Alexander Graham Bell’s predictions about the impact of climate change

By Doug Williams
Publish Date:

Most of us today will associate the name Alexander Graham Bell with the invention of the telephone in 1876. However, Bell was much more than a mere ‘geek’ who knew a thing or two about how sound could be transmitted through wires; he was a futurist and a philosopher way ahead of his time.

Alexander Graham Bell

Apart from inventing something that changed the way humans communicate, Bell is famous for making bull’s eye futuristic predictions, both in his private meetings with friends and acquaintances and in formal gatherings. Why is it relevant today? Well, because we are now entering into a period where many people who hold the highest positions of authority are, despite all the facts, calling climate change a hoax. Bell was well aware of the potential of humans to make a negative impact on the climate.

Before Alexander Graham Bell and even during his lifetime, the prevailing thought among scientists was that the polluted air, or dirty air as it was called then, could potentially block the sun’s rays from entering into earth’s climate. This, scientists thought, would drastically alter the temperature of the planet and over time could trigger a mini ice age.

However, Bells thinking – the rebellious inventor that he was – was more in line with our modern understanding of the impacts of climate change on the earth. Bell proposed what was at that time a radical idea: that despite losing some of the sun’s heat that came our way, the atmosphere would retain a significant portion of the Earth’s heat, which according to Bell ‘is normally radiated out into space’. He further expounded that his inclination was more towards the idea that dirty air can over time cause a sort of greenhouse effect – and yes, he did use the word greenhouse effect.

Representation of the basic process of the greenhouse effect

Some science historians aren’t willing to give Bell the credit of using the word ‘greenhouse effect’ in relation to climate change. However, there is general agreement that Bell was indeed ahead of the curve. In March of 1915, Alexander Graham Bell gave an interesting speech to the McKinley Manual Training School in Washington, in which he boldly mused on the future of fossil fuels, and stressed the significance of biofuels and renewables.

The most abundant greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere

In his speech, Bell stressed that the oil and coal industries, the driving forces behind the engine of modernity, are not just limited in nature but are running out at an ever-growing rate. Bell further said that though we can look for new mines and subterranean reservoirs of oil, once we extract them there is no mechanism to refill these reservoirs again. He then predicted that the tremendous increase in demand for these fuel sources will grow exponentially, such that humanity is ‘within measurable’ distance of the time when there won’t be enough oil and coal left for the use of society. This is a scenario, Bell stressed, that all the governments of the world must consider well ahead of time and prepare for an alternative method or some sort of coping mechanism to save humanity from collapse.

Renewable sources of energy involve harnessing the powers of nature such as the sun and wind

Bell didn’t just stand at the podium and give a well-articulated speech full of scaremongering and grim future predictions. He rather worked his way towards pointing to a way to solve these, then futuristic, mega-issues. Bell started his argument for the solution by suggesting that humans must develop ways to harness the power of one of nature’s most powerful agents, tidal power – which, by the way, we haven’t fully learned to utilize even a century down the line. Bell also suggested curbing our hunger for energy by employing the sun’s rays directly. According to Bell’s great-grandson, in 1914 Alexander Graham Bell had, in fact, made a sketches for a rooftop solar panel designed to harness the sun’s energy.

Today there are a growing number of offshore windfarms like this one but we still have only a handful of commercial tidal energy plants across the globe

Among all the grim possibilities of the impact of climate change on humanity and the world, Bell’s speech had elements of hope and trust in man’s ingenuity to always come up with solutions to perplexing problems. However, in today’s world it rather seems a lost cause, at least for the time being, since the leaders of the world seem less concerned about the well-being of earth and its inhabitants, than they are concerned about the health of their bank accounts and property investments, which is surely not a good sign for the future of humanity on earth.

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