2889: Greenhouse Effect

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Greenhouse Effect
Once he had the answer, Arrhenius complained to his friends that he'd "wasted over a full year" doing tedious calculations by hand about "so trifling a matter" as hypothetical CO2 concentrations in far-off eras (quoted in Crawford, 1997).
Title text: Once he had the answer, Arrhenius complained to his friends that he'd "wasted over a full year" doing tedious calculations by hand about "so trifling a matter" as hypothetical CO2 concentrations in far-off eras (quoted in Crawford, 1997).


This comic has climate change as its topic, a recurring theme on xkcd. There is no 'joke' per se, just a wry (and serious) observation on the timeline of climate change, and our understanding of it. The fact in question here is when science became aware of anthropogenic global warming and its primary cause.

The comic depicts a timeline with three events:

  • The introduction of the Watt steam engine in 1776. The comic takes it as the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the event that most directly ushered in the boom of fossil fuels' burning.
  • The first quantitative prediction of the greenhouse effect by Svante Arrhenius in January and April 1896 (that, a. o., doubling CO2 concentration would increase mean temperature by 5 to 6 °C, depending on latitude). Arrhenius drew on and included a summary of Arvid Högbom's 1894 Swedish article, which dealt with carbon cycle over geological periods and first estimated annual global carbon emissions.
  • The present day, early 2024.

As the caption points out, less time elapsed between the start of the Industrial Revolution and the work by Arrhenius, than has elapsed since then. Some present-day climate discussions may cite a 1957 paper by Revell and Seuss as "the starting point" for modern inquiries into global warming. While it was more advanced and detailed, the comic notes "we figured out the greenhouse effect" 61 years prior; see both Robbie 2018 and even longer History of climate change science which includes earlier, qualitative works.

The implication, consistent with other climate change themed xkcd comics, is that humans have taken insufficient action to stop global warming despite knowing about it for more than a century, and understanding, at least intellectually, the consequences of inaction.

The title text portrays Arrhenius as dismissive of his work. A reading of the reference cited (page 8 in Crawford 1997: 'Writing to a friend at the end of [1895], he found it "unbelievable that so trifling a matter has cost me a full year".') suggests instead that Arrhenius was complaining about the unanticipated difficulty of answering what he thought initially was a simple question, about the historical (geological time) connection between carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature. Per this reading, Arrhenius's complaint was about the work required to achieve the result, not about the significance of the result. His interpretation of the significance, though, differed from today's (page 11 in Crawford 1997): "[Global warming will] allow our descendants, even if they only be those of a distant future [estimating the doubling time as 500 years], to live under a warmer sky and in a less harsh environment than we were granted".


[At the top of the comic a timeline is shown as a long line. It has three dots, one at each end a bit inside the end of the line and one close to the middle Each dot has a gray curved line going up to it from below. Below the end of these lines a year is given. And beneath the year is a caption. Above the time line are two gray double arrows going from three gray lines above each of the three dots. The lines are broken in the middle where a label is written.]
[Label of arrow that spans from first to second dot:]
120 years
[Label of arrow that spans from second to third dot:]
128 years
[Label for the first dot:]
James Watt develops a steam engine that helps kick off the Industrial Revolution
[Label for the second dot:]
Arvid Högbom and Svante Arrhenius note that industrial activity is adding CO2 to the atmosphere, and calculate how much the Earth will heat up if the CO2 concentration doubles. Their answer closely matches modern estimates.
[Label for the third dot:]
[Caption below the panel:]
We figured out the greenhouse effect closer to the start of the Industrial Revolution than to today.


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First description! FIRST 🤑 42.book.addict (talk) 18:45, 2 February 2024 (UTC)

Is there a category or a name for the set of comics which make the observation of "x thing happened closer to Y thing than today"? --Raviolio (talk) 18:57, 2 February 2024 (UTC)

Maybe Category:Timelines could work? 42.book.addict (talk) 19:00, 2 February 2024 (UTC)
It is also similar in structure to many of the comics in Category:Comics to make one feel old but has a quite different theme 23:06, 2 February 2024 (UTC)

Do we have a source for the "their answers closely match modern estimates"? that would be a good thing to add Happier7713 (talk) 19:35, 2 February 2024 (UTC)

A nit -- the Newcomen atmospheric engine was invented in 1712 and is usually thought of as the first steam engine (at least of the modern, western, world). (talk) 20:25, 2 February 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The Newcomen was certainly started it, and tends to be somewhat overshadowed (I actually walked past the oldest still-in-place Newcomen beam engine, earlier today... never seen it working (by hydrau;ics, these days), but it's there). But its practical efficiency was limited by its operation, and it took (Boulton and) Watt to make it into the potentially mobile powerhouse that drove much of the really developed stuff (beyond mine-drainage/etc).
Of course, it was also more fuel efficient, so if we'd have somehow done exactly the same amount of IR via Newcomen-style machines then we'd probably have accelerated the burning of resources across the same period, so... 00:10, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

I would say we did plenty of work. In 1896, noone had any idea what renewable energy is. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:48, 2 February 2024 (UTC)

There have been windmills and watermills and fire from wood for thousands of years. The real problem is fossils, which release co2 from millions of years. In my opinion, it's about the attitude of "the right to consume" instead of "the right to use". --LaVe (talk) 06:35, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

“yet after 128 years there’s been close to no progress to changing our infrastructure to be renewable-energy based.” That might or might not be true, depending on how you define “close to no progress” but regardless of that, the comic does not make any such claim, and that part should be deleted frm the explanation of the comic. 05:06, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

Given what has appeared in other xkcd comics with a global-warming theme, I think the "close to no progress" reaction is permissible. Whether it is accurate is remarkably hard for me to pin down. A study I found in 2014 said that annual per-capita energy consumption in the USA rose from 100MM to 350MM BTUs between 1900 and 1973, and has since remained almost constant. 1973, of course, was the Arab oil embargo, which stimulated massive investment in energy efficiency that continue to the present day. Each of us now uses many more things for the same energy - but the population is increasing, therefore so is the bulk carbon-dioxide loading. A 2023 US Government attempt to forecast energy use in the USA between now and 2050, I found to be both unreadable and unhelpful in terms of assessing whether we are gaining on energy efficiencies and transition to renewables. There simply were too many variables in the inputs. And as 2020 demonstrated, our response to energy challenges will be forced by economics, not climate politics or comics IMO. 07:22, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

I was unable to find an article by "Crawford 1997" in which either of the quotes cited in the title text appear in full. They might appear in other articles included in the special issue of the journal Ambio devoted to the work that Arrhenius and colleagues did in the last decade of the 19th century. The two articles by Elisabeth Crawford in that journal, one sole-authored and one co-authored, provide considerable context for the discovery, including the various competing theories about global warming that were being debated among scientists at the time, and the remarkable observation by Arrhenius that such warming was not a bad thing. According to the Crawford sole-authored paper, Arrhenius wrote (translation from Swedish), "It [global warming] "will allow our descendants, even if they only be those of a distant future, to live under a warmer sky and in a less harsh environment than we were granted." 07:04, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

