Quoting from a clearly low-quality journal:

In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell wrote. The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect", and "The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house." Bell went on to also advocate the use of alternate energy sources, such as solar energy.
Latake, Pawar, Ranveer (2015), The Greenhouse Effect and Its Impacts on Environment, IJIRCT (pdf).

It's been quoted in other places: NYFN; Conservative Stewards; Recover Out Loud; PlanB.earth (pdf); Earth Network. Different sources give slightly different quotes. I didn't find a definitive source.

Question: Did Alexander Graham Bell write "the unchecked burning of fossil fuels would have a sort of greenhouse effect" in 1917 (or words to this effect)?

  • 1
    Independent of whether this quote is true or not, the notion of a carbon-fueled greenhouse effect was known early in the 20th century. Dec 28 '19 at 16:50
  • 3
    @JamesReinstateMonicaPolk this narrative that we've known of climate change for 100+ years is becoming increasingly ridiculous. Sure, a handful of technical people were aware of such a possibility, but this gradual rewriting of history really understates the complexity of global climate and how much our understandings of mathematics, measurement, computation, science, nature, and the science of nature had to evolve before we could even begin to confirm such a suspicion. I feel like this comment is relevant because the typical logical step seems to be "someone knew about it->we were lied to" Dec 28 '19 at 21:34
  • 2
    @user2647513 another typical “logical step” seems to be “some climate scientists in the 1970s predicted cooling rather than warming ⇒ all climate scientists are just an opportunistic bunch of liars, and predict some different nonsense every decade depending on current political agenda”. (Which is refuted by the presence of clear works on CO₂-based AGW from pre-1900, and the fact that those cooling predictions were off-mainstream already in the 70s – but both that and your comment aren't really on topic here.) Dec 29 '19 at 23:53
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout, in the 1970s (esp. early 1970s) global cooling was the most popularly believed direction for climate change: Time, Newsweek, Washington Post, Science Magazine, National Academy of Sciences, National Science Board, World Meteorological Organization. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… And indeed it was supported by the data, though the trend turned out to be only temporary. Dec 30 '19 at 19:11
  • 1
    @PaulDraper most popular perhaps amongst the mass media audiences, but not amongst climate scientists. journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/2008BAMS2370.1 Dec 30 '19 at 20:48

TL;DR: Alexander Graham Bell was concerned with fossil fuels running out, but not climate change per se.

Bell was concerned about the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels — “What shall we do when we have no more coal and oil?” So in a 1917 article for National Geographic Magazine, he urged the development of renewable ethanol fuel from agricultural waste, corn stalks, and saw-mill dust (pg 133).

In relation to coal and oil, the worlds annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance to the end of supply.


We need never fear the exhaustion of our present fuel supplies so long as we can produce an annual crop of alcohol to an extent desired.

I cannot find record of his concerning himself with climate change beyond this.

However, Bell didn’t coin the term “greenhouse effect.” That appears to have been the English physicist John Henry Poynting in 1909:

But he pays hardly any attention to the "blanketing effect," or, as I prefer to call it, the "greenhouse effect" of the atmosphere.

  • 13
    The question is: "Did Alexander Graham Bell write "the unchecked burning of fossil fuels would have a sort of greenhouse effect" in 1917 (or words to this effect)?" I don't see this answered in your question.
    – Mast
    Dec 29 '19 at 14:10

The source is Bell's great-grandson Edwin S. Grosvenor who coauthored the 1997 book Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man who Invented the Telephone where on page 275 he quotes Bell as writing:

While we would lose some of the sun's heat, we would gain some of the earth's heat which is normally radiated into space. ... I am inclined to think we would have some sort of greenhouse effect. . . . The net result is that the green-house becomes a hot-house.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .