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image European Research News Centre > Environment > Science and the environment: A gradual awakening
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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image Science and the environment: A gradual awakening
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  Interest in the ‘Earth Sciences’ - and in particular the way the climate works - began in the century of the Enlightenment. But it took the contemporary development of vastly improved techniques of observation and data collection to discover the complexity of the earth’s ecosystem - and to realise the impact which human activities can have on this delicate global mechanism.
   
     
   

At the end of the 18th century, the Swiss scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure climbed the Alpine peaks to conduct experiments on the effects of the sun’s rays. In 1802, the biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck expressed the view that ‘any good approach to the physics of the earth must combine meteorology, geology and biology’. The mechanisms which control the temperature of the earth’s surface began to fascinate a succession of scientists and, in 1896, the Swede Arrenhuis (1903 Nobel prizewinner) was the first to explain the key role of the carbon cycle and greenhouse effect, without which the earth would be no more than a vast uninhabitable ice field.

In 1924, the Germans Wegener and Koppen gave paleoclimatology (the study of past climates) a considerable boost. That same year, the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky - originator of the biosphere concept - was the first person to raise the question of the potential impact of deforestation on climate. His message went unheeded. Although some scientists were now starting to wonder about man’s relationship with his environment, the prevailing ideology, rooted in the first industrial revolution, was that scientific development must serve to harness nature in the service of ‘human progress’.

The turning point

Things began to change after the Second World War. The lack of the necessary means to observe phenomena and collect data were the main obstacles to a scientific approach and awareness of environmental problems. The creation of new international research structures, such as the World Meteorological Office (WMO) in 1951, under the aegis of the United Nations, began to make up for this deficiency.

On the occasion of the first International year of geophysics, it was decided to set up a global system for earth observation and the measurement of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. 1957 was also the year when the Russian Sputnik was launched into space, heralding a new era in which man would begin to observe his blue planet from the outside. Since then space has proved an invaluable observatory in the service of the environment.

The key initiative which enabled science to instil upon the world’s political community the importance of global environmental issues was the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. This resulted in the launch of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), an international structure of growing influence which, 20 years later, organised the Rio Conference and is now behind the Johannesburg Summit.


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The IPCC

It was just 15 years ago that the world became aware of the serious threat of climate change resulting from human activity. Under the auspices of the WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a vast observation and analysis network was set up in the form of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The opinions of this intergovernmental research body - which collects all the latest data and models produced by teams of meteorologists, oceanologists, experts on atmospheric chemistry, and economists from all over the world - have since become an essential reference to which policy-makers are paying close attention. The impact of the IPCC’s work was the catalyst for the principal policy decisions taken at the Rio Summit (1992) and subsequently laid down in the 1997 Kyoto Convention on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

http://www.ipcc.ch/index.html

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Envisat's clean image - the melting of ice sheets, the effect of acid rain on forests, the hole in the ozone layer, the build-up of toxic gases in the atmosphere… The environment is now under close surveillance, thanks to the latest and most advanced Earth observation satellite. The pictures it sends to scientists enable them to take the pulse of the planet 'in real time'.  ©ESA

Envisat’s clean image – the melting of ice sheets, the effect of acid rain on forests, the hole in the ozone layer, the build-up of toxic gases in the atmosphere… The environment is now under close surveillance, thanks to the latest and most advanced Earth observation satellite. The pictures it sends to scientists enable them to take the pulse of the planet ‘in real time’.
©ESA

 


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