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James Watt, at work in the small University of Glasgow workshop where he basically invented the fossil fuel era

I am trying to imagine getting tired of reading Bill McKibben’s constant flow of commentary and news, even though most of it is dismal. It would be like getting tired of paying attention to the environment, especially climate issues. Yesterday’s observations from Glasgow are particularly rewarding, and I hope you will consider subscribing to his newsletter:

Glasgow: where climate wreckage began

And where it’s definitely not going to end

I spent part of the morning wandering the gorgeous Victorian courtyards of the University of Glasgow (they would seem familiar to you—it’s where they shot the exteriors for the Harry Potter films), trying to find the university chapel where I was supposed to give a lecture. Instead of that august sanctuary, I stumbled across the James Watt building—and with it a poignant set of reminders about just how quickly we’ve managed to bring the world to the edge of ruin.

James Watt was a “mathematical instrument maker” at the University in the 1750s and 1760s—not a professor, but a guy who fixed stuff in a workshop. First he spent some years fixing up some astronomical equipment, and then he worked on some instruments for Joseph Black, the man who literally discovered carbon dioxide. And then a professor of natural philosophy handed him a model of the Newcomen steam engine “in need of repair.” That first engine, invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, burned coal in order to pump water from coal mines so more coal could in fact be mined. But it didn’t work very well at all—certainly not well enough to spark an industrial revolution. In the process of repairing it, Watt figured out how to radically improve it (supposedly the thought came to him as he wandered over Glasgow Green). The details—essentially, a separate condenser—hardly matter; it worked incredibly well, and the rest is history.

Neither Watt nor Joseph Black, of course, had any idea that carbon dioxide would be a problem. (It was Eunice Foote, working almost a hundred years later, who first found that carbon dioxide trapped heat efficiently, and presciently noted “an atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.” And since she was a woman, a man had to read her paper to the American scientific conference where it was presented). We can’t blame them for the climate crisis.

But we can note how very very quickly we’ve undermined the physical stability of the earth. It took almost no time—barely ten human generations—to burn enough fossil fuel in variants of Watt’s machine to melt the Arctic, to slow the Gulf Stream, to perturb the jet stream. In fact, the first century didn’t do much damage, nor perhaps the first half of the second—in 1988, when James Hansen issued the first public warnings about the climate crisis, the atmosphere was still about 350 parts per million co2, which is about where scientists draw the danger line. We’ve produced more co2 in the 33 years since than in all of human history before. Even the “abrupt” climate changes that have marked the five previous mass extinctions played out over much longer time periods—it took many thousands of years for volcanic eruptions and underground coal fires to burn off the massive quantities of hydrocarbons necessary to trigger those changes. Watt’s invention was more efficient by far; V8 engines, in sufficient quantity, far outperformed volcanoes…

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