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The Four Men Who Caused The Majority Of Global Warming

Global Warming and Responsibility

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just four men, who between them invented machines responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age.

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Left to right: Frank Whittle, Rudolf Diesel, Nicolaus August Otto and Charles Algernon Parsons

Prime movers, machines that turn thermal energy into electrical or mechanical energy play a fundamental role in the global economy. Without these you would not be able to get from London to New York in seven hours, ride the subway to work, transport your iPhone from Shenzen to Los Angeles, or even read this sentence. And the world of prime movers is dominated by a small number of machines: steam turbine, diesel engine, petrol engine and gas turbine. Not only are these machines of great economic importance, they are responsible for almost all of the carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and transport.

The steam turbine was invented by Charles Algernon Parsons in Newcastle, England in 1884. These are incredible machines, with the biggest capable of providing enough electricity to power a couple of million homes. They also provide the majority of the planet’s electricity. In 1900 the cheapest way to generate electricity was to burn coal and use a steam turbine. Things obviously have not changed much. When China started to build over 50 gigawatts worth of electrical capacity each year they decided to do it almost entirely with coal and steam turbines.  And the carbon dioxide produced by one these machines is impressive. Running at typical capacity factors, a 1 GW machine will produce five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The phenomenal growth of carbon emissions in China is very much a steam turbin driven affair. And this is all the result of the work of Parsons.

Without container shipping the modern globalised economy would probably be fundamentally different. The spread of container shipping was dependent on the simple, but disruptive idea, of putting cargo in a box, the development of complex logistics, and above all the diffusion of diesel engines. Invented by Rudolf Diesel in 1893, the diesel engine gradually took over the market for marine engines, reaching 50% market penetration in the 1950s, and now represent almost 100% of marine engines. Diesels now dominate in heavy duty vehicles, such as trucks and buses, and a high percentage of trains are powered by diesels.

The diesel engine however still only maintains a small share of the car market, despite its higher efficiency. Cars, whether they are Hummers or Honda Civics, are still overwhelming powered by the petrol engine, invented by Nicolaus August Otto in 1876. Attempts by luxury car companies to save the planet aside, close to 100% of new cars in North America are old fashioned petrol engines. Only Europeans have started to even transition away from them to diesels. Moving people and stuff around on land and sea therefore is still completely reliant on two machines invented before 1900.

There are few more reliable machines than a gas turbine. And there is no greater example of this reliability and efficiency than the engines of a Boeing 747. At peak thrust it uses a power equivalent of 290 megawatts, thirty times larger than the capacity of the world’s largest wind turbine. After their invention by Frank Whittle in 1936 the gas turbine spread faster than almost any primer mover in history, and today it dominates global aviation. In electricity generation CCGT power plants, which couple a gas turbine with a steam turbine, offer incredibly high power density, efficiency (typical thermal efficiency is 60% compared with 40% for coal power plants, and high flexibility. As a result gas power plants now make up more than 30% of electricity generation in many modernised countries, and continue to grow.

Here then is a summary. The vast majority of carbon emissions from electricity generation are from the steam turbine and gas turbine, the vast majority from aviation comes from the gas turbine, and the vast majority from transport comes from the petrol and diesel engine. We can therefore only conclude that the majority of global warming can be laid at the hands of four men: Charles Algernon Parsons, Nicolaus August Otto, Frank Whittle and Rudolf Diesel.

Or perhaps more enlightened attitudes can prevail over such logic.

Robert Wilson's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 28, 2014 11:35 pm GMT

Robert, John D. Rockefeller is turning over in his grave at your omission.

As the man who singlehandedly launched Standard Oil and made most of the machines you describe practical, he deserves the #1 spot on your list – with Parsons a close second.


Gary Hunt's picture
Gary Hunt on Jan 29, 2014 12:08 am GMT

This is silly.  Why stop with the people your named from a hundred years ago?  You could go much farther back and trash the discover of fire and every other invention or discovery that contributed to economic growth around the world.  The entire premise of climate science has been so tarnished by all this hype and hyperbole that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about it. 

Time to go back to your day job.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 29, 2014 5:25 am GMT

Please notice Robert’s closing sentence, which I believe brings the whole thing into agreement with your premise.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 29, 2014 7:32 am GMT

Indeed, but I guess reading an entire piece before attacking the author is a bit too much of an ask for some.

Oscar Fleury's picture
Oscar Fleury on Jan 29, 2014 4:04 pm GMT

Robert, you forgot to name Henry Ford and his political godfathers who sponsored his venture with tens of thousands of roadmiles built all over the United-States.

Had they equally sponsored a flying model T, i.e. an affordable personal aircraft, at that time (6 years after the first motorized flight), there would have been much stronger pressure on engine noise reduction than with motorcars, because noise from above covers large ground areas.

But, alas, power from above was the idea behind the policy designed to keep individual mobility grounded — as a dynamic continuation of medieval power politics with castles built high above the valleys to dominate the working masses.

Electric flight (with maybe even flapping wings to cut out propeller noise) for intercity individual mobility, along with tiny urban EVs most likely in the form of separable/roadable cockpits of personal electric rotary wing aircraft, would have become paramount long before WW2.

Today the biggest roadblock in the way towards a sustainable future isn’t even the car itself, but… the road repair and maintance costs weighing ever more heavily on the budgets of all modern states.

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Jan 29, 2014 5:12 pm GMT


This exercise does seem a bit silly but just for fun I’d like to offer another villain in global warming. John Pierpoint Morgan. As you might know he was a backer of Nickola Tesla and when Tesla found a way to produce electricity without burning anything that could have been broadcast (no wires would be nice) and Morgan was worried that it couldn’t be monitized/metered to his liking so he pulled his support and blackballed one of the greatest inventors of all time.


@ Gary Hunt…Why do you think Prometheus was given such a harsh punishment?





Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 29, 2014 9:59 pm GMT


May I suggest you re-read the final sentence to realise what “this exercise” means.

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Jan 29, 2014 11:45 pm GMT



I do realize where you are going but my point is that it didn’t have to be this way. Those 90 companies would likely not exist had things been different. At this point trying to place blame is counterproductive in finding a solution, if in fact one still exists.


I was just sayin’, ya know…


Good post though,









Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 30, 2014 4:08 pm GMT


I’m not sure you do realise what I meant by the post. Think about what my final sentence actually means.


“Or perhaps more enlightened attitudes can prevail over such logic.”

Steven Deitz's picture
Steven Deitz on Jan 31, 2014 5:05 pm GMT

Hello folks, I would like to take a different approach for my entry to this fun contest. Don’t forget that total human emissions are a product of emissions per person x total number of people (I=PAT). Therefore, I co-nominate Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch for the prize of most responsible for causing global warming. The Haber-Bosch process ( has vastly increased our ability to grow food for an exploding human population, which otherwise may have reached its limit far below our current 7 billion.

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Jan 31, 2014 9:58 pm GMT

I have great difficulty seeing any productive value in this article.  Even re-reading the final sentence multiple times provides little insight into whether this article is meant to be humorous or to just illustrate how narrow-minded perspectives preclude or turn logic on its head.  If the later is the objective, then this article diminishes almost all climate change and global warming arguments.  

As for trying to assign blame on four historial figures, consider that their ventures have also led to most of today’s economic, scientific, health and social advances.  So, to Gary Hunt’s point – you need to go back to the first person who started fire with a rock and establish a new chain of blame.





Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Jan 31, 2014 10:36 pm GMT

Bob, not fair.  Rockefeller merely took the methods that Colonel Drake developed but failed to patent and built an empire.  Drake died a pauper.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Jan 31, 2014 11:09 pm GMT

Robert, I have to agree with what Jamie said earlier, these guys had no idea of the consequences of burning fossil fuel at such a rapid rate.  They developed their fntastic machines because these new, cheap sources of energy has become available and the world wanted ways to turn heat into work.  Even Rockeffeller or Colonel Drake, upon whose sholders he stood, had no clue.  Who ever was first to light a chunk of coal afire (probably in China) is also blameless.

