It was Eunice Newton Foote, an American scientist and women’s rights campaigner living in Seneca Falls, New York, who first warned the world that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could send temperatures here on Earth soaring. This was back in 1856. At the time, no one paid much attention.
Our Biggest Experiment tells Foote’s story, along with stories of the many other scientists who helped to build our modern understanding of climate change. It also chronicles our energy system, from whale oil to kerosene and beyond — the first steamships, wind turbines, electric cars, oil tankers and fridges. Alice Bell takes us back to climate change science’s earliest steps in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the advancing realisation that global warming was a significant problem in the 1950s and right up to today, where we have seen the growth of the environmental movement, climate scepticism and political responses like the UN climate talks.
As citizens of the twenty-first century, it can feel like history has dealt us a rather bad hand in the climate crisis. In many ways, this is true. Our ancestors have left us an almighty mess.
But they left us tools for survival too, and Our Biggest Experiment tells both sides of the story. The message of the book is ultimately hopeful; harnessing the ingenuity and intelligence that has long driven the history of climate change research can mean a more sustainable and bearable future for humanity.