The First Industrial Revolution was a period of scientific and technological development that lasted from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. Much of this development took place in European countries, European colonies and the United States. This period seems to have also marked a new uptick in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere—and an effect on the climate.

What caused CO2 levels to rise? “It was a combination of A., the burning of coal; and B., the hastening of the pace of deforestation in places like America,” says John Perlin, a visiting scholar in the department of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Fate of Civilization.

Industrial Revolution and CO2 Emissions

During the Industrial Revolution, Britain increased its use of coal as a fuel source. Coal became a key factor in the Industrial Revolution, and its popularity as a fuel source spread in Europe, Asia and the United States. Coal helped power new factories, ships and trains, as well as smelt iron and provided heat for many homes. At the same time, it increased the amount of CO2 in the air.

Because trees store carbon dioxide, deforestation in the name of colonial conquest also released more of this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. This was particularly true in North America, where English colonists culled forests between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River. Deforestation also occurred as cities grew and industrialized, to make way for more housing and factories.

So, did this increase in CO2 emissions have an effect on the climate? A 2016 study published in the scientific journal Nature argues it did. The study’s authors found signs of warming as early as the 1830s. Specifically, the authors found increased temperatures in the tropic oceans and the Arctic. Roughly two decades after this, the authors say that temperatures began warming in Europe, North America and Asia.

It was around this time that some 19th-century scientists began to become interested in climate science. However, it would be a long time before scientists realized the impact of rising CO2 levels.

Climate Change Science Emerges With Industrialization

The 19th century marked the beginning of climate change science. In the 1820s, French mathematician Joseph Fourier theorized about the process we now call the greenhouse effect. In the 1850s, the American scientist Eunice Foote discovered that carbon dioxide could actually raise an environment’s temperature.

Foote, who was the first woman to have her research presented at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), “really was the foundation of modern climate change science,” says Perlin, who is writing a book on her.

The American scientist Joseph Henry presented Foote’s findings at the annual AAAS meeting in 1856. Her research was also published in the American Journal of Science and Arts. Foote’s work may have influenced Irish scientist John Tyndall, who published similar findings to hers a few years later.

In the 1890s, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius began to wonder if the amount of CO2 in the air could cause temperature changes on a global scale. He calculated that decreases in CO2 could cool the Earth, while increases could warm it. Arrhenius actually wrote favorably about the idea that CO2 could increase temperatures in places like his home country of Sweden.

Global development in the 20th century drastically increased the pace of climate change and scientists began to sound the alarm about the dangers of climate change. By that time, the Second Industrial Revolution—lasting from the late 19th century to World War I—had already further increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Since then, emissions have skyrocketed. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2022 was over 50 percent higher than in the pre-industrial period.

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