Climate change: The rise of an issue

As time rushes by it is too easy to forget how long some things have been around for or how they have developed over time. This is certainly true of energy and technology, where changes can take decades. The first nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago and achieved criticality on 2nd December 1942. At one point it was envisaged that “nuclear power would be too cheap to meter” yet today it still only  makes up 14% of global electricity and just over 6% of global energy production. In a post this time last year I talked about the rate at which mainstream energy technologies develop, with 25 years being a typical time to achieve 1% of global market share. Similarly, the internet seems all pervasive today compared to nearly nothing in 1995, but the formative years of the technology extend back to the early 1970s and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

We might think that the climate change issue is something that belongs to the decade just passed, but in fact it has distant roots as well. In recent days Google has released a powerful tool (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) which enables word and phrase search across the millions of pages of text it has digitized over the last few years. The use of a particular word or phrase can then be viewed as a function of time. For example, searching on the phrase “greenhouse effect” shows that it started being mentioned in the literature as early as the 1930s, peaking in the 1990’s – probably overtaken by phrases such as “climate change”.

 

On “climate change” and “global warming”, early mentions begin in the 1970s with growth in the subject exploding in the 1990s. The latter phrase has been eclipsed by the former in recent years. But the much hyped “global cooling” discussion of the 1980s barely rates a mention when compared with the current climate warming discussion.

Similarly, interest in energy technologies has grown over time, although not all in the same way. “Nuclear power” peaked in 1982 for example. “Clean energy” saw an initial rush of interest after the first oil shock in the 1970s but has regained favour in recent years, along with “renewable energy”. Just taking off in the last decade although with roots going back into the 1980s is CCS in various forms.

 

  

“Energy crisis” shows a sharp peak in 1978, but more recently has been overtaken by “energy security”. However, “climate change” races ahead. If you put that phrase on the energy security / crisis chart below it completely overshadows both, with current interest being nearly three times the “crisis” peak of 1977. “Cap and trade” (not shown) doesn’t show up until 1992 but is rising rapidly in the literature – similarly with “UNFCCC”.

 

Interestingly, “climate skeptic”, “climate change skeptic” and “climate change denial” didn’t even register.