We have long known of the heat retaining properties of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This was proposed in the early 1800s by the French scientist Joseph Fourier (Van der Veen 2000), that the earth’s atmosphere retained some of the heat entering as sunlight, as happens in a glass greenhouse, that is, longwave radiation passes through the glass to the soil and surfaces within, which are heated, the heat is then emitted as shortwave radiation, infrared, which can’t pass through the glass as well.

The French historian Edmé Mariotte (Cirella & Tao 2009) in 1681 observed the sun’s light passed through glass but heat from hot surfaces didn’t. Irish scientist John Tyndall (Somerville 2011) later conducted laboratory experiments on coal gas which demonstrated that carbon dioxide, methane and hydrocarbons absorbed heat at different wave lengths of sunlight.

Late in that century Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (Charlson et al. 1997) calculated that decreasing and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide content had marked effects on global temperature.

Even though these early scientists and others were making observations and hypotheses, it wasn’t until the 1930s that British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar (Anderson et al. 2006) turned his research to the anthropogenic, produced by human activities, nature of an increasing global temperature and the industrial revolution.

Although Callendar’s research was not widely accepted it did result in funding provisions for recording atmospheric carbon dioxide, CO2, levels.

Dr Charles David Keeling (Keeling et al. 1976) was the scientist who started measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the late 1950s and argued for that available funding, and as such, carbon dioxide concentrations have been continuously measured to this current day.

He established the monitoring station in Hawaii at Mauna Loa on a volcanic mountain located on sheet rock and as a result it is far from local manmade and natural CO2 sources and variation due to photosynthesis.

Keeling established a baseline by 1958 and two years later he reported that CO2 levels were rising and over time, this became the now well known ‘Keeling curve’ in the graph clearly showing the increase in CO2 concentration.

Keeling Curve

August 2020: 412.55 ppm

August 2019: 409.95 ppm

Earth System Research Laboratories

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The graph shows an overall increase in CO2 and the red line shows the seasonal plant growing seasons in the northern hemisphere with a decrease in Spring and Summer and an increase in Autumn and Winter marking increased and decreased uptake of carbon dioxide respectively, with the CO2 being used in photosynthesis during plants growing seasons.

The CO2 parts per million are the most recent published level and compared with 12 months ago.

Concern about the state of our environment continued to grow into the 1970s.

The United Nations held a Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972 which resulted in the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment 1972 (Handl 2012).

It included “26 common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment”. UN Documents. Gathering a body of global agreements http://www.un-documents.net/unchedec.htm

In November 1988 the World Meteorological Organization WMO and United Nations Environment Programme UNEP establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC (UNFCCC 2019).

The IPCC was tasked with reviewing the knowledge and make recommendations, regarding climate change. Its task now is to provide the scientific, technical and socio-economic information in relation to human-induced climate change, and adaptation to and mitigation of its effects.

The IPCC produces assessment reports, the first of which was released in 1990 and reinforced the importance of climate change and the need for international cooperation.

This report provided the basis for the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC in 1992, the treaty to deal with climate change and its effects.

The IPCC Second Assessment Report, 1995 provided technical information needed for the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

The Third Assessment Report came out in 2001 and provided new and stronger evidence of global warming.

The Fourth Assessment Report, 2007, paid greater attention to the integration of climate change with sustainable development policies and relationships between mitigation and adaptation.

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was released in four parts between September 2013 and November 2014, its headline said “Human influence on the climate systems is clear, and recent anthropological emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

In October 2018 a special Global Warming of 1.5C report was released by the IPCC confirming the need to maintain the strongest commitment to the Paris Agreement’s aims of limiting global warming to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, which include more frequent and more severe droughts, floods and storms.

The Sixth Assessment Report is expected to be finalized in 2022 in time for the global stocktake foreseen under the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.

In 1992, UNFCCC, opened for signatures at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, bringing the world together to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Also produced was the Agenda 21 a wide-ranging blue print for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf

It includes 27 principles for sustainable development https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/1127rioprinciples.pdf

Principle 15 The Precautionary Principle I have included here in full, as this principle effects taking action to stop climate change even if scientists are unsure of anthropogenic causes.

Principle 15 — “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

Further below is a timeline of the Conferences of Parties, but in summary, the problem of climate change remains, an atmosphere that is increasing in temperature and humidity and oceans that are increasing in temperature and becoming more acidic.

We need to decarbonize our economy, that is, to stop using coal and oil, we have the technology to do this, we just need the political will.

And to do that we need to influence our decision makers, or become our decision makers.

We must take climate change even more seriously and do our upmost to stop increasing CO2 emissions and to start reversing CO2 levels.

UNFCCC members (parties) meet annually as the UNFCCC Conference of Parties COP (UNFCCC 2020).

The first Conference of Parties COP1 was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995, formulated the ‘Berlin Mandate’ to facilitate increased commitment of developed countries to reducing greenhouse gas production.

COP2 was held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1966 but its declaration wasn’t adopted.

COP3 in Kyoto 1997, saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the worlds’ first greenhouse gas reduction treaty; with most industrialized countries agreeing to a 6–8% reduction in emissions on 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. The USA did not ratify the treaty.

