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The industrial revolution and climate change

This article introduces the role of the industrial revolution in not only causing the climate crisis, but in entrenching climate injustices.
Miners working at the Pniówek coal mine.
© Creative commons (Source: Alain Schroeder / Climate Visuals Countdown)

The science of climate change revolves around the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The concentration of these gases greatly determines the earth’s temperature. Until about 10,000 years ago, this number bounced greatly, giving an unpredictable and risk-laden planet. Once that number stabilised, seasons and weather became predictable, and humans prospered. Every human advancement in the last 10,000 years was only made possible because of the stabilisation of concentrated atmospheric gases. In this period, the global temperature barely changed by more than +/- 1C. 

But since the mid-1800’s, with the industrial revolutions that were happening, predominantly in Europe and the United States, there began a severe increase in the release of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the planet’s atmosphere. This period marks the start of growing planetary instability in the world’s climate. The stable concentration of atmospheric gases changed, prompting the start of  increasingly unstable atmospheric, and thus planetary conditions.

Through analysing measures of climate such as iron cores, tree rings, glacier lengths, pollen remains and oceanic sediments, as well as the earth’s changing orbit around the sun, scientists have found that the earth’s temperature has been drastically changing in the last two-hundred years and is continuing to exponentially increase. It is these chemical changes in the earth’s atmosphere that are causing more frequent extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Increases in concentrations of the key greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – known as the ‘greenhouse effect’ has caused the earth’s temperature to rise. These concentrations have increased significantly, due to human activities. 

Greenhouse gases

Carbon dioxide (CO2): Human activities currently release over 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by more than 40 percent since pre-industrial times, from approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 18th century to 414 ppm in 2020. Human activities like deforestation and fossil fuel use are the primary drivers of the increase in atmospheric CO2. Analysis has found that unless the earth drastically reduces it’s use of, and dependency on, fossil fuels, the 1.5C target will be impossible. 

Methane (CH4): Human activities increased methane concentrations during most of the 20th century to more than 2.5 times the pre-industrial level, from approximately 722 parts per billion (ppb) in the 18th century to 1,867 ppb in 2019. Fracking for natural gas, deforestation and coal mines are the primary causes of rising methane concentrations. 

Nitrous oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide concentrations have risen approximately 20 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, with a relatively rapid increase toward the end of the 20th century. Nitrous oxide concentrations have increased from a pre-industrial level of 270 ppb to 332 ppb in 2019. Agriculture accounts for around a quarter of human-caused emissions, but most of these emissions are not from CO2 but nitrous oxide – which is about 300 times more damaging than CO2. 

Humanity has disrupted earth’s nitrogen cycle. Before the rise of modern agriculture, most plant-available nitrogen on farms came from compost, manure and nitrogen-fixing microbes which take nitrogen gas (N2) and convert it to ammonium, a soluble nutrient that plants can take up through their roots. That all changed in the early 1900s with the debut of the Haber-Bosch process that provided an industrial method to produce massive amounts of ammonia fertiliser. This synthetic fertiliser boosted crop yields and helped to feed people all over the world, but at a cost. The majority of fertiliser applied to soils isn’t used up by crops and so the excess is released into the air or as run off from fields, polluting waterways. The damage of N2O to biodiversity combined with its high emissions have shaped global calls for an overhaul of the agricultural system. 

The Industrial Revolution

The changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases are a result of continually growing industrialisation and economic growth across the Global North. Changes in agricultural practices, urbanisation and a new reliance on fossil fuels both drove the industrial revolution, and were a result of it.

Slavery provided the raw material for industrial growth, mainly in the Atlantic economy (UK/Europe – US). This economy was the catalyst for one of the biggest changes in modern economic history.

Economic growth in the Global North was driven by cotton production, urbanisation and export orientated industrialisation. The focus on exports was made possible through the continuing exploitation of (mainly Britain’s) colonies and the use of enslaved peoples*, predominantly in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. The industrial revolution transformed economies that were based on agriculture and hand-crafts into economies based on large-scale industry, mechanised manufacturing, and factories. The first industrial revolution began in in the UK in the 1700s and early 1800s. The American Industrial Revolution followed in the late 19th century and was a key engine of economic growth in the U.S. 

Key features of the industrial revolution: 

  • Products made in factories rather than domestically 
  • The use of machinery
  • Higher production yields
  • Exploitation and mass export of industrial crops (like cotton and wool) 
  • Urbanisation
  • Industrial work was valued more than agricultural (leading to lower wages for those living rurally and working off the land)

Due to the Industrial Revolution’s advancements, inventions such as the first combustible engine, incandescent light bulb, and the modern assembly line used in manufacturing changed the way people worked, lived and travelled. Life became comfortable for many though living conditions for workers remained dire. Despite increases in what we now understand as GDP, the industrialisation process marked the start of a great inequality in wealth and living conditions, both between countries and within them. 

Despite the advancements in society, the changes were predicated on exploiting populations and land in the Global south. This led to an increase in living conditions and wealth for most in the UK, Europe and the United States – leading to the idea of ‘more developed nations’ (the beginning of ‘development’ as an indicator of prosperity). 

It is because of this process of industrialisation that there are widespread calls for climate reparations (discussed in week 2 of this course). The very process that has given the UK, United States and Europe their high standards of living and economic growth are the very processes that exploited the global south, enslaved millions and ‘under-developed’ the countries that are now so vulnerable to climate change. Alongside a reparative justice movement, there are calls for the measures of development to change (i.e. with a greater focus on sustainability and equity). We return to this issue of development in week 4 of this course.

*In The Half Has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist explains the importance of using the term enslaved peoples rather than slaves. Today, most historians speak of enslaved people instead of slaves. This language separates a person’s identity from his/her circumstance.


© Ben Murphy, University of Glasgow
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Introduction to Climate Justice and Equity

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