In recent months, the terms ‘climate emergency’ and ‘climate crisis’ have been used to refer to the dire circumstances that climate change may impose on our planet and on the species that inhabit it. Society at large is increasingly aware of the situation and has mobilized efforts to demand measures be taken to control and mitigate natural disasters in the future.
This increased awareness is recent, but concern for the environment has been been around for decades. Today we can tell the story of environmentalism thanks to those individuals who played early and key roles on its behalf. Physicists, climatologists, inventors, philosophers, and naturalists alike have dedicated their lives to research and raising awareness about the climate. Their legacy has served to inspire modern-day movements such as Fridays for Future and Youth for Climate Action. Below you can discover some of the personal histories behind the environmental movement.
Alexander von Humbolt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859)
This native of Berlin is known as an important explorer and naturalist, but neither of these fields is where he most excelled. His greatest achievements include the creation of a gas mask for miners, the discovery of an oceanic current, and explaining the role of oxygen in altitude sickness. But his most important contributions to science consist of his being the first to study human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change and for being the father of two new branches of science: biogeography and comparative climatology.
In 1799 he invested his inheritance on a five-year-long scientific expedition which ultimately shaped his thinking and opened his eyes to a new way of understanding the world: presenting nature as a great organism within which all living beings were connected in a delicate balance.
John Muir (April 12, 1838 – December 24, 1914)
He arrived in the United States from Scotland when he was 11 years old. In his new home he studied geology, chemistry, and botany; and he even created some peculiar inventions (such as a alarm-clock triggered spring to flip up the bed in the morning). Looking for the cure to malaria, which he had contracted in Florida in 1867, two years after the civil war, he made his way to Yosemite where he semi-permanently settled until 1874. He dedicated himself to exploring, scrutinizing, and investigating every corner of the region. He was the one who proposed that glaciers, not earthquakes, were responsible for creating Yosemite.
In 1874, he began to publish articles in the major magazines of the time and managed to pass on his love of nature to the North American population. He also launched a campaign to establish Yosemite as national park, bestowing it with the same protection status as Yellowstone. Furthermore, after reading one of Muir’s articles in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to be his guide in Yosemite, which made a profound impression on the president.
Svante Arrhenius (February 19, 1859 – October 2, 1927)
Arrhenius was a child prodigy born in Sweden who began studying physics at 17, although his research straddled the line between physics and chemistry, which opened the door to a new field of research: physical chemistry, where the natural phenomena of each field overlap.
He wanted to find out if the determining factor for climatic phenomena could be due to the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. This had already been an area highlighted by John Tyndall, who identified methane, water vapor, and CO2 as atmospheric gases that caused the greenhouse effect. In 1895, Arrhenius wanted to quantify the impact of these gases on the greenhouse effect, and the results were published 11 years later, concluding that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are inversely related to the Earth’s temperature. Also in this articles, he identified human industrial activity as the main source of new CO2 in the atmosphere.
This makes him the first person to warn about the risks of rising CO2 emissions caused by humankind and the resulting climatic change — almost a century before the fight against global warming began in earnest.
Maria Telkes (December 12, 1900 – December 2, 1995)
This scientist was born and studied physical chemistry in Budapest. When she was 25 years old she traveled to the United States where she created her first invention: a photoelectric device that logged brain waves, for which she was nominated one of the 11 most important women in the United States. Afterwards, she began to work at MIT on a solar energy conversion project, which was put on hold during World War Two.
At the end of the war, she returned to the project with the idea of building the first solar house on the continent, inspired by the limited access to fossil fuels during the Great Recession of 1929. The salt-operated heating system developed by Telkes was able to trap sufficient heat to last for at least ten consecutive days of bad weather.
In 1954, Bell Labs developed the first modern photovoltaic cells, but in the subsequent decades the solar heating systems designed by Telkes continued to be the most affordable alternatives for solar energy.
Peter Kalmus (May 9, 1974 – )
Kalmus is an American scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory. He is a climate-specialist. During his career, he has concentrated on the study of low clouds and tornadoes. He has also deveoped improvements to satellite meteorological reports and ecological predictions.
He is a very involved activist who advocates for the reduction of fossil fuel consumption and a vocal champion in the fight against what he calls the climate collapse. In 2019 he wrote an article for OpenMind in which he explained how the use of fossil fuels impacts climate change and, consequently, all aspects of life on the planet.
“While humanity’s sense of urgency is growing, it remains far below the level required to avoid catastrophic warming that would threaten civilization as we know it.”
Paz Palacios for OpenMind