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Science of the 2010s: The Urgency of Climate Change

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In the first in the series of Science of the 2010s, this article highlights the groundbreaking report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled Global Warming of 1.5 °C. This report, published in October 2018, alerted governments and the world not just to the need to tackle climate change, but also that time is quickly running out for us to do so, before climate change becomes irrevocable. That time, the report warns, will be up by 2030. The political and societal impact this report had—the product of painstaking scientific research, data analyses, and the collaboration of researchers around the world—has become perhaps one of the defining features of the latter years of this decade, and so rightly deserves a mention in the biggest science and science-related stories since 2010.

The history and science behind greenhouse gas emissions, anthropogenic global warming, and the effects these have on the earth’s climate date back a lot earlier than 2018, of course. In fact, as far back as 1856, American scientist and women’s rights campaigner Eunice Newton Foote first theorized that changing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere changes its temperature, and just three years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall proposed that changes of CO2 and water vapor concentrations over thousands of years led to the rise and fall of the ice age.

In 1896, Svante Arrhenius produced a crude climate model that showed drastically reducing CO2 in the atmosphere would reduce global temperatures enough to have initiated the last ice age, and in 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar showed evidence that both atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures were increasing. Both of these scientists were met with skepticism and criticism by their contemporaries as the prevailing theory back then was that the climate is a self-regulating system.

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