COP4 in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1998. Any unresolved issues from Kyoto still couldn’t be resolved and instead a two-year plan to further the Kyoto Protocol was put in place.

COP5 in Bonn, Germany in 1999, was mainly a technical meeting and didn’t achieve any further notable agreements.

COP6 in The Hague, Netherland in 2000. The talks collapsed and were rescheduled to July 2001 in Bonn, Germany but no further agreement in addressing climate change was made.

COP 7 in Marrakech, Morocco in 2001, negotiators completed the 2-year plan from Buenos Aires. The USA didn’t participate in negotiations.

COP 8, New Delhi, India in 2002 called for developed countries to minimize impacts on developing countries. USA, Australia and Russia didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, these countries were needed for the protocol to enter into force.

COP 9 in Milan, Italy in 2003, agreement was reached to support developing countries adapt to climate change.

COP 10 in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2004, parties discussed past 10 years of progress and started discussions on future means to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

COP 11/CMP 1 in Montreal, Canada in 2005 was one of the largest intergovernmental meetings on climate change to date. It included the first Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 1) since 1997. The conference saw the Kyoto Protocol come into force and extend the protocol beyond 2012 with greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

COP12 in Nairobi, Kenya in 2006 and mandated to undertake a programme to address impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change.

COP 13/CMP 3 in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, a timeline of negotiations beyond the 2012 end of the Kyoto agreement was achieved.

COP 14/CMP 4 in Poznań, Poland in 2008, discussed financing poor countries to adapt to climate change, protection of forests and a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol.

COP 15/CMP 5 in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 had aimed to make an ambitious global climate agreement for the period from 2012 but this wasn’t achieved with many countries being reluctant to fulfil their Kyoto agreements.

COP 16/CMP 6 in Cancún, Mexico in 2010, agreement for funding wasn’t reach and neither was a commitment for further Kyoto Protocol commitments. The base year of 1990 for making commitments was agreed upon.

COP 17/CMP 7 in Durban, South Africa in 2011 agreed to start negotiations for emissions in the period after 2020. Scientists voiced their concern that not enough was being done to stop a ²⁰ global temperature increase.

COP 18/CMP 8 in Doha, Qatar in 2012 produced a package of documents addressing the post Kyoto Protocol period from 2012 to 2020 but it only accounted for 15% of world emissions because of lack of commitment from many countries.

COP 19/CMP 9 in Warsaw, Poland in 2013 saw further advancing of climate change adaptation funding for poorer countries and of the REDD plus framework (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries).

COP 20/CMP 10 in Lima, Peru in 2014 served to prepare for major agreements at the next conference in Paris.

COP21 Paris 2015. The Paris Agreement for the first time brings all nations into a common cause based on their historic, current and future responsibilities. It resulted in the well-known Paris Agreement which governs emission reductions from 2020.

COP 22/CMP 12/CMA 1 in Marrakech, Morocco in 2016, a major focus was on water scarcity and sustainability: also focused on changing to low carbon economies.

COP23 Bula! 2017. Hosted by Fiji and held in Bonn, Germany. (Bula is a greeting also hello) This was the first COP to be presided over by a small island developing state. It introduced the concept and design of the Talanoa dialogue which is a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. To share stories, build empathy and make wise decisions. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said after the COP “It’s time to wake up and correct our course.”

Fijian Drua sailing canoe.

COP24 was held at Katowice (Cat-a-vitz-za) in Poland in December 2018 and reaffirmed the commitment to the Paris Agreement.

COP 25/CMP 15/CMA 2 hosted by Chile and held in Madrid, Spain in 2019, the European Union reached an agreement to lower its emissions to zero by 2050.

COP 26/CMP 16/CMA 3, Glasgow, UK is to be held in November 2021, the 2020 conference has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Anderson, T. R., Hawkins, E., & Jones, P. D. (2016). CO2, the greenhouse effect and global warming: from the pioneering work of Arrhenius and Callendar to today’s Earth System Models. Endeavour, 40(3), 178–187.

Charlson, R., Rodhe, H. & Crawford, E. (1997). Svante Arrhenius and the greenhouse effect. Ambio, 2–5.

Cirella, G. T., & Tao, L. (2009) The Missing Bottom Line. Design Principles and Practices. 3. 197–212.

Handl, G. (2012). Declaration of the United Nations conference on the human environment (Stockholm Declaration), 1972 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992. United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, 11.

Keeling, C. D., Bacastow, R. B., Bainbridge, A. E., Ekdahl Jr, C. A., Guenther, P. R., Waterman, L. S., & Chin, J. F. (1976). Atmospheric carbon dioxide variations at Mauna Loa observatory, Hawaii. Tellus, 28(6), 538–551.

Somerville, R. C. (2011). John Tyndall and his pioneering contributions to climate science and scientific outreach. AGUFM, 2011, GC43H-01.

United Nations Climate Change Conference (2020) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Climate_Change_conference

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC (2019) http://unfccc.int/timeline/

Van der Veen, C. J. (2000). Fourier and the “greenhouse effect”. Polar Geography, 24(2), 132–152.

Peter Miles B.Env.Sc. 45 years in Environmental Science, specializing in Wildlife and Conservation Biology. Writes about Animals, Revegetation & Climate Change.

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