I feel this assessment should be included in the explanation. Not just because it hints at one reason for climate inaction in cold-to-temperate regions. It also points to a central issue of climate justice: A White Swedish scientist in 1895 thought of milder winters, but people closer to the equator, who were summarily ignored by the White scientific community on racist grounds in 1895, are now about to face physically unbearable hothouse conditions. The quote also shows how little this scientist knew about the land that sustained him - every peasant whom he would have bothered to ask could have told him that a +8°C change in temperatures would have devastating effects on agriculture because most plants can't adapt to it and agricultural knowledge of the local soil and climate, that has been painstakingly developed over centuries of famine, would be rendered mostly useless, everywhere. Transgalactic (talk) 13:22, 4 February 2024 (UTC)
I contemplated doing so, but refrained, because I feared it would transform an explanation into a polemic. The main point of the comic, I argue, is that humans have known about global warming, and anthropogenic carbon dioxide's role in it, for far longer than most of today's narratives state, and, in an explanation, it is sufficient to point this out. Those with Bibles may find the ethical underpinnings for this comic and its message in the ninth chapter of John, particularly v. 41: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains." For my part, I find the principal explanation for climate inaction (not just in the temperate zones, air-conditioning fans) in the concept of "personal advantage". I once estimated that, to bring per-capita energy use in the USA, anno 2014, down to the level current in 1957, that use (thanks to population increase) would have to correspond with energy usage in 1900. No aircraft, few cars, almost no electricity infrastructure and therefore nothing that depends on that infrastructure. I have not attempted to estimate what the energy usage would have to be to bring today's per-capita allotment to the level current in 1896; I suspect it would require the dismantling of the Industrial Revolution in its entirety. In token of this, I used to walk two miles each way to work. A co-worker saw this, patted me on the head, said "That's nice", and drove off, alone, in deir SUV. Oh ... the co-worker led a climate-change research lab. No one will willingly accept a reduction in standard of living, and, I argue, any attempt to force this will put authoritarian climate deniers at the head of government everywhere. Nor do I accept that Wunderwaffe will save us ... and those concerned with "climate justice" may well ask who among us can afford such toys. 16:18, 4 February 2024 (UTC)
Yes, that kept me from adding the point directly. It must be done very carefully. Still, the title text - which quotes Arrhenius in a misleading context to make that point! - seems to bring up the question if climate change is just a "trifling" change in lifestyle ("warmer skies") or an existential threat (general assessment these days), so it feels like part of the explanation. @ Climate justice is not so much about technology as it is about fair access to mitigation. You're asking if each US citizen could afford the time, effort and money for a change in polluting habits. But none of the people who are and will be dying of climate change can afford your and my current habits. We've got centuries of "right to exploit & consume" attitude / experience with exploitation to repair, which obviously requires a concerted effort, not just individual tweaking. xkcd's reach goes well into the most affected areas, I would like to see that taken into account. (e.g. I suspect middle-class urban India to be avid readers, and to be well aware that ACs won't work for a barely electrified slum district at +42°C, and that the problem isn't so much the lack of ACs, but the poverty of slums, and the +42°C) Transgalactic (talk) 10:17, 5 February 2024 (UTC)
"Climate justice is not so much about technology as it is about fair access to mitigation." Yes. This is precisely the point that "who can afford such toys" was intended to address. I submit that the investment in individual technological fixes to the climate issue (electric cars, "green" detergents, contributions to "blue economy" causes) is little more than posturing by the wealthy to propagandize "correct thinking" and thereby induce somebody else to make tangible contributions, best of all to things that boost the value of their investments, while deflecting attention from their own undiminished carbon footprints. Real conversation: "If you're so convinced of the reality of anthropogenic global warming, why are you flying to conferences?" "Somebody's got to get the word out." James McPherson, in his "Battle Cry of Freedom", argued forcefully that the US "Civil War" 1861-1865 was about, not slavery, but the "slave power". It was basically a deadly(!) fight over which of two armed camps would decide the fate of persons of African descent imported into the USA as slave labor - with neither side particularly interested in the slaves themselves. I submit that the climate issue is, similarly, a fight over "climate power": who gets to decide what to do about anthropogenic global warming, with the climate itself of no particular concern. Especially since the steps needed for authentic mitigation, at the economic and social levels, are too terrifying to contemplate. 14:32, 5 February 2024 (UTC)

Arguably, it was Abraham Darby's invention of the coke fired blast furnace in 1709, that vastly increased iron production, was the real start of the industrial revolution and use of coal as a fuel. (It was actually banned in some places as being a dirty fuel for cooking and heating) Of course that would mess up the nearer to / further from dates that this series of comics use. RIIW - Ponder it (talk) 09:51, 3 February 2024 (UTC)

I would not use the expression "renewable-energy based.", but i would use "Co2 free" or similar. The main problem with climate change is CO2, not lack of renewables. Plus renewables are not the only CO2 free energy source. E.g. the nuclear energy is too a CO2 free energy source. And the only renewable source able to cover the baseload is hydropower, that is not available in the right amount everywhere. For instance take a look on Germany CO2 emissions. (talk) 10:00, 3 February 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

