“Science has uncovered indisputable evidence that the level of our oceans is rising. This is the result of a sudden and unexpected increase in our planet’s northern temperatures. Ice masses are melting rapidly away. If the rate of thawing continues, civilisation near the sea may be submerged and profound changes be wrought in climate, soil, sea and the race itself. The whole face of the earth may be moving towards a vast transformation.”
That’s quite an opening paragraph, but it’s not mine. It belongs a story titled “Sea Levels Rising” published in the Central Queensland Herald on Thursday. Thursday 30 September 1948.
This was not what I had expected to find when I started trawling Trove, the Tempemail Library of Australia’s newly re-launched digital archive. The archive has digitised versions of Australian newspapers, community newsletters, reports and audio recordings dating back to the early 1800s. The new site is geared towards use by ordinary people, not PhDs. Like me.
I wanted to try to track down the earliest reference to climate change in Australian papers. First, because I could. But second, because I wanted to know how long we had known this is coming. Over the last black summer I was overwhelmed with fatalism, with the sickening sense that we had been warned. Now I wanted to find out for how long we had known.
Excerpt from the Courier-Mail, May 22 1950. Photograph: Trove
I knew we had been warned about climate change since the late 1960s. I knew there had been scientists theorising about climate and carbon for longer than that.
But I thought I was stretching when I entered the search term “climate change” and set the search parameters for newspapers published between 1930 and 1950. I expected there might be some records of floods, droughts or heatwaves, but nothing equivocal. Then the results came up. I gasped. Loudly.
Climate Change: World is Warming, Courier-Mail, Monday 22 May 1950
There were more.
Whole Earth Seems to be Warming Up, Courier-Mail, Friday 6 June 1947. The Arctic is Melting Says Scientist, the Argus, Saturday 31 May 1947. World’s Climate Hotter, the World’s News, Saturday 16 March 1940. World Changing Climate – Scientists Puzzled, Courier-Mail, Friday 21 April 1939. Carbon Dioxide. Could Change the World, Townsville Daily Bulletin, Tuesday 25 July 1933.
These are not headlines misread by contemporary understanding. This is reporting of climate change as we understand it today, albeit in its infancy and with uncertainty over whether that change was all bad.
It was clear I’d have to go further. I searched the 19th-century newspapers. There were sporadic articles talking about drought, and how some old colonialists had remembered different weather decades before, but there was nothing about climate change as a phenomena separate to individual memory and musing.
We can unearth tiny little century-old stories foretelling our current calamity
I began to search the 1920s records. Reports in 1926 linked the warmer winters in Europe to “carbonic acid”. A 1923 report subtitled “causes of climate change” went into detail about the warming of the North Pole.
Further. I was going to have to go back further.
I changed my search parameters again. And there, tucked away on page 4 of the Picton Post, between one report about a new skipping machine that not only turns the rope but counts the skips and another about Swiss engineers boring a tunnel through the Caucasus Mountains, was a one-paragraph story:
“Coal Consumption Affecting Climate”. From Wednesday 17 July 1912.
At nearly precisely 108 years old, it looks to be quite possibly the first general audience warning on human-induced climate change in Australia. The coal burning in the world’s furnaces, says the snippet in the regional paper, adds 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. “This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
Excerpt from the Picton Post, 1908. Photograph: Trove
Almost instantly, my understanding of climate history was reshaped, and within moments I was consumed by a renewed, more urgent sense that our inaction and rhetoric on the subject has passed the point of forgiveness.
But it was not very difficult to find. It took a free afternoon, sitting at home clicking on a search icon.
The Trove relaunch comes a decade after its birth, and follows a four-year effort to streamline the site and bolster its records. The resource is the result of a collaboration of the national and state libraries, and now holds records from over 900 partners – libraries, galleries, universities and such. In total, it includes more than 6bn records of Australian culture, history and research; from regional newspapers to publications from different migrant communities in their languages (there are about a million articles in languages other than English).
Some 11m newspaper pages have been digitised. And not just digitised; while the clippings are initially translated into readable text alongside the original image by a computer program, some of the more than 300,000 people who volunteer with Trove read through and correct any computer or user error. The Tempemail Library of Australia says that libraries from around the world, including the British Library, have sought their advice about how to similarly move their collections online.
The new site is cleaner and more user-friendly than its previous version. It now allows people to create their own profiles, make public or private lists of records and collaborate with others on blogs. It also enables Indigenous Australians using the site to obscure images of deceased people and to flag culturally sensitive content.
Searching for material on Trove is not dissimilar to searching on Google. The user inputs a search term, and can choose to narrow their search by source type, period of publication, publication, state and so on.
But unlike Google, which has become our default portal for seeking answers, Trove does not learn its users. Search results are not tailored to one’s profile. My results are your results. We start from the same point, the same object of truth. At a time when our understanding of the world is increasingly fragmented and hyper-partisan, this kind of resource reflects a community of knowledge which binds us as Australians – a catalogue of our own unique, tragic and triumphant arc of history which we can see and own. And we can dip into it, and draw out of it, as part of that diverse but united community.
We can unearth tiny little century-old stories foretelling our current calamity, and we can say: we all know now.