In Defense of Walter Sullivan

When I was trying to learn the craft of writing about the earth, a geologist who was serving as my guide said I had to read Walter Sullivan’s Continents in Motion. The book was a revelation to me – for the skill with which Sullivan explained the science of plate tectonics, but more importantly for the nuance with which he explained how science works: the fits and starts, the struggle to find data, the even greater struggle to find theory to structure and think about what that data is telling us.

Walter Sullivan

Walter Sullivan

Which is why I was so saddened to see the glib trashing of Sullivan’s work by a know-nothing columnist today in one of those east coast dailies, out by Baltimore. The columnist accused Sullivan, the New York Times science writer who is in many ways the pioneer of our craft, of being “a megaphone for the alarmed” for his coverage of climate in a May 1975 article:

the New York Times was — as it is today in a contrary crusade — a megaphone for the alarmed, as when (May 21, 1975) it reported that “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

How could Walter Sullivan have gotten it so wrong?

The answer is, he didn’t. Watch those selective quotes, there, Mr. Columnist!

Here, in fact, is what Sullivan actually wrote. We’ll start, shall we, wtih the first sentence:

The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced. But in what direction and why are subjects of deepening debate.

You really don’t need to go beyond that to realize Mr. Columnist has misquoted the late Walter Sullivan, who died in 1996 and is therefore not around to defend himself. But read on, because Sullivan’s great. He goes on to capture, in a piece better than any I have read, the rich texture of the science of the day:

Lack of agreement as to the factors that control climate change make it particularly difficult to assess current trends. Of major importance, therefore, is the debate as to the cause of such changes and the role of human activity in bringing them about.

Among the issues discussed: solar energy variations that could contribute to the ebb and flow of ice ages, new understanding of ice ages and the possibility of cooling because of aerosol pollution, but also the possible confounding factor of increasing greenhouse gases:

Carbon dioxide in the air acts like glass in a greenhouse. It permits solar energy to reach the earth as visible light, but it impedes the escape of that energy into space in the form of heat radiation (at infrared wave lengths).

I spent a great deal of time recently studying climate science during that time period (see here for the result). If newspaper journalism is the first draft of history, Sullivan’s work needs very little editing. It is anything but a megaphone of global cooling alarm, but rather a rich account of the complex science of the day.


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  2. The opening caveat of Mr. Sullivan’s 1975 story does show that he’s been wrongly maligned by George Will. The 1975 story clearly didn’t hype global cooling, but I’m still curious how much stitching Will had to do to suggest Sullivan’s story concluded major cooling was “widely considered inevitable.”

    Will you provide those quoted sections in context??

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post about a wonderful journalist. When will this “science by sound bite” idiocy written by people who really care only about ideology stop? (You’re polite enough not to say it, but I will – George Will is a liar.)

  4. As a hard core scientist, for decades, in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and biology, I would say that “science by sound bite” will not stop.

    The reason is simple.

    At least in the short term, science by sound bite works to get the sound biter what they want–power, money, or recognition from their peeps/base.

    For instance, I am working my way through the schemes that have been proposed for sequestering carbon. Almost all of these schemes either fail on the basis of thermodynamics or have huge unintended negative consequences. But, they still garner venture capital, fame, and temporary wealth to those who propose them. So, the sound bite works, at least for a while. Figuring out that the sound bite can’t be true appears to take more effort than most people are willing to put in.

    There is a related discussion about where a person’s view of the world and their place in it comes from. A recent article by David Brooks about Edmund Burke’s view of ‘rationality’ fits here. That discussion is important but far too long to put here. It basically says that sound bites are much cheaper than the effort to have clear thoughts and that, on some topics, the idea that a person can have really clear thoughts is amazing hubris. There is too much to know for any one person to know it.


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  6. Question based on Sullivan’s explanation of carbon dioxide’s role as glass in greenhouse and the inability to vent accumulated heat to the atmosphere: If a man-made greenhouses on earth must have a venting system to avoid killing the plants protected within, what is the natural venting system for our planet-greenhouse? I read this article ( and it makes some sense to me, but I would like more resources to have that concept explained more thoroughly.

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    Thanks for introducing me to Lindzen, the scientist underlying the article you referenced. Here are 2 URLs to related newer work by Lindzen and an URL to all his publications.

    As to the effect mentioned in your comment, as I understand it, cumulus clouds reflect infrared radiation back into space while cirrus clouds catch infrared radiation leaving earth and reflect it back to earth. So, lots of cumulus clouds and few cirrus clouds cool the earth while lots of cirrus clouds and fewer cumulus clouds warm the earth.

    Lindzen says that when the ocean gets warmer, there are more cumulus and fewer cirrus so the warming of the ocean slows down further warming. This idea was presented in 2001. I do not know yet how this idea has held up over time. I have to read more articles and see what people think of the idea now. I expect to find lots of data that can support or refute Lindzen’s model.


  9. Thank you! It’s such a temptation for journalists to distort science. The rigor and objectivity are easily lost on so-called journalists who have their own axes to grind.

    Walter Sullivan’s sparkling prose and clarity of purpose are an ongoing inspiration to science writers today.

  10. Eric, by many scientists over the course of the last ten years or so. See this current review article (written for non-specialists) by two of the leading researchers. The recent results have been based on data from the new AIRS satellite instrument. Several of the relevant papers can be accessed via the web sites of Dessler, Sherwood, Soden and Fu.