That's why it's called "renewable-energy based", not "using renewable energies, too". "Renewable" doesn't refer to just a CO2 neutral process, but to a process that can be sustained infinitely (within the sun's life span as a main sequence star), which is clearly not the case for uranium-based energy sources. Maybe "sustainable" is the word we're looking for? Transgalactic (talk) 13:22, 4 February 2024 (UTC)
Although nuclear energy is a CO2 free energy source, it creates nuclear waste that is hard to get rid of. I believe that we need to invest in developing infrastructure to properly store energy via batteries so that we can create sustainable energy without creating so much waste. 42.book.addict (talk) 02:13, 5 February 2024 (UTC)
Mass batteries? For which you probably need lithium. Which we're not yet geared up to get in a 'sustainable' manner. In large quantities if you're going big on buffering power. (If not lithium, then there's same/different issues, or both.)
The solution is going to be a complex balancing act of old and new thinking, which needs rebalancing all the time. At least we (technically) know how to deal with nuclear, or at least how to not be totally reckless with it, as we (hopefully) move towards developing who-knows-what to make it less necessary to continue with less sophisticated/more problematic solutions.
Ever onward, ever onward. Expect hiccoughs along the way, of course. 02:58, 5 February 2024 (UTC)
Only if you take a very narrow definition of 'battery' (and I'll assume here that you're using 'lithium' as synecdoche for 'the kind of resources that need to be extracted to make chemical action based batteries'). You can store energy using other approaches, such as using it to heat up materials which can release it when needed, or pumping water up to the top of a mountain, and probably lots of other ways that haven't even been thought of yet. Those are all effectively 'batteries', both in function and in the original sense of the word. 09:27, 5 February 2024 (UTC)
I used "(If not lithium, then there's same/different issues, or both.)" to shortcut that discussion. Electrolytic batteries have older (less capable) and newer (less mature) technologies than lithium, but lithium is at the apex of use without us really having developed volume/efficiency of supply (tapping geothermal waters for perhaps both heat and precipitating dissolved lithium salts might be better than scouring salt-flats, etc, but it's a matter of developing the scaled industries). Meanwhile, "hot gravel pressure tanks" or "mineshaft-wound weights" for non-electrical storage are early in development, with large-scale Pumped Storage Hydropower is heavily geography-confined (easier in hilly areas, like Ffestiniog or above Loch Awe, to mention two prominant 'local' examples) and while picking the top of any vague hill might help, see the issue with Taum Sauk. (Pumped-storage tidalpower might be useful for offshore (whatever the state of water, perhaps you can pump/generate in or out, as necessary), or the inverse pumped 'air-storage' submarine reservoirs, but engineering and environmental issues need a great deal of attention.) Maybe combined with electrolysis, when there's a possible power surplus (pipe the light hydrogen to the top, then burn(+generate!) to recombine into water which can be added to the top again, not having had to shift most of the mass back to the top) could help with some future projects. But that's the future. Less so than 'safe' and mature fusion, probably, but something that can match any given typical solar farm (not necessarily adjacent, but maybe... or beneath) is probaly lithium batteries. Maybe molten-salt (especially directly focussed Sun-reflection heated, as and when it can be), but that's still a bit bleeding-edge itself.
Home-scale solar-backup (or as a priority over excess feed-in back to the grid) is going to be either new or old battery tech, and new means lithium, pretty much (old means lead-acid, perhaps). Megawatt/Gigawatt facilities push the tech, often, but right now if you want reliable and yet not too much anachronism/experimentalism then upscaled lithium battery 'parks' is your go-to... 12:26, 5 February 2024 (UTC)
Look, I’m not about to go into an argument about nuclear energy, renewables, and whether or not we should use lithium batteries. Feel free to continue adding more comments-I might be right, I might be wrong. But I’m leaving this conversation. 42.book.addict (talk) 20:08, 7 February 2024 (UTC)

Here's another quote from the Crawford paper: He proposed to calculate the changes in CO2 necessary to bring about periods of both milder (+8°C) and harsher climate (-5°C), i.e., the conditions which reigned before, during and etween the Ice Ages. His preliminary calculations showed that the required changes in CO2 were in the order of 50%. Hogbom, who was present, confirmed that those changes could have occurred in geological times. It remained, however, to demonstrate this quantitatively. The construction of the model which enabled him to do so occupied him for most of 1895. Writing to a friend at the end of the year, he found it "unbelievable that so trifling a matter has cost me a full year" (5). But his complaints in letters to other friends about how difficult it was to bring the "carbonic acid matter" to an end showed how arduous a process this had been. - This suggests to me that Arrhenius thought the development of a quantitative model to be a "trifling matter" a.k.a. "trivial" in 1894, but it turned out to be a really difficult mathematical problem. So the "trifling matter" possibly doesn't refer to "hypothetical CO2 concentration in far-off eras", as the title text suggests, but to Arrhenius' initial estimation of the mathematical problem. Transgalactic (talk) 13:22, 4 February 2024 (UTC)

Good get! 17:29, 4 February 2024 (UTC)

#1 I assume that unless you're really into dark humor and being the butt of jokes there isn't one.
#2 given #1 is it useful to explain that there is no joke in the main explanation. (It is the reason I checked the explanation) (talk) 13:15, 5 February 2024 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

#3 There are plenty of other "no funny-ha-ha" comics... It doesn't mean that it's not legitimately 'amusing' as in "an amusing thought".
#4 You're free to make the edit, if you consider you have something to say.
#5 Use the "Preview" button..? ;) 16:47, 5 February 2024 (UTC)