into the scientific lexicon about four centuries ago. The discovery of carbon dioxide was even more recent, having first been identified in the mid-18th century. Yet in a relatively short period of time afterward, humans have pumped enough of this compound into the atmosphere to potentially threaten the survival of our entire species.
To be sure, we’ve lived through dark times before. As Bell recounts, the spring of 1815 saw the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded. Along with being heard over a thousand miles away, the explosion of Mount Tambora — located in present-day Indonesia — shot out an enormous plume of black dust that lingered in the atmosphere for years. Throughout the world, the light from the sun dulled and temperatures dropped. The following year was christened the “year without a summer,” as snow fell in New England in June and famine swept through Asia and Europe.
There is a good reason, however, to use pre-industrial society as a baseline when discussing global warming. We live in a world of abundant natural phenomena, but the weirding of the weather is mostly human-made. “[T]he warming we’re talking about isn’t just the sorts of climate fluctuations that would be happening whether humans lived on this planet or not,” writes Bell, “but has been caused by the massive influx of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.”
A London-based climate campaigner with a Ph.D. in science communication, Bell examines anthropogenic warming through the lens of technological advancements. Given that the climate crisis is closely linked with energy consumption and resource extraction, her sweeping chronicle is in large part a history of fuel. Before 19th-century advances in refining and drilling ushered in the Age of Oil, an array of combustibles were set alight for heat, illumination, and power. Our earliest fuel was wood, although it’s worth noting that we’ve likely done more damage to the planet through deforestation than we have burning logs, as trees help keep our planet cool by absorbing large quantities of carbon dioxide.
Bell estimates that the fossil fuel era began around the middle of the 16th century. She suggests that global warming may have been a gradual process had it not been for the development of the coal-powered steam engine, which opened up a market for the burning of fossil fuels. The coal-powered steamship holds special significance, as it enabled the expansion of industry and empire while laying the groundwork for oil and gas.
Yet, as Bell notes, “Long before we built offshore rigs for fossil oil and gas, we mined our seas for whales.” She makes a strong case for including these mammals in the climate crisis narrative, arguing that they extend our problematic history of energy consumption beyond fossil fuels. American colonists in the 17th century boiled whale blubber for oil, which was then used for light. By the 1850s, the country’s wealthiest city per capita was New Bedford, Massachusetts, home to over 300 whaling vessels and nicknamed “the city that lit the world.” Whale oil was eventually supplanted as an energy source, though it could still be found in commercial products like margarine and lipstick well into the 20th century. “Arguably, in saving the whale we simply shifted our destruction elsewhere,” Bell writes.
Gas lighting began to spread in the early 19th century, appearing first in factories and then in private residences. A brighter light sans the smell of fish, gas light extended the workday into the evening hours and created a network of homes connected through one of the country’s earliest forms of energy infrastructure.
By the 1930s, electric liberation was being marketed to the American middle-class in the form of household appliances. Washing machines and refrigerators set a new standard of domestic comfort that eventually spread across the globe and reshaped day-to-day life. While gas and electricity flowed through shared networks, their use created a culture of self-sufficiency that was nevertheless dependent on complicated supply chains and the burning of fossil fuels.
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Around the same time, the rise of the automobile began to transform the world. For all of the speed and progress engendered by the 20th century, Bell suggests that the end result was a mass culture of disposability and a sharp rise in greenhouse gases that have come to define “the pattern of aspiration for 20th-century life.” In her assessment, “the great utopian promise of fossil-fueled abundance” has fallen flat.
Bell provides a thorough record of scientific discovery and denial related to the hazards of unfettered energy consumption, a problem that took off in the late 1800s. Earlier in the century, in 1856, Eunice Newton Foote raised concerns about carbon dioxide’s ability to heat the atmosphere. Tragically, the male-dominated scientific community largely dismissed her findings. A century later, Roger Revelle, studying the relationship between oceans and carbon dioxide, referred to the burning of fossil fuels as “a large-scale geophysical experiment.” However, global warming wouldn’t become a mainstream concern until the late 20th century.
Bell cites the 1970s as the era in which climate science began to gain traction, spurred on by the oil crisis and an increased understanding of greenhouse gases. She describes how Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland’s groundbreaking work in 1973 on the warming threat of chlorofluorocarbons, compounds that were used in manufacturing refrigerants and aerosols, brought the vulnerability of the ozone layer into full view and expanded climate consciousness beyond carbon dioxide. She also writes about “The Jasons,” “a secret group of elite scientists” who prepared briefings for the U.S. government. Toward the end of the decade, they submitted a measured report on the irrefutable threat of atmospheric warming. Meanwhile, the oil industry was conducting its own research on the matter.
By the early 1980s, multinational oil corporations were well aware of the crisis they were precipitating. They downplayed the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels and withheld key information from the public to protect their bottom line. “Of course they knew,” Bell writes, reminding us that big oil’s investment in science was what made them so successful at extracting, refining, and profiting from fossil fuels in the first place. “Sometimes fossil fuel companies and their defenders get painted as ‘anti-science,’” she writes. “In truth they’ve run on science and always have done. They’re just strategic about how they use it.”
Bell raises objections to how the scientific community is traditionally structured, claiming that “the dominant working cultures of science” have made it difficult for climate researchers to receive adequate monetary and professional support. She criticizes the reflexive tendency of climate scientists to avoid dramatic forecasts, arguing that it has effectively reduced the credibility of those sounding notes of caution throughout history. Bell also does not spare nonprofits, asking, “Are environmental NGOs really happy to settle for 2 degrees Celsius warming and the number of people that would kill?” In her estimation, the pulling of punches among professional campaigners is but one example of the environmental movements’ endemic shortcomings. Still, the bulk of responsibility for the climate crisis is aptly assigned to the fossil fuel industry.
“Sometimes fossil fuel companies and their defenders get painted as ‘anti-science,’” Bell writes. “In truth they’ve run on science and always have done. They’re just strategic about how they use it.”
Because it’s such a broad account, “Our Biggest Experiment” is at times overwhelming. As Bell crisscrosses several centuries’ worth of environmental and scientific history, it’s difficult to keep up with the dizzying amount of characters and information. Even so, though nearly every chapter feels condensed and capable of being its own book, there are benefits to viewing climate change from Bell’s vantage point. Through such a wide-ranging history of energy, technology, and science, the world we’ve built appears fragile and our problems interconnected, the crisis fully underway.
Bell notes early on that the impacts of climate change will not be evenly distributed, citing research indicating that “the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10 percent of global emissions,” yet tend to live in the places most vulnerable to our warming world. In her conclusion, she nods to the present-day regularity of extreme weather and the growing acceptance of climate change as an underlying cause. Nonetheless she expresses a sense of guarded optimism in the potential of collective anger aimed at politicians and corporations.
We still have choices, Bell asserts, even if they’re more limited than they used to be. But she insists that any meaningful change to mitigate the impact of global warming will require radical, long-range action: “Climate change simply isn’t a pass/fail issue. It’s not something you win or lose.”
Andru Okun is a writer living in New Orleans.