Bard Campus Calendar

[The Discovery of Global Warming]

Physics Program Presents

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Discovery of Global Warming

Hegeman 107
12:00 pm

Spencer Weart, former director of the American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics


The history of how we learned about climate change offers a deep look into the way scientists work and how that has changed. When 19th-century scientists discovered the Ice Ages they came up with various explanations, including a decrease of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Could humanity’s fossil fuel emissions bring a reverse effect, global warming? The idea found only a few supporters, curious scientists who stepped aside from their usual research to develop “greenhouse gas” calculations and measurements. By 1960 they proved that the idea merited serious research. An onslaught of droughts in the early 1970s brought public attention to climate and intensified research, typically by small teams, but scientists admitted they could not even predict whether the world would get warmer or colder. This was resolved at the end of the 1970s by computer models that found global warming would become obvious around 2000. The implication that the fossil fuel industries must be radically reduced brought political pushback and scientific controversy. Crucial confirmation of the models came from a totally independent direction: research on climates of the distant past (studies that were themselves confirmed through independent lines of attack). Large-scale teamwork was now necessary to advance, and almost no climate scientist worked alone. When the world’s governments devised a novel mechanism to get scientific advice, hundreds and then thousands of experts in diverse fields managed to cooperate. By 2001 they reached a nearly unanimous consensus: dangerous climate change is all but certain within our lifetime. The focus of research turned to the impacts.

Spencer Weart is a historian specializing in modern physics and geophysics. He received a B.A. in physics at Cornell University and a Ph.D. in physics and astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He then worked on solar physics at the California Institute of Technology and the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, publishing papers in leading scientific journals. In 1971 Dr. Weart changed fields, enrolling as a graduate student in the history department at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1974 he became director of the American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics and its Niels Bohr Library, continuing until his retirement in 2009. Meanwhile, he taught undergraduate and graduate courses on history of science at the Johns Hopkins University, the Eugene Lang College of the New School in New York City, and Princeton University. He has published books and articles on a variety of subjects, mostly related to the history of physics. Best known are Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (1988; revised as The Rise of Nuclear Fear, 2012), and The Discovery of Global Warming (2003, rev. ed. 2008; translations in six languages), and maintains an extensive scholarly website on the history of climate change research, https://history.aip.org/climate/.

For more information, call 845-758-7584, or e-mail pzimansk@bard.edu.

Time: 12:00 pm

Location: Hegeman 107