    Lindzen was only able to keep the “iris” ball in the air for as long as he did because prior to the advent of AIRS the upper troposphere was an especially hard place to get accurate measurements, and by completely ignoring paleoclimate, e.g. the conflict between the “iris” and the Pleistocene glacial cycles, and the fact that prior to the Pleistocene higher CO2 levels led to temperatures that kept glaciers from existing at all (the latter having been firmed up only recently, to be fair).

    Of course, as he kept pointing out, he’s an atmosphere physicist, not a paleoclimatologist, yet he doesn’t appear to have made an effort to find one of the latter to collaborate with regarding past climate. This seemed dodgy. For just such a cross-disciplinary study (IMHO the most important single climate science paper published to date), see Hansen et al’s recent Target CO2.

    Finally, other work (review paper) has shown that the ocean-atmosphere circulation system is exhibiting fundamental changes from an expansion of the tropics driven by heating. These results are in one sense apples to the “iris” oranges, but trying to argue for the “iris” in the face of this evidence is like expecting to add oranges to a basket already entirely filled with apples.

  11. Soden’s site

    I should also add a little about the fundamentals:

    Lindzens’ idea requires reduced cirrus formation in the tropics, which in turn requires a reduction in water vapor in the upper troposphere as heat is added, the idea being that some sort of balance point is quickly reached where more forcing from additional greenhouse gases will cease to have much of an effect. Observations of increasing upper tropospheric water vapor refute this.

    Also answering Renee’s specific question, there is a limit of sorts that has nothing to do with Lindzen’s “iris”, although it’s conceptually similar:

    As the upper troposphere warms, it loses heat to space more quickly, in effect damping the warming. Unfortunately, paleoclimate studies have shown that this effect isn’t large enough to keep the planet from getting uncomfortably hot (with numerous unpleasant side-effects) should enough greenhouses gases get added to the atmosphere. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is the best-known example.

    I should also add that denialist sites (most of them maintained by non-scientists like Warwick Hughes) are a poor place to get information about such things. RealClimate, a site maintained by climate scientists, is a better place to start. Their archives contain a couple of articles on the “iris.”

  12. Steve,

    Thanks. I am a scientist, a physical and molecular biochemist not a climatologist. In climate studies,for myself I want supportable facts, especially because friends and colleagues, more and more, are asking me how to find the facts.

    Now, while I will never be a climatologist, I can be less ignorant about the arguments and can refer others to good sources of information.

  13. For a couple of months now, Eli has been watching Eric throw spaghetti against the wall and folk then pointing out to him why the spag ain’t sticking. Steve Bloom does it again here.

    Clearly Eric has been getting this stuff somewhere. One could guess. The base question is when does Eric stop trusting the sites he is using?

  14. Eli,

    As fun as it is for you to talk in the third person about yourself, I stop throwing things against the wall when people like John Fleck, John Mashey, and Steve Bloom point me at sites that give supportable data. I tend to be very skeptical of large error bars hidden deep in the data or critical variables that are ignored.

    If you have credible data to share, not negative comments, please do. I am data driven not innuendo driven.

    If you came out from behind your pseudonym, I would be more likely to listen to you.


  15. Eli or anyone else,
    Where do I find the best data on CO2 concentrations and global temperatures over the last 600 million years on Earth? As far as I have gotten, CO2 concentrations appear to have dropped steadily from 7000 ppm to 380 while temperatures have mostly been 22oC with a recent excursion down to 6oC.

    The end of the Ordovician seems to have a large downward spike in temperature with little change in the CO2 levels while the Carboniferous and Permian have large changes in both temperature and CO2 levels for no apparent reason.

    The changes in CO2 amount to huge sequestration and release events. The changes in temperature amount to huge gains and losses of energy in the atmosphere. I would like some mass and energy balance equations that are supportable for these events.


  16. Back of the envelope calculation (OK, a big envelope).

    To get from early earth to today, 13,240 billion metric tons of CO2 had to be extracted from the atmosphere and 3.7 x 10^24 J of energy had to be lost from the sea and atmosphere.

    Where did the CO2 go? Why did it go there?
    What happened to this stunning amount of energy that used to be on the earth?

  17. Possible answer to my questions above.

    Within my margin of error on initial calculations, where did the energy and the CO2 go?

    We are it.

    The amount of energy lost from the earth’s oceans and atmosphere and the amount of CO2 sequestered are reasonably close (within a factor of 50) to the amounts of energy and CO2 contained in animals and plants, living and dead.

    Who knew?

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  20. @ David Straub (h/t Steven Dutch ):

    “Some people argue that the term “Greenhouse Effect” is a misnomer because the walls of a greenhouse really prevent mixing with cold outside air. True. Also irrelevant. If the temperature inside the greenhouse were the same as outside, the walls would make no difference. On a nice spring day you can open the windows in a greenhouse and not change the inside temperature at all. The mixing issue is only important if something warms the greenhouse. The greenhouse is warm because visible light is absorbed inside the greenhouse and reradiated as infrared, which is blocked by the glass. The glass also prevents mixing, just like the earth’s gravity keeps atmospheric heat trapped against the earth, but neither gravity nor the glass would matter unless there were heat to trap in the first place.

    On the other hand, imagine a metal shed on the shady side of a building. It might well be cooler than the surrounding air because visible light doesn’t enter but heat can conduct through the metal and radiate away. Saturn’s moon Titan has a “negative” or “inverse” greenhouse effect because its high altitude haze blocks visible light (which is why we can’t see the surface) but transmits infrared (which is how the Cassini mission has been able to photograph the surface.)

    So the naming issue is a red herring, and scientifically illiterate at that. Greenhouses are warm because the glass traps infrared. They stay warm because the glass also prevents mixing with the surrounding air, but the air wouldn’t be warm to begