David Nightingale: Arrhenius & Greta

Sep 8, 2019

Svante Arrhenius, ca. 1910
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

This essay is about two Swedish people – one who has already shown youthfully strong determination to benefit humanity; and one who first benefited humanity a while back. The younger one is Greta Thunberg, 16, who will address the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019 (as she did also in 2018) and the other – a distant and famous relative – would be 160 if he were still alive.  

Looking at the two of them, one can’t help suspecting there must be some small DNA connection.

Greta’s relative, Nobel Prize winner Svante Arrhenius, was the first to use physical chemistry to calculate how much the earth’s temperature would rise with increases in carbon dioxide. He concluded, from his studies in the 1890s, that the burning of wood and coal, if extensive enough, could cause global warming. But his purely academic interest at the time was in earth’s ice ages, and what had caused them. He estimated that an increase in CO2 from burning might prevent a future ice age – which he thought could be beneficial, suggesting that with a warmer climate more crops could be grown for the world’s ever-increasing population!

Greta Thunberg of course knows that CO2 proliferation, as her distant relative said, is indeed causing temperatures to rise, but way too much! What we are pouring into the atmosphere now is endangering our future. After the heat waves and wildfires of 2018, she began her ‘school strike for climate,’ sitting outside the Swedish government buildings for 3 weeks on Fridays instead of going to her 9th grade classes. This went viral, and many thousands of young people did the same thing, with worldwide ‘Friday school strikes’ being held in many cities.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is 70, endorsed the school strikes, saying that “my generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. It is up to youth to rescue the planet.”

Of course, there have been critics. Breitbart London called her a “brainwashed child in pigtails pushing a hard-left anti-capitalist agenda,” and a spokesman for the Heartland Institute said “Greta is being exploited by the adults around her to push the climate delusion.”

Greta is autistic. She speaks bluntly and only when necessary. She refuses to eat meat or travel by air if she can avoid it. She has been in contact with AOC (our young Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez behind the Green New Deal), and they have interviewed each other, sharing their concern for our planet. AOC posted a warm welcome when Greta arrived by sea in NY at the end of August.

The phrase “Make America Greta Again” has been used by some of Greta’s supporters, and tee-shirts are sometimes worn with the logo “Make The World Greta Again.”

I don’t know to what extent she has studied her illustrious relative’s work in physical chemistry; I hope she has. Arrhenius studied many topics, but his much-used Arrhenius Equation (concerning chemical reaction rates as a function of temperature) involves mathematics and the exponential function. Thus, as she and others work to turn the minds of those legislators who don’t wish to think about the problem, I also hope she never loses sight of her own science and math, for this would make her claims stronger still.

Meanwhile, Greta and her globe-wide protagonists have all been born into a world not of their making, a scary world that many of their elders continue to abuse. “Turn round now,” they are saying, “we want to live.”

So bless you Greta. I belong, unavoidably, to the class of “old white men,” but you, with your peers, are absolutely right.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

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