Science blog

19 December 2016

The first paper on carbon dioxide and global warming

Before 2016 ends, there’s one anniversary we previously didn’t get around to marking, the publication in 1896 of the first articles suggesting that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere might affect Earth’s climate via the greenhouse effect, by the Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrhenius. This phenomenon is almost universally accepted as a hazard to the future of human civilisation by climate scientists, although still denied by certain political figures.

Svante Arrhenius in 1910

Arrhenius (1859-1927) was one of the main early figures of physical chemistry, the branch of chemistry that uses physics to explain and predict the behaviour of chemical reactions, mixtures of matter and volumes of pure substances. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903, for coming up with the idea that many substances, such as salt, exist as charged ions when they dissolve in water, explaining why solutions conduct electricity. His other important achievements in chemistry include work on the rates of chemical reactions and developing the first clear definition of acids and bases.

Later in his career, he became interested in the discipline then known as “cosmic physics”, which sought to explain the current nature and past history of the Earth and other planets of the solar system. The greenhouse effect paper developed out of his attempts to develop an explanation for ice ages on Earth, which he suggested were caused by changes in the CO2 level of the atmosphere. (This remains one of several competing hypotheses today, although there is argument about whether changes in atmosphere composition were a cause, an effect, or part of a feedback loop.)

He first published his ideas in 1896, in German in the Swedish journal Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar and in an abridged English version in The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. He subsequently expanded on his theory for a mass audience in his popular science work Världarnas utveckling, published in English as Worlds in the Making.

According to Arrhenius, he spent a full year in tedious manual calculations for the paper, in various stages. Firstly, he sought to derive figures for the heat-absorption capacity of water vapour and carbon dioxide from detailed observations on the intensity of moonlight at Earth’s surface carried out by Samuel P Langley in 1885-7. He then calculated mean actual temperatures and humidities at different locations around the world, and then the calculated effects on temperatures in different parts of the world of carbon dioxide levels at 67%, 150%, 200%, 250%, and 300% of the actual one at the time he wrote. He calculated that doubling the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere would raise the temperature in general by 4°C.

In the paper he did not discuss the effect of fossil fuel burning on carbon dioxide emissions. However, he did in Worlds in the Making. On pp.53-63, he discussed the role in carbon dioxide emissions of human activity and volcanism, and declared the chief means of long-term removal of carbon dioxide as formation of carbonate minerals and peat production by plants, before moving on to speculation on the early history of Earth’s atmosphere. At the end of the chapter, he argues that an increased greenhouse effect due to human activity would be a good thing, preventing a new Ice Age and allowing for better yields of crops! At the time, Arrhenius did not consider the risks of rising sea level and local disruption of agriculture, to mention only two potential downsides.

Posted by Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:



Arrhenius, S. Ueber den Einfluss des atmosphärischen Kohlensäuregehalts auf die Temperatur der Erdoberfläche, Behang till Kongliga Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar, 1896 22 (1,1), 1-102. General Reference Ac.1070

Arrhenius, S. On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (Fifth Series) April 1896 49 (251), 237-276. General Reference P.P.1433. Also available online at

Arrhenius, S, translated by Borns, H. Worlds in the Making. London: Harper & Brothers, 1908. General Reference

Brock, W H. The Fontana History of Chemistry. London: Fontana, 1992. General Reference YC.1992.a.2866

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Rodhe, H and Charlson, R (Eds.). The Legacy of Svante Arrhenius: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect. Uddevalla: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1998. General Reference YA.2000.a.37529