The point of the article you seek to mock was not to pin blame on the 90 companies but to assist policy makers in devising ways to mitigate damage to the climate while incurring the least possible damage to the economy.  The fact that we now know the consequences suggests there should be suifficient motivation to ratchet back meaningfully to reduce GHG emissions.  Those not responding appropriately out of pure greed are the ones who deserve blame.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jan 31, 2014 11:19 pm GMT

Of course there’s an entirely different set of implications of the four inventions/inventors you’ve higlighted that has nothing to do with a pointless blame game. Until we come up with machines that are as cheap and effective at converting non-emitting energy sources into useful work as these four are at converting fossil fuels, it’s going to be very hard to reduce emissions to sustainable levels. The only candidate I see so far is the nuclear reactor. (Drastically cheaper PV might qualify, too.)

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 12:04 am GMT


Of course the piece criticises pointless blame games. But perhaps too subtley based on some of the comments here, and emails I have received.

The implicit point of the piece is that these men invented machines, mostly before 1900, that one century later we appear incapable of improving upon. Some of these machines, such as jet engines, are so reliable that it is hard to imagine industries moving away from them willingly. The current focus of discussion about a transition to renewables or nuclear too often just focuses on energy sources, not prime movers.

I agree that nuclear and solar are the only plausible candidates to replace fossil fuels on a big scale. Wind energy is too restricted by low power density to get us very far. This still leaves us with a need for cheap storage. And for some things, e.g. aviation, storing electricity appears to be a non-starter. Some people are now taking the idea of converting renewable electricity into carbonacious fuel seriously. That would be a solution, but I really cannot see how it passes any basic engineering tests.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 12:08 am GMT


If that was the point of that article then the journalist involved should just drop the pretence and state that she is an activist, not a journalist, and should stop discrediting her profession. Journalists should not be creating narratives to serve a political agenda. Anyone doing so is not worthy of the name.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 1:20 am GMT

You wrote, “The implicit point of the piece is that these men invented machines, mostly before 1900, that one century later we appear incapable of improving upon.”  

It’s called thermodynamics and it’s not goint to budge.  If you want an improved means of producing energy, then you need to look beyond fossil fuels.  It’s not hard to do Robert.  Some solutions are as tall as a power plant smoke stack but without the smoke.  And since when is solar more power dense than wind?  Nuclear?  Who can afford it?


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 1:41 am GMT


It is well established that solar is more power dense than wind power. Please check some basic facts before making smug and lazy comments on the internet.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 2:00 am GMT

Robert, if you look at the sources claiming solar is more energy dense than wind, you will note that they are counting all the square miles in between turbines.  This is not valid because that land retains it’s original uses.  What else can you do under a solar farm?

In reality, wind is a concentrated form of solar energy, that is one reason why the payback is so favorable compared to solar. 

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 2:12 am GMT

What pretense Robert?  The article was factual and well referenced and summarized a significant report that just came out in the journal “Climate Change.”  I’d think any journalist would welcome useful action being taken in response to their writings.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 2:22 am GMT


Wind farms can offer up no better than 2 watts per square metre on aggregate. In comparison many modernised countries consume energy at a rate above 1 watt per square metre. These include Britain, Germany, Japan and South Korea. The math here is unforgiving. India is also more densely populated than Britain, and much less windy. A future India consuming rich world levels of energy cannot get most of it from wind. The same goes for China. Almost all of its populous provinces have population density greater than Britain’s. The only way wind energy alone can provide the majority of our energy is if we agree that countries be turned into wind farms, or find a way to economically build wind farms far out to sea, a dubious prospect.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 2:29 am GMT

Who is suggesting wind alone or for all countries?  You cook up these strawman arguments.  A simple “good point” would suffice. 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 2:43 am GMT


One of the laziest debating tactics is to accuse someone of making a strawman argument. Here I am making no such argument. Large numbers of environmentalists reject nuclear and CCS. What does that leave us with? Wind and solar. We aren’t going to find anything else. So, if we are going to reach this 100% renewables state then the majority of energy will have to come from wind or solar. This is no straw man, instead it is the official position of practically every environmental organisation.

