Prof Ian M. Arbon CEng, CEnv. has been/is a Visiting Professor in sustainable energy, successively at Newcastle University, University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde since 2006.  He has been lecturing on and teaching the subject, internationally, for more than 20 years and taught an MSc module on ‘Energy Policies, Politics & Ethics’ at Newcastle University from 2006-2019.

He shares his thoughts in this article for

Some unknowledgeable and misguided people have recently claimed that James Watt, with his famous improvements to the steam engine, in the early days of Industrial Revolution, was somehow the “Father of Climate Change”.  While this is a classic example of historical ‘revisionism’, it is remote from the truth and demonstrates a worrying lack of knowledge of technical, societal or even historical facts!

  1. James Watt did not invent the steam engine!  Newcomen’s engine of 1712, which Watt ‘improved’ in 1769 had already been around for over half a century.  Watt’s amazing contribution, particularly the separate condenser, had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the steam engine between three and four times, not by a small increment!  Improving energy efficiency is one of the ways engineers are combatting climate change today – so Watt was 250 years ahead of his time!
  2. While Watt’s inventions were significant catalysts to the development and success of the Industrial Revolution, it took many dedicated engineers and businessmen to achieve its success; to single out one person as ‘responsible’ for the Industrial Revolution is inappropriate.  It is also worth remembering that almost every technological development which supports our comfortable lives today is a product of the Industrial Revolution – from machinery to medication, transport to refrigeration.  One cannot simply miss out each important step in the process.
  3. James Watt was not responsible for the rapid and widespread use of the fossil fuels that have contributed so strongly to climate change.  Early steam engines often used firewood as fuel and only moved to using coal due to its energy denseness and (crucially) its relative cheapness.  Then, as now, the main focus in the UK was on cheapness in energy production and consumption.  It is much more logical and credible to argue that it is the UK’s obsession with cheap energy that has been the major cause of our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions; indeed, all of the major political parties in the UK have spent the past decade vying with each other to ‘reduce energy costs’, rather than deliver better energy policies.
  4. The people who make such irresponsible claims about Watt being the Father of Climate Change tend to be the same as those who are currently claiming a ‘Climate Crisis’, or a ‘Climate Emergency’.  Unfortunately, these tend to be the self-same people who have been responsible for ignoring all of the evidence on the subject over the past 30 years!  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first landmark report in 1990; this made the clear connection between human behaviour and GHG emissions.  So, the ‘Climate Emergency’ was actually 30 years ago (long before Greta Thunberg was born!) but most of us missed it, ignored it, continued our energy wasteful behaviour, prevaricated on the issue and then finally declared an ‘emergency’ when it is obviously too late to reverse climate change!
  5. Even today’s radical proposed climate change mitigation (CCM) measures, while apparently “ambitious” are actually only tinkering with the problem.  The widespread trivialisation of the issue by using such terms as ‘carbon emissions’, decarbonisation’, ‘zero carbon’ (Greta Thunberg recently sailed the Atlantic Ocean in a ‘zero-carbon’ boat made almost entirely from carbon-fibre!) and so on, do not address the core issues of GHGs; they focus on the wrong targets and almost invariably ignore one of the major direct causes of climate change – the inexorable rise of the global human population. In 1990, global population was 5.3bn; this year, it is predicted to reach over 7.8bn and all these people want to use increasing amounts of energy!  As my American friends would say, “go figure”!

No, in no way can the facile and uninformed claim that “James Watt was the Father of Climate Change” be justified.  The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that all of us in the human race are the fathers and mothers of climate change – we have no-one else to blame!

Prof Ian M. Arbon CEng, CEnv., January 2020

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