July 17, 2019
The Woman Who Discovered the Cause of Global Warming Was Long Overlooked. Her Story Is a Reminder to Champion All Women Leading on ClimateBreaking News
tags: climate change, womens history
Wilkinson is an author of the New York Times bestseller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming and vice president at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit lifting up climate solutions.
Eunice Newton Foote rarely gets the credit she’s due. The American scientist, who was born exactly 200 years ago on Wednesday, was the first woman in climate science. It was back in 1856 that Foote theorized that changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature. She broke scientific ground that remains more relevant than ever in 2019, but history overlooked her until just a few years ago.
Foote arrived at her breakthrough idea through experimentation. With an air pump, two glass cylinders, and four thermometers, she tested the impact of “carbonic acid gas” (the term for carbon dioxide in her day) against “common air.” When placed in the sun, she found that the cylinder with carbon dioxide trapped more heat and stayed hot longer.
From a simple experiment, she drew a profound conclusion: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature…must have necessarily resulted.” In other words, she connected the dots between carbon dioxide and global warming.
Foote’s paper, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays,” was presented in August 1856 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and then published. (For unknown reasons, likely rules or social norms, it was read by a man from The Smithsonian, rather than Foote herself.) That was three years before Irish physicist John Tyndall published his own, more detailed work on heat-trapping gases — work typically credited as the foundation of climate science.
Did Tyndall know about Foote’s paper? It’s unclear — though he did have a paper on color blindness in the same 1856 journal as her’s. In any case, I have to wonder if Eunice Newton Foote ever found herself remarking, as so many women have: “I literally just said that, dude.”
I also find myself wondering: What might Foote have achieved if she had Tyndall’s access to training and resources? We can only imagine. Perhaps we can understand, if not abide, that Foote was hobbled by the conventions and limitations of her day. Perhaps we can also amend that loss by supporting women in climate today.
Look around the world, and you will see women and girls making enormous contributions in this space. Conducting research and advancing climate science, to be sure, but also cultivating solutions, creating campaign strategy, curating art exhibits, crafting policy, composing literary work, charging forth in collective action, and more. Look around, and you will see truly catalytic leadership grounded in courage, creativity, compassion, and collaboration.
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