And please, your “A simple “good point” would suffice” comment is rather unappealling. Offering up an opinion and then implying that someone not stating agreement with it displays a lack of grace? Is this how we do things now?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 1, 2014 3:46 am GMT

So What say you to this rejoinder to the original article :


News Flash – “Just one industry: Agriculture – Caused 90% of global overpopulation and obesity”.

Sounds silly doesn’t it? I just made that up to illustrate my point:

I’ve read the report. It confuses two concepts: 1) the production of fossil fuels, and 2) the end use of fossil fuels. Then, it throws in the concept of “producer of product is liable for end use of said product” (my description) to argue for putting pressure to bear on the producers as a means to reducing the use of fossil fuels. Side effect: globally reduced standard of living (which will include a reduction in food production).

Ok, but by that logic farmers, who produce the food, are responsible for overpopulation and obesity. Thus we should begin limiting and penalizing farmers and agriculture in general to overcome those problems. Side effect: starvation.

Sounds silly…

Unfortunately, the author of this Guardian article succumbed to the confusion, giving rise to the entirely wrong headline and introductory paragraph. A more correct headline would be: “Just 81 companies produced two-thirds of all fossil fuels consumed by the rest of us since 1751”. (Why 81? 7 of the 90 are cement producers accounting in total for 1.45% of CO2 involved, so two-thirds is still the right approximation).

By the way, I’m a student of physics and count myself in the category of those who understand the 2nd law of thermodynamics. So as surely as an extra sweater keeps you warmer on a cold day, increasing atmospheric CO2 forces a rise in earth’s energy retention, ordinarily leading to a rise in temperature. But of course, the devil’s in the details, which makes climate science wickedly difficult.



I agree with Robert that this is advocacy “Journalism”.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 4:29 am GMT

Robert, your entire point regarding the “energy density” of wind is contrived and has no physical basis.  That makes it a strawman.  There are plenty of other renewable energy sources besides wind and solar if they are needed and prove more economical in a given location.  Combined they certainly could power the US with GW to spare.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 4:57 am GMT


This is getting silly. My point about power density of wind does not have “no physical basis.” Physically watts per square metre can be measured, and has been measured for decades. Physicists even produce models of the theoretical power density of wind farms greater than 100 square kilometres and whether it will be as expected. To say this has no physical basis is absurd.

It’s also not true at all that we have plenty of renewables beside wind and solar. What are they exactly? Bio-energy? Here we run into low power density, and lack of available land. Hydro-electricity? Dam building has more or less stopped in modernised countries, and hydro is a limited resource. Geothermal is again very limited. Estimates of wave and tidal resources make it clear that they offer marginal energy resources at best. Wishful claims that we have plenty of renewable resources other than wind and solar have no basis in reality. This is easily demonstrated by comparing the 15 TW we consume with the potentials of wave, hydro and geothermal.


Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Feb 1, 2014 7:06 am GMT

In my talks on climate change I blame Robert Stephenson for his ‘Rocket’ design as it was the first really efficient engine that delivered fast transport. 

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 1:13 pm GMT

Robert, a typical 2.5 MW wind turbine has a rotor diameter of 88 m.  That’s 6,082 sq. m. representing 329 W per sq. m., which is twice that of today’s best commercially-available PV.  If you make the comparison based on actual footprint (foundation size) wind is 10x solar.

I’m done here, Robert.  Good luck with your advocacy.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 1, 2014 1:24 pm GMT

Paul, did you also go back to the referenced journal article upon which the Guardian article was based?  Do you find that to be advocacy?

Speaking of silly fingerpointing, how about blaming obsetricians and midwives?  But that is far different from gathering and presenting data on present-day birth rates, which is the analogy to the “90 companies” article.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014 3:37 pm GMT


These numbers you are presenting are completely incorrect. Power density is a measure of power output per square metre. Wind turbines do not get 329 watts per square metre. This is pretty much indisputable unless you want to dispute the laws of physics.

