What Arrhenius, Bolin and Thunberg have in Common

Greta Thunberg. Photo: UNICEF Hellberg

What Arrhenius, Bolin and Thunberg have in Common

By Jakob Lagercrantz

There are many Swedes who have had an impact on global sustainability. I have chosen three, letting them be representatives of change.

First, we go back some 120 years. Svante Arrhenius had struggled with his doctoral dissertation, probably because he was ahead of his time and his professors didn’t fully grasp what he was suggesting. He was interested in many different areas of research and saw innovative ways to combine science. In 1896 he wrote an article in a British magazine where he predicted a gradual warming of 5 – 6 degrees over the next 3000 years. He could show that human industrial activity was the reason. Arrhenius must be forgiven for his inaccurate timeline; he based his manual calculations on the world of the industrial revolution – we hadn’t discovered oil at that time. We now know development is faster, but taking this into account, his calculations were correct. In 1903 he became the first Swede to be rewarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Svante Arrhenius. Source: Photogravure Meisenbach Riffarth & Co. Leipzig

We then move to the late 1970’s. The meteorologist Bert Bohlin had already in 1975 presented a report to the Swedish Parliament suggesting that we need to curb the use of fossil fuels. He then took part in an American study in the 1980’s that issued a warning of the threat posed by fossil fuels. But he was concerned that there was a lack of international scientific bodies where global environmental issues, like climate, could be discussed.

Bert Bolin. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to provide policy-makers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options. Bert Bohlin was one of the founders and became the first chairman of the IPCC. His chairmanship covered the important first ten years of the IPCC and oversaw the politically difficult release of the first and second assessment reports of the IPCC in the 1990’s.

The key phrase in the 2nd assessment report in 1996 was whether it would be allowed to state that human activity had an impact on climate change. The oil producing countries denied any linkage between human activity and the greenhouse effect. The compromise was the phrase: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate.” Diplomatic, careful words – much more so than Arrhenius exactly 100 years earlier.

Over to today: we have Greta Thunberg – climate activist and a descendant of Svante Arrhenius. She is so much more than a “schoolgirl who started a global strike for the climate.” She combines the impatience of her generation with sound scientific arguments and an astute awareness of what needs to be said. Like her predecessors Arrhenius and Bolin, she builds her argument on science and combines it with impatience and strong moral outrage. She and her many thousand allies have managed to quickly join the debate. She has been invited to some of the most prestigious gatherings, and her message has been unwavering. It could be that her initiative, standing on the shoulders of dedicated scientists, will be what is needed to actually achieve a change.

Greta Thunberg. Photo: UNICEF Hellberg

Our fire services give the following advice if we discover a fire: Rädda, varna, larma, släck! Save who you can, warn people around you, sound the alarm and then try to put out the fire. We were warned by Arrhenius; Bohlin sounded the alarm, and Greta is calling for action. It is now up to us.


The Swedish 2030-secretariat was formed to support the decarbonization of the transport sector in Sweden. The secretariat is independent from political parties and technical solutions.