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The scientists:
(En)nobled explorers in breeches to nobel prizes

A sprinkling of the scientific minds that have shaped our thinking, from the late eighteenth century to the present. As Reuters put it, ‘at the beginning of every disaster movie there’s a scientist being ignored...’


The most famous scientist most people have never heard of, Humboldt effectively predicted climate change in 1800. No one has more things named after them.

– Alexander von Humboldt

He “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history,” yet few of us have heard of him.

– Thomas Midgley
The SCIENTISTS rectangle

Some consider him ‘the greatest man to have ever lived,’ that his high-yield wheat saved millions of lives. Others think he cost them, and fuelled a reliance on fertilisers.

– Norman Borlaug

Alexander von Humboldt

Ultimate renaissance man and chatterbox

The most famous scientist most people have never heard of, Humboldt effectively predicted climate change in 1800. No one has more things named after them

Trekking, late 18th century style, through South America, the US and Russia, Humboldt reflected that humans were having a pretty ropey impact on the planet through deforestation, ruthless irrigation and by “the great masses of steam and gas” from industry. He was the first person to make the link and saw all life on earth as interconnected. Pretty revolutionary at the time.

George Perkins Marsh

‘Quite busy’ should be his epitaph.

America’s first environmentalist, he was also a lawyer, newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician and diplomat, and spoke over 20 languages. He saw how quickly America changed in the 19th century, as she tore down her forests and polluted her rivers, and had a hunch on the greenhouse effect in 1847.

Building on Humboldt’s work, he saw the deforestation as behind torrential flooding and depleted soil, that man was too greedy for water, hunted animals to extinction and over-fished. He blamed hungry crops for growing consumers e.g. cotton and tobacco, as well as meat (the animals needed so much land).

He noted that when the hat fashion in Paris turned from fur to silk, decimated beaver populations in Canada began to recover, and when American farmers targeted birds to protect their crops, they were plagued with swarms of insects. He argued that protecting the environment was vital for the sake of a country’s economy.

John Muir

America’s most famous (and slightly bonkers) naturalist

Yes, he did write a love letter to a sequoia with ink made from its sap, but it was partly out of grief for seeing so many ancient trees cut down for timber.

He argued that not only did you need national parks (to stop all those woodchoppers hacking away at the landscape) but that the rules in those areas had to be watched and enforced. Whilst Humboldt and Marsh did the underlying thinking, Muir got it onto the political agenda. He was a household name in his time and took US presidents on camping trips. He started one of the first real environmental protests - against the city of San Francisco when it applied to dam the catchily named Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite, to help relieve its water shortages. He lost, but it made man versus nature a national debate.

Norman Borlaug

Divisive daddy of the Green Revolution

In the US Capitol his 7-foot bronze statue, surrounded by those of white alabaster, is of a friendly looking farmer - open collar, hat tipped back, notebook in hand, looking out pensively across the room. Some consider him ‘the greatest man to have ever lived,’ that his high-yield wheat saved millions of lives. Others think he cost them, and fuelled a reliance on fertilisers.

His (Nobel peace prize-winning) heart, though, was in the right place; having been scarred by seeing the hunger of the Great Depression first-hand, in his 20s he set about waging a one-man war on hunger.

He endlessly cross-bred different wheat varieties, in an attempt to find one which could resist stem rust (the scourge of crop farmers), produce two harvests a year (instead of just one), had a good yield and a short stocky stem (so it didn’t blow over in the wind.) Once he’d found his strain, he set about experimenting on the most effective ways to plant the seed and care for the crop - how deep, how far apart, how much water and fertiliser. Mexico, followed by Pakistan and India, imported his seeds and methods. Their yields trebled.

So what is there to be negative about? Some argue that the green revolution drove a reliance on fertilisers and large scale intensive farming, at the expense of small farmers, mixed systems and biodiversity, and that it overhauled rural landscapes and ecosystems.

Thomas Midgley

A one-man environmental disaster

At Standard Oil’s headquarters at 26 Broadway, on 30th October 1924, Thomas Midgely took out a container of tetraethyl lead in front of journalists at a press conference. He washed his hands with it, then poured some on a handkerchief and held it to his nose, taking deep breaths. Yes quite a few people working with the new fuel were in hospital, or in fact dead, but despite that, he insisted, it was absolutely safe.

Midgely has “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history,” yet few of us have heard of him. "A one-man environmental disaster” according to the New Scientist.

In the 1920’s he worked on developing a cheap fuel that stopped the annoying ‘engine knocking’ sound that had bothered drivers for years. The answer was adding lead. It also made cars more powerful. Millions of cars banging out lead fumes is not good. It was finally banned in the US in the 1970s. A scientific debate has raged since the 1990s over whether a drop in crime can be partly attributed to the ban. The theory is based on research suggesting lead in the air impaired children’s brain development (specifically the part that controls behaviour and mood) for decades, contributing to higher crime rates.

He’s also responsible for CFCs, those very naughty little refrigerant and aerosol gases that break down ozone and, again, were banned in the 1990s.

James Hansen

Climate science daddy

On the 23rd June 1988, in the midst of one of the worst heat waves on record, James Hansen testified to a congressional committee that climate change was here, it was getting worse and that humans cause it. He told them “to stop waffling… and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” It was a watershed moment for climate science.

The Cold War was soon over and there was diplomatic room for global cooperation - and headroom for a new global apocalypse. By 1990 the newly formed IPCC had published its first report; in 1992 the first climate summit was held in Rio de Janeiro and the UNFCCC was established. Global warming had begun to climb the political agenda (even if we were not yet anywhere near consensus).

Hansen’s research has focused on man-made climate change since the 1970s and he is still one of the world’s most influential climate change scientists. His early models were scarily accurate - e.g. that the Arctic would warm quickest and that heat would concentrate over land rather than the oceans.

More recently he’s warned that the removal of some pollutants, e.g. sulphate aerosols, may actually speed up warming (they sit on clouds and help them reflect more sun back out, thus having a cooling effect).

His granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, is one of 21 kids suing the US government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by failing to take adequate action to address the human causes of climate change.

Katherine Hayhoe

Getting people to their ‘oh sh*t’ moment

On a quest to get the climate change penny to drop, for as many people as possible, and for it to spark action. She’s first and foremost an atmospheric scientist, but she’s taken a different tact (and one obviously dear to our hearts); how scientists communicate about climate change, and how data makes people behave.

A Canadian, she and her husband got positions at Texas Tech in 2005. Through lecturing and attending church meetings, it hit her how political and divisive the subject of climate change was at that time in the US. In the hundreds of climate talks she has given, across the red-blue divide, she says the two most frequent questions are ‘what gives you hope’ and ‘how do I talk to my [X] about climate change?’

She believes the issue was less divisive in the 1990s than it has been the last decade, and that it’s not the facts that people don’t buy - it’s a fear that dealing with them will mean life won’t be quite as good. Her research divides people into groups: the opposed (think climate change is for liberal crackpots), the doubtful, the disengaged, the cautious, the concerned and the alarmed. Only 7% of Americans are in the first group, 50% are in the second two groups. Her main message? Talk about it.

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