You also seem to be saying that solar panels can get half of this today. Again, please check some basic facts before making condescending comments on the internet. 329 divided by 2 gives us 164.5 watts per square metre. The world’s highest solar insolation is around 270 watts per square metre. To get 164.5 watts per square metre you would need 60% efficient solar panels with no spacing. These panels don’t exist. In fact 20 watts appears to be the higest power density of any existing solar plant, a full order of magnitude lower than what you claim.

These are well evidenced claims, yet you mock them as having no physical basis.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 1, 2014 3:42 pm GMT

Yes of course I did go back, hence the link above..

I have often disagreed with the Vilification of Oil and Gas companies, because our entire civilization has benefited from and depends on their product.

Journalism that ignores their benefits to society are advocates to me. Same thing as anyone ignoring the benefits of mordern agriculture.

Now that we do know about GW, it is long past time to phase out Coal, put a stop to alarmism about nuclear power, and back off from Wind and Solar advocacy. Also we should support Geo-Engineering if that is what it takes to push back the Carbon Tipping point, and plan to ultimately stop using natural gas and petroleum as these produces CO2 too.

For now, until we bring  in Nuclear Power en masse humans will continue burning coal, period.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 2, 2014 6:02 pm GMT


As my final sentence should make clear I am not blaming people. In fact I’m subtley criticising people for doing this. This seems to have not been noticed by half of the commenters.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 2, 2014 6:23 pm GMT


The point of the piece was to subtley criticise those who naively cast around blame for climate change. I blame four men for the majority of climate change, and follow it with this sentence

“Or perhaps more enlightened attitudes can prevail over such logic.”

The link at the end is to this story:

“Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions”

Now, I don’t like having to explain my pieces to readers, but there it is.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Feb 3, 2014 6:36 pm GMT

What an incredibly redicuously premise for an article.  These are great inventors in history who are responsible for the state of the civilization of the world.  Without these inventions, we would be riding horses with a world population in the hundreds of millions.

I hope the editor of this website reads the posts and does not make the mistake of publishing such a perspective again.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 3, 2014 6:51 pm GMT


I hope readers can actually read the entirety of an article before commenting. It’s not that much of a challenge, is it?

Arthur Yip's picture
Arthur Yip on Feb 6, 2014 8:16 am GMT

A lot of readers having trouble with your article’s premise… I wonder if they would explode if they read this one:

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 6, 2014 5:04 pm GMT

Four men and billions of people. Thanks for the insights!

We should teach our kids about these great inventors (and for us NOT to put the blame of excess CO2 on them). I know you are not putting the blame on them either.

As you said, these are 100 year old inventions. It’s not their fault (you’d think everybody would realize this)!

All it takes is another invention which makes the development of (any) clean energy… cheaper.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 8, 2014 3:17 pm GMT


My original draft excluded the final sentence. Original it was going to be a straight satire of this “X companies responsible for Y% of climate change” narrative, but I decided a lot of people wouldn’t recognise the satire. The response confirms this.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Feb 8, 2014 6:30 pm GMT

Anyone familiar with your writings would know that you would not blame conventional power technologies.  But you do tend to be all over the map when it comes to the merits of fossil fuels and the wrath/benefits they have brought down upon us.  Your timid endorsements of renewables do not mask your fondness for high-emission solutions.  You often forget that a kWh generated by renewables is a kWh not generated by fossil fuel and that, by definition, is always good. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 8, 2014 8:17 pm GMT

Not to defend fossil fuels…

But we would most probably not even exist if it were not for them. Too many outer electron interactions are just now beginning to be a serious concern to the entire biosphere, making necessary cheaper non fossil sources capable of powering 10 billion people at decent standards.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 8, 2014 8:50 pm GMT


“My fondness for high-emission solutions.” Please provide a piece of evidence to back up this piffle.

And I have no memory whatsoever of ever forgetting that “a kWh generated by renewables is a kWh not generated by fossil fuel”? Perhaps you can point to such instances of memory loss on my part.

I provide critical analysis here, not crude propaganda designed to serve an agenda. If you want the latter then you will be disappointed, but please do not accuse me of having a hidden agenda.

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