Somewhere around the early 1990s, I borrowed several back issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact from a friend. I believe this was when and where I read a "Sherlock Holmes" story which someone in the late 80s or early 90s had submitted to the magazine.

It was written in a fairly conventional way -- Dr. Watson as the narrator; set in the late 19th Century; Mycroft Holmes makes an appearance . . . in other words, nothing in it that squarely contradicted the "canonical stories" by Doyle.

The twist -- and this was what got it published in a science fiction magazine -- was that it involved a scene in which Mycroft Holmes explains why Her Majesty's Government feels it necessary to take drastic measures to suppress a British scientist's radical theory that a sharp increase in the quantity of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere can have, over time, a heavy impact on weather patterns, average temperatures, and the like. The feeling was that burning coal and natural gas was vital to the economic strength of the British Empire, and thus it would be self-destructive, at that time, to start putting the common people into a panic over the possibility of long-term global warming.

But, Mycroft assures his listeners, in another hundred years or so, things might be very different!

So Holmes and Watson patriotically agree to be part of the cover-up for the time being . . . but of course Watson writes it all down for posterity.

Does anyone remember who wrote this story, and the title of it?

  • 2
    Ironically, the idea of human-caused global warming did come up barely later than this time - Svante Arrhenius wrote about it, definitely by 1906 and maybe earlier... Dec 21, 2016 at 13:56
  • ha ha, a "radical" idea. Very funny. This story isn't available online, sadly. but there are popular science books by him and his wife, even translated into Polish. '''John Gribbin - In Search of Schrödinger's Cat; Quantum Physics and Reality (pdf)''' Apr 30, 2017 at 13:03

1 Answer 1


"The Carbon Papers" by John Gribbin, published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, January 1990, apparently never reprinted. The story starts with a man getting an unexpected package in the mail:

The covering letter was from a firm of lawyers—impressive address, Inner Temple, London. But it didn't say much. They had the pleasure to be my obedient servant, and it was their duty under the terms of some arrangement made in 1890, exactly 100 years ago this week, to convey this package to me, the heir of one William Arrol James, in accordance with the wishes of some old doctor, one John H. Watson, M.D.

[. . . .]

It was full of papers. Some old newspaper cuttings; a sheaf of typewritten pages, with the heading "On the Retardation of Infrared Flux by the Gaseous Carbonic Acid Constituent of Planetary Atmospheres," by W. A. James; and a thick wad of manuscript, handwritten in an old-fashioned but clear style in black ink.

The handwritten manuscript is titled The Carbonic Acid Affair:

In taking up my pen to record the details of the curious business of the carbonic acid affair, I know that I am acting against the express wishes of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, and in defiance of instructions from representatives of Her Majesty's Government. But in fairness to the memory of an honest man, whose great contribution to scientific knowledge might otherwise go unreported, I cannot let this matter rest with the official histories of our time. By the time you read these words, the name of William Arrol James will be no more than a footnote in history. Yet if his contribution to science is correct, as I believe it to be, the carbonic acid business will, for good or ill, be part of public debate, whatever the wishes of governments. Honours and recognition may have passed your ancestor by; his life has been cruelly cut short. For this, I must take some of the blame myself. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that his heirs will discover the truth, and may even, if they wish, be able to gain some belated recognition for this true genius of the Victorian age.

[. . . .]

"The British Empire is built on coal. Coal for our great industries, coal to power the ships of the Royal Navy and of the merchant fleet. And all the while, making the world heat up like a greenhouse. How long do we have, Mycroft?" He turned on his brother with the question.

"According to James, perhaps a hundred years before the problem becomes acute. By then, we expect human ingenuity to have found a solution to the problem. But if the discovery were pulicised too widely, and dramatically, then the French . . ."

[. . . .]

"Exactly so, Sherlock. The choice is clear. If we keep this matter quiet, then our Empire, and its science, can continue to grow. By the end of the twentieth century, surely that science will be able to solve the problem of this growing greenhouse effect. But if we fail to keep the matter quiet, then a clamouring of the nations of continental Europe may be able to use this imagined threat as a rallying call. At best, it would mean war, to maintain our way of life. At worst, imposing their will upon us in the name of fairness. Then, there would be no growth in our industrial and scientific prowess, and there would be no advanced twentieth century civilization to ensure the well being of mankind."

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