Science Fact, Not Fiction: Isaac Asimov on the Greenhouse Effect

By Amber Jenkins

I stumbled upon this video earlier today. It’s Isaac Asimov, famous science fiction writer and biochemist, talking about global warming — back in January 1989. If you change the coloring of the video, the facial hair style, and switch out Asimov for someone else, the video could pretty much have been made today.

Asimov was giving the keynote address at the first annual meeting of The Humanist Institute. “They wanted me to pick out the most important scientific event of 1988. And I really thought that the most important scientific event of 1988 will only be recognized sometime in the future when you get a little perspective.”

What he was talking about was the greenhouse effect, which, he goes on to explain, is “the story everyone started talking about [in 1988], just because there was a hot summer and a drought.” (Sound familiar, letting individual weather events drive talk of whether the Earth’s long-term climate is heating up or cooling down??)

The greenhouse effect explains how certain heat-trapping (a.k.a. “greenhouse”) gases in our atmosphere keep our planet warm, by trapping infrared rays that Earth would otherwise reflect back out into space. The natural greenhouse effect makes Earth habitable — without our atmosphere acting like an electric blanket, the surface of the earth would be about 30 degrees Celsius cooler than it is now.

The problem comes in when humans tinker with this natural state of affairs. Our burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) constantly pumps out carbon dioxide — a heat-trapping gas — into the atmosphere. Our cutting down of forests reduces the number of trees there are to soak up some of this extra carbon dioxide. All in all, our atmosphere and planet heats up, (by about 0.6 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution) with the electric blanket getting gradually thicker around us.

“I have been talking about the greenhouse effect for 20 years at least,” says Asimov in the video. “And there are other people who have talked about it before I did. I didn’t invent it.” As we’ve stressed here recently, global warming, and the idea that humans can change the climate, is not new.

As one blogger notes, Asimov’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1989. “It’s almost like nothing has happened in all this time.” Except that Isaac Asimov has come and gone, and the climate change he spoke of is continuing.

Asimov’s full speech can be seen here.

This post was written for “My Big Fat Planet,” a blog hosted by Amber Jenkins on NASA’s Global Climate Change site.

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    5 Responses to “Science Fact, Not Fiction: Isaac Asimov on the Greenhouse Effect”

  1. alexis Says:
    January 19th, 2011 at 10:48 am

    its really good that some people still find time to reflect and consider these things amidst the presently booming technology..i’m thankful for people who are just like him..

  2. TomS Says:
    January 24th, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I think it is possible that the short term trend, at least, has shifted and the atmosphere is in a cooling mode, as indicated by reduced sunspot numbers versus earlier expectations. The oceans also appear to be cooling and may be a better trend marker than the atmosphere due to larger mass.

    Possible Cycle = Less solar heat imput > cooling oceans > cooling atmosphere > > increased solar imput > warming oceans > warmer atmosphere.

    Oceans take awhile to cool, but once underway, ocean cooling is not stopped by “greenhouse effect” in the absence of increased solar input, because of reduced evaporation from the cooling ocean of both H2O and CO2, and increased precipitation from the atmosphere as it cools. I suspect manmade increase in CO2 (to keep warm if nothing else) will not offset the decrease in ocean output of CO2 while oceans are cooling and the loss of water vapor from the atmosphere. If I am correct, increased level of flooding will continue while the cycle remains in this stage.

  3. Susan Anderson Says:
    November 24th, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Ocean cooling? Where do you get this stuff? The ocean is absorbing some of global warming, but that means it’s warming. Since the ocean is large and some of the heat is being dispersed to the deeper ocean, it is delaying the effects of warming slightly.

    That is not cooling, and it hides to a dangerous extent the effects already multiplying across the globe, trending towards more extremes of all kinds of climate due to increased water vapor and increased energy.

    It’s kind of like saying the Alaska snowicane “proves” the planet is cooling. One needs real tunnel vision and no memory whatsoever to isolate these events only on one side and conclude cooling.

    Where have you been?

  4. Tenney Naumer Says:
    November 24th, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Unfortunately, the less active solar cycle occurred while temperatures were increasing. Its impact on rising temperatures was very small (it caused a slight decrease). Now solar activity is increasing, so there will be no relief from the sun.

    93% of the energy imbalance due to ever increasing CO2 emissions goes into the oceans. There is no sign at all that the oceans are cooling; in fact, there is more and more evidence that the missing heat is accumulating in the deep ocean. This will all come back to bite us in the butt.

  5. The BRAD BLOG : 'Green News Report' - December 1, 2011 Says:
    December 1st, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    [...] VIDEO: Science Fact, Not Fiction: Isaac Asimov on the Greenhouse Effect (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [...]

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