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Alexander Graham Bell on the greenhouse effect
Jun 02, 2017

When it comes to global warming and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has been all over the map. Years ago, he admitted global warming and climate change existed, but recently he has called global warming a hoax and is questioning the U.S. position on the Paris accord, an agreement to limit carbon emissions to control climate change.

Coal power is known as a major contributor to carbon emissions, but Trump has signed an executive order to boost coal production and roll back Obama-era  greenhouse gas emission targets. This will create more American jobs, he claims. At the same time, he appears not to be overly worried about the effect of burning coal on the world’s climate.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump tweeted. In another Tweet, he wrote: “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”

During the recent Group of Seven  meeting held in Taormina, Sicily, he failed to endorse the Paris agreement, despite the urging of the six other member countries — Canada, Germany, England, Italy, France and Japan. Trump is on record as saying that he will pull the U.S. out of the agreement.

Without Trump’s blessing, the leaders of the group of rich nations failed to agree to a statement on climate change.

Trump told the G7 leaders that he will make a decision sometime this week on whether the U.S. will recommit to the accord. It’s a stand that has the other six leaders shaking their heads in disbelief. Even China and India, among the top countries emitting greenhouse gases, have pledged their commitment to the agreement.

“The whole discussion about climate has been difficult, or rather very unsatisfactory,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the G7 meeting. “Here we have the situation that six members, or even seven if you want to add the EU, stand against one. That means there are no signals until now whether the U.S. will remain in the Paris Agreement or not. We have therefore not talked around it but made clear that we the six member states and the EU

remain committed to the goals of the agreement.”

Global warming and climate change, which Trump has called “bunk” in the past, is now fully accepted by the world’s top climate researchers. And, that’s not a recent development. Maybe Trump should read about what Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, said and wrote 100 years ago in the U.S. In 1917, Bell made predictions that are extraordinarily relevant today.

In a 1917 article for the National Geographic Magazine, he wrote that the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels would create “a sort of greenhouse effect ... the net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.” The renowned inventor was repeating statements he had made earlier to the graduating class of McKinley Training School in Washington, D.C.

While Bell was not the first to mention the “greenhouse effect,” English physicist John Henry Poynting referred to it in 1909. But Bell’s fame ensured his warnings received widespread coverage in newspapers across the globe. Earlier pioneers in greenhouse gas research included Irish scientist John Tyndall, who explored the effects of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to predict that human-caused carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels were able to warm the world. It was he who said that temperatures in the Arctic would soar “if carbonic acid (CO2) increased 2.5 to three times its present value.”

Trump should note that the science behind the human-induced greenhouse effects was well understood over 100 years ago.

Bell was also an advocate for renewable energy, which most would think is a modern phenomenon. He realized that some forms of renewable energy were beyond the technological knowledge of his day, but he said there were other options.

Bell mused on the too great reliance on coal and oil of his early 20th-century world, and the fact that these fossil fuels were non-renewable.

“Coal and oil ... are strictly limited in quantity,” he told the graduating class. “Apart from water power (which is strictly limited) and tidal and wave power (which we have not yet learned to utilize), and the sun’s rays directly as a source of power, we have little left, excepting wood, and it takes at least 25 years to grow a crop of trees.

“There is, however, one other source of fuel supply which may perhaps solve the problem of the future. Alcohol makes a beautiful, clean and efficient fuel, and can be manufactured very cheaply. Wood alcohol, for example, can be employed as a fuel, and we can make alcohol from sawdust, a waste product of our mills.”

He then discussed a topic that is a familiar one today. “Alcohol can also be manufactured from corn stalks, and in fact from almost any vegetable matter capable of fermentation. Our growing crops and even weeds can be used.”

Bell was advocating ethanol as a source of fuel, which is now a reality, although only in limited ways, such as an additive for gasoline. In the U.S., corn is primarily used to produce ethanol, while Canada mostly uses grain. Brazil, which happens to be the nation most devoted to ethanol, uses sugarcane.

“The waste products of our farms are available for this purpose and even the garbage from our cities,” he continued.

In the latter case, methane is being extracted from city garbage dumps. At present, the city of Winnipeg only collects and burns off methane gas from the Brady landfill. That’s not a bad idea, as methane is a very powerful greenhouse-generating gas — many times more potent than CO2. Still, it would be a better idea to put the gas to a beneficial use. Methane in the form of LNG (liquified natural gas) is now used as a fuel for ovens, homes, water heaters, kilns, automobiles and turbines to generate electricity, etc. Vehicles use methane in the form of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

“We need never fear the exhaustion of our present fuel supplies so long as we can produce an annual crop of alcohol to any extent desired,” said Bell.

But there’s a problem, which is that ethanol production takes away from acreage needed to feed an ever-increasing world population, and essential agricultural production is not evenly distributed across the globe.

Bell predicted that the world would depend more and more on ethanol over time. It has happened, but not to the level he foresaw, since fossil fuels are still the most significant source of fuel. It will take more technological changes and greater acceptance by world  leaders of the need for alternative energy sources to make the change to renewable energy sources. But as long as Trump leads the most powerful nation in the world, the petulant president will have to be convinced — using some yet unknown tactic — to admit that global warming and climate change are a reality.