Book review: Alice Bell’s “Our Biggest Experiment”

Cover Alice Bell' Our Biggest Experiment

The experiment in question is, of course, climate change. It is an experiment because humanity is largely conducting the experiment on itself and seeing what happens. Humanity knows how to stop it, but it seems either too curious about the result of the experiment, or too addicted to the drugs to stop it.

My reading and viewing in recent years has covered most of the themes discussed in this book. Andreas Malm’s book, Fossil Capital, deals with coal (Bell cites the book in recognition of his clinical account). Iain Stewart’s 3-Part TV documentaries, Earth: The Planet Wars and Planet Oil, do climate change and oil pretty well and David Wallace-Wells comprehensively spells out the future scenarios for humanity in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Bell adds considerably to my knowledge about gas and, in particular, the quest for light in the night. I am now also armed with a knowledge about meteorology, its origins and purpose (obsessive and competitive individuals and trade).

Climate change as Biography

There is an extensive cast of characters. It is through these that the story is so compellingly told. For example, Joseph Priestly grappled with the question of what is heat. Phlogiston was the “substance” that made fuels (and all else) burn; for example, whale oil, marsh gas, coal were pure pholgiston. Phologiston was eventually dismissed as a serious scientific idea after experiments created water from so-called flammable air (hydrogen) and dephlogisticated air (oxygen). An explosion was expected as the hydrogen should have burned well in the oxygen!

Daniel Fahrenheit who, in 1724, etablished the eponymous scale for measuring temperature based on the temperature of an armpit and a bucket of ice/water (pp56/57). He also popularised mercury as the liquid of choice for thermometers. Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, a couple of outsiders of science’s aristocracy, who studied the formation and melting of glaciers in the Alps in the 1850s. Tyndall’s work on trapped heat arising from the properties of different gases, however, overlooked the work of Eunice Foote – the first person, in 1856, to observe the heating potential of carbon dioxide (p68), though, as was common in those times, women’s science discoveries were overlooked. Consequently, Foote’s male peers (e.g. Tyndall) were credited and cited.

The cast of characters is wonderfully extensive, and I recommend Bell’s book for its attention to such detail. She tells us who knew whom. Who made the seredipitous discoveries. Who took what money. And so on.

The things we remember in our lifetimes (says a late middle-ager)

James Hansen

Former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the Left’s nemesis. For a brief time she was an advocate for green house gas emission reductions. It is what Bell calls Thatcher’s “climate moment”. But it was more than that. As a description, that is more in line with Stewart’s explanation in which Thatcher was eventually nobbled by her party and guided away from a progressive approach to climate transition. As a chemist herself she was affected, like many others, by James Hanson’s 1988 US Senate testimony, Thatcher addressed the Royal Society in which she posited the idea that the Earth was being stressed by population (growth), agricultural practices and the burning of fossil fuels. She described it as potentially “a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” (p312). A year later she was at the UN calling for an international convention on climate change! However, Bell, probably correctly, rejects the idea that it was the scientist in her that was the motivation for her speeches. Rather it was the Hayak economist in her. Her solution was, of course, more market, more capitalism and less state. She may also have sought to de-leftify climate change!

The oil industry

The oil industry is, in many respects the history of empire. BP has its origins in Iran/Persia and had its interests expropriated or nationalised (depending on whether you are British or Iranian). Iain Stewart tells the story of the coup d’etat executed by the British and the Americans to see off the architect of the nationalisation, Iran’s PM, Mohammad Mosaddegh (left), in a campaign of disinformation and public disorder. The nationalisation was executed because the British were not prepared to renegotiate oil concessions in the country and to share the wealth that it generated, as the Americans had done in Saudi Arabia.

Shell/Royal Dutch, too, is founded on Dutch imperialism. In 1890, the Dutch king pledged support for Royal Dutch to drill in the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra). Royal Dutch Shell as a company was the effective takeover of Shell, the British shipping concern of Marcus Samuel (there is a Rothchild Bank story here, too). Though originally it had literally been a shell merchant company. Shell as in crustaceans! The company is the pioneer of the oil tanker and critically, achieved safety approval for its ships to bring oil safely from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, mainly, at that time, for lighting. This act outflanked Standard Oil; the rapacious vehicle of J.D. Rockefeller’s wealth generation. Moreover, the automobile had not yet entered to arena and given additional/new value to oil, as electricity was overtaking oil as the main source of artificial light in cities and homes.

Talking of Standard Oil, as is common knowledge, in 1911 the company was ordered by the US Supreme Court to be broken up. Three companies emerged – Standard Oil New Jersey; Standard Oil New York, and Standard Oil California. The latter became Chevron, the New York company, Mobil, and the New Jersey beast became Exxon. Arguably, the breakup was hydra-like with three monsters being created as a result. Exxon and Mobil are now back together, interestingly. Chevron has an unenviable record on climate change (though in 2021 found itself the attention of activist shareholders similar to Exxon).

Exxon has invested considerable sums in climate change scepticism and/or critical science (effectively challenging the the premise of the developing evidence base for planetary warming. The company employed many of the tactics of the tobacco industry before it disputing the causal relationship between smoking and cancer – fighting science with science to spread doubt. This involved employing reputable scientists and the heavyweight PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. The ultimate of regressions.

Wallace Broekner

In 1977, Exxon got serious and employed Edward David Jr, a veteran of Bell Labs, to head up their research labs (pp302/3). David was receptive to building a specialist scientific team around carbon dioxide research. The company fitted out a supertanker to do ocean research and brought in Wallace Broekner (left, the man behind the term, global warming, and a reputable climate scientist/oceanographer) and University of Columbia scientist (Doherty Earth Observatory), Taro Takahashi. Bell rightly notes that these scientists did not sell their souls to the Devil as it might seem at first look; rather they may have felt that they could lead Exxon’s transition from oil to renewables. It was not to be.

In the case of climate scepticism there was, notes Bell, a generation of scientists with cold war DNA. Their seeming hatred of the Left arising from marginalisation of military science on campuses around the USA and a residual loathing of Rachel Carson whose book, Silent Spring, saw off DDT whilst simultaneously challenging military strategy (as it was used as a “defoliant” in the Vietnam War). Bell identifies three “angry old men” (p319): Bill Nierenberg (former director of Scipps Institute of Oceanography and veteran of the Manhatten Project), Frederick Seitz (former President of the National Academy of Sciences) and Robert Jastrow (founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Together they founded the George C Marshall Institute that initially concerned itself with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative but graduated to climate scepticism as witnessed in the pages of their book, Global Warming: What does the Science Tell Us?

In addition, the company Exxon’s scientists also oversaw the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in 1990.

The Road to Now

There is also room for Al Gore (right) in Bell’s account of this period. Gore had had two stints as Vice President of the USA and had more than a look in to make president in the election year of 2000 (controversially defeated by George W Bush and who went on to take the USA out of the Kyoto Agreement, much as Trump did with the Paris Agreement 18 years later). Gore had drawn on the work of the so-called Granddaddy of climate science and oceanography, Roger Revelle. His PhD studies undertaken in the early 1930s examined the extent to which the oceans absorbed carbon dioxide and concluded that it was much less than previously thought and calculated (about 50 per cent and not the 98 per cent accepted wisdom). Revelle was hugely networked, including with the US Navy. He was, in the 1950s, employing a new technique of carbon dating, initially in connection with measuring radioactivity, but equally useful in studying tree rings that revealed isotopes that were closely associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This knowledge was re-applied to oceans by Revelle who had observed a phenomenon called buffering whereby the oceans expel carbon dioxide to avoid acidification. So initial calculations needed to be revisited to capture the significant expulsion and further concentration of carbon dioxide in the air rather than being absorbed by the oceans (p226).

Then there’s Captain Planet (p311), the brainchild of Ted Turner, CNN’s founder. For the 1989 series, he signed up stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum and Sting to voice the multi-national characters who appeared in the “Planeteers”. I’ve seen better animation, but it reminds me of shows like “The Tomorrow People” of my youth, featuring a band of kids/young people with special powers, such as telepathy, to help others deal with the agonies of life as well as those regular issues involving extra-terrestrial life (presumably to make the series more interesting). Crucially, the Tomorrow People were unable to take human life. Most of us wanted to be a Tomorrow Person (well I did), but a Planeteer, two decades later, makes a lot of sense. The best I can do is write a blog and teach students climate awareness.

Still from the Restless Sphere (Sir James Wordie (r), Sir David Brunt (l) and Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, centre)

Revelle was a major recipient of IGY (International Geophysical Year – starting June 1957) funding. Imagine this: a funding stream solely dedicated to studying the planet for its own sake and fostering international scientific collaboration (one wonders whether EU funding such as Horizon 2020 is not modelled on the ICY). On 30 June 1957, the BBC actually broadcast a documentary about the ICY called, interestingly, The Restless Sphere.

Alice Bell can be heard talking about her book on the Bunker Daily Podcast (4 July 2021). But this book goes on the reading list for my students because of one particular comment in the conclusion. History matters. It helps us to understand not only where we came from, but what factors got us to where we are today. Bell does this with aplomb. It is important for my students to realise that

[m]ost of us are pretty clueless about how we built this world in the first place, and so struggle to work out where to start rebuilding it. This cluelessness is far from just a problem for energy. It is a price we pay for modernity; there’s so much stuff to know we have to live our lives in a lot of ignorance.

p343

Pics:

Mohammad Mosaddegh – circa 1952/53 By iichs.ir – http://www.iichs.ir/Upload/Image/2017/04/Orginal/e45d0dae_cf8b_45b0_8d37_7af37789d5ff.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66301280

Standard Oil logo pic: Pat Hawks

Wallace Broekner: https://climatestate.com/2017/04/18/rivers-of-the-sea-global-ocean-survey-studies-geosecs-1975/

Planeteers: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10837084 (The Planeteers: Kwame (Africa, power – earth). Wheeler (Brooklyn, New York City, United States: power – fire). Linka (Soviet Union: power – wind). Gi (Asia. power – water). Ma-Ti (Brazil. power – heart)

1 comment so far

  1. Asher Rospigliosi on

    excellent, and I am seriously glad to see Captain Planet getting due kudos (and of course the Forever People)!


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