In 1971, during the cold war era and the Vietnam war gaining more attention, Penthouse magazine published an essay from Isaac Asimov, titled The End. Triumf wrote a review on that article, which can be read here. While Asimov’s main issue in this article is about addressing population growth, and indeed the following year in 1972 the famous Limits to Growth report was issued, he also pretty much nailed parts where he wrote about the greenhouse effect.
In the following excerpts from his essay on climate.
Something will happen to slow that growth (of the human population), bring it to an utter halt, even reverse it and allow the human race to decrease in numbers. The only question is what that “something” will be.
The only question is what that “something” will be.To any sane person it would surely seem that the safest way of bringing this about is a worldwide program for the voluntary limitation of births, with the enthusiastic participation of humanity as a whole.
Failing this, the same result will inevitably be brought about by an increase in the death rate-through famine, for instance.
Suppose we bring pollution under control. Suppose we block the effluent of chemical industries, control smoke, eliminate the sulfur in the smoke and the lead in gasoline, make use of degradable plastics, convert garbage into fertilizer and mines for raw materials. What then? Is there any pollution that cannot possibly be controlled?
Well, as long we burn fossil fuels (and only so can we get energy out of them) we must produce carbon dioxide. At the moment, we are adding about 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels This doesn’t seem like much when you consider that the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 2,280 billion tons of nearly 300 times the quantity we are adding per year.
However, by the time all our fossil fuel is gone, in A.D. 2150, we will have added a total of 60,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere or better than twenty-five times the total quantity now present in the air. A little of this added supply might be dissolved in the oceans, absorbed by chemicals in the soil, taken up by faster-growing plant life. Most, however, would remain in the atmosphere.
By A.D. 2150, then, the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would rise from the present 0.04 per cent to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 per cent. The oxygen content, five hundred times the carbon dioxide, would be scarcely affected by this change alone.
Carbon dioxide is responsible for what is called the “greenhouse effect.” It is transparent to the short waves of sunlight, but is relatively opaque to the longer waves of infrared. Sunlight passes through the atmosphere, reaches the surface of the Earth and heats it.
At night, the Earth re-radiates heat as infrared and this has trouble getting past the carbon dioxide. The Earth therefor remains warmer than it would be if there were no carbon dioxide at all in the atmosphere. If the present carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere were merely to double, the average temperature of the Earth would increase by 3.6°C.
What of the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica?
At the higher temperatures, the ice caps would lose more ice in the summer than they would regain in the winter. They would begin to melt year by year at an accelerating pace and the sea level would inexorably rise.
By the time all the ice caps were melted, the sea level would be at least 200 feet higher than it is and the ocean, at low tide, would lap about the twentieth floor of the Empire State Building. All the lowlands of Earth, containig its most desirable farmland and its densest load of population, would be covered by the rolling waters.
At the rate at which fossil fuels are being increasingly used now, the ice caps will be melting rapidly about a century from now. To prevent this, we might make every effort to switch from fossil fuel to fission fuel, but in doing that, we would be producing radioactive ash in enormous quantities and that would present an even greater and more dangerous problem than carbon dioxide would.
[Asimov goes on to explain the problems of scaling growing energy demands, and population growth]
Unfortunately, I don’t think that mankind can ‘fundamentally’ alter its ways of thinking and acting within thirty years, even under the most favorable conditions, and the conditions are far from favorable. As it happens, those who dominate human society are, generally, old men in comfortable circumstances, who are frozen in the thought patterns of a past generation, and who cling suicidally to the way of life to which they were accustomed.
Asimov’s estimation for a doubling of CO2 emissions, resulting in 3.6C temperature rise, is still very much in line with today’s assumptions on climate sensitivity. Some even consider it to be even higher. The IPCC report from 2013 (AR5), gives a range of 1.5-4.5ºC, for a doubling of carbon dioxide.
Does not seem to be a villain. Not very poisonous and it is present in the atmosphere in so small a quantity that it does us no harm.