Why Rip van Winkle and the Climate Crisis  Are Closely Connected?!

By   Shlomo Maital      

   I recently spoke at a climate crisis conference. In my remarks, I asked, when did we have the earliest data about greenhouse gases and global warming?

   A lot lot earlier than you might think. Indeed – in author Washington Irving’s famous story, “Rip Van Winkle”, the protagonist, a Dutch-American villager in colonial America, falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains and wakes up 20 years later.

     Well, we the people are Rip Van Winkle. Except — we overslept a whole lot longer.


                                     Eunice Newton Foote

An American woman scientist named Eunice Newton Foote (highly unusual for her time) published a paper in The American Journal of Science & Arts, in 1856: 163 years ago.   (Van Winkle would have been awake for 143 years already). She filled glass jars with a) water vapor, b) carbon dioxide and c) air, and compared how much they heated up in the sun.

     She concluded: “The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas [CO2]” 

     In August 1908 Henry Ford produced the first of his 15 million Model T Ford cars. The age of vehicle emissions began…and we knew from Eunice Foote what the ultimate result would be. We knew that burning fossil fuels would spew CO2 into the air.

       In 1899, almost a century before the December 1997 Kyoto Protocol was signed (in which nations promised to limit emissions), Thomas Chamberlin published a book stating that “changes in climate could result from changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”    Footnote: The Kyoto Protocol was largely ignored.

     So, when did global warming actually begin? It started more or less when that Model T Ford rolled off the line – in 1905. (See graph). That is, 114 years ago. Almost 6 times longer than Rip Van Winkle slept.  

     We as a society are asleep. We failed to see the nose in front of our face.  And to see the results, and the reason we now use the phrase “climate crisis”, look closely at Australia, once a serene paradise, now a place in which a fifth of its forests have burned, a billion mammals died, and now disastrous floods occur (because the dry hard-packed ground cannot absorb the rain).

And Rip?  Well, at least he woke up.  We,  society, are still largely asleep.