The nugget of New Zealand news goes around the world 110 years after its publication

A 1912 report in the Rodney & Otamatea Times is shared everywhere. Is it real, where does it come from and why is it so popular?

On Wednesday, August 14, in the winter of 1912, a reader of the Warkworth-based Rodney & Otamatea Times (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette) who had shelled out the thruppence for the paper and made it to the seventh of its eight pages, could have skimmed through the third column and arrived at “Science Notes and News”, a collection of short articles from around the world. Beneath excerpts about a very deep hole in Germany, nickel cooking utensils, and a new “jumping machine” that not only “turns the rope but records the number of jumps” came a one-paragraph report that more than a century later has achieved a status the very description of which would have baffled its reader and writer. It went viral.

“COAL CONSUMPTION AFFECTING THE CLIMATE”, was the title. “The world’s kilns now burn about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year,” he began. “When burned, by uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. This tends to make the air a more effective cover for the earth and raise its temperature. The effect can be considerable in a few centuries.

And that was it. Science Notes and News tirelessly tackled other hot topics, such as a new tunnel in Russia and the goodness of asparagus in light of “the awful smell that using this food causes in one bodily excretions”.

But it’s the succinct, pragmatic 1912 nugget on carbon and climate that has survived, or been reborn, as it nears its 110th birthday, shared by tens of thousands and seen by millions on social media online. response to this:

British Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who recently opposed plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria, has joined the party.

They were not, however, the first to unearth the August 14, 1912 edition of the Rodney & Otamatea Times (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette). The same 67-word report went around the digital world in 2016, in 2018 and even in 2021.

The report is genuine, certainly, and has passed every fact-checking examiner it has faced. You can read it yourself on New Zealand’s best website, Past papers. But, sadly, it wasn’t the work of an assiduous Warkworth reporter. He had previously appeared in UK and Australian titles. The whole page, in fact, was published four weeks earlier by the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal in New South Wales: holes, tunnels, jumping machine, coal consumption, everything. Even the layout and typography are identical, suggesting the plate may have been shipped to the Tasman after they were done with it.

This version of the story also had its viral moments, but not on the scale of the Rodney & Otamatea Times. A 2016 Facebook post on the Braidwood Museum’s Dispatch and Journal report “reached over 180,000 people”, according to the Braidwood Times (Dispatch folded in 1958). “The most common comment has been ‘Wow,'” a Braidwood Historical Society committee member told the newspaper.

Whether Braidwood, Rodney or elsewhere, the words of the article have since been traced by science writer Alex Kasprak return to Popular mechanics magazine, then published outside Chicago, and its March 1912 edition, where they are found in the caption of an image illustrating an article on the “Remarkable Times of 1911”.

Even in 1911, a remarkable weather year, the central tenets of climate science that endure today had existed for some time. In 1824, the French mathematician Joseph Fourier calculated figures which suggested that our planet, given its distance from the sun, should be colder, and laid the existence of a blanket-like layer in the atmosphere. In 1856, the American scientist Eunice Foote published a paper this identified the predominant ingredient in this heat-absorbing blanket: carbon dioxide.

Given all of this, why has the Rodney & Otamatea Times cut caught the social media tide? It has the advantage of conciseness and clarity, clearly telling how long our species has been experiencing global warming – long before denial and inaction became a topic of discussion – in keeping with the observation by Benjamin Franklin on the failures to address the dangers of lead despite six decades of evidence: “You will watch with concern how long useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and put into practice. As for the Rodney masthead, the fact that it emanates from a largely isolated country at the end of the world only underlines this. And even when that’s not quite true, the idea of ​​New Zealand as a progressive pioneer prevails.

More mundanely, it may just be a matter of right time, right place – and it appears to have been a New Zealand group, the Sustainable Business Network, which was the first share the social media report, in 2016. “Whether something goes viral on social media generally depends on factors such as timing, novelty, irreverence or use of humor, ease of sharing, public understanding of the message etc,” said Alex Beattie, a media and climate change specialist based at the Center for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington. “But there is no exact science or proven formula.”

‘IIf you scour news archives and scientific journals, many of these warnings date back to the 1800s,” said Rebecca Priestley, climate change historian and associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington.

She joins the dots between an example from the Christchurch press in 1957, entitled “Threat From Melting Of Polar Ice Caps”, and this week’s political announcements in New Zealand. The news report ‘warns of global warming driving sea level rise’, Priesley said, ‘but only now, in 2022 – will we be able to see and measure the effects of sea level rise. sea ​​level rise and projecting what the next few decades will bring – that we are really starting to take sea level rise seriously and plan for it with the measures outlined in the national adaptation plan that has just been published.

Priestley continued: “When we see old news stories like this, it’s important not to blame ourselves for not responding to climate change sooner. These early warnings and hypotheses have led to decades of scientific research that have provided us with evidence of why, how and how fast our global climate is changing. And that evidence is now clear. The first IPCC report was published in 1990, and the evidence for climate change has grown stronger with each report. »

The latest report, released in April this year, was accompanied by a press release that read: “The evidence is clear: the time to act is now. We can halve emissions by 2030,” Priestley noted. “But those of us who encourage change and try to implement it are truly aware that there are companies, governments and individuals with such vested interests in the status quo that they oppose the action against climate change.

Priestley, whose doctorate is in the history of science, admitted to finding old reporting on climate change fascinating, but urged us to face the right way. “The only thing we can change is the future. The climate is changing, the oceans are warming, the ice caps are melting, but what’s next is not inevitable, it’s up to us, collectively,” he said. she said, “We need to do everything we can to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, because two degrees of warming is not as bad as 3 degrees of warming, and three degrees of warming is not is not as bad as four degree warming Etc. As Extinction Rebellion’s call says, “the science is clear, our future is not.”

As for the Rodney & Otamatea Time (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette), it was acquired by Fairfax in 2005 and continues today, as the shortened Rodney Times, published weekly on a Thursday. He noted his own moment in the social media spotlight in 2016, remarking, half-ironically: “The Rodney Times has always provided insightful content to readers. In fact, we even predicted climate change over 100 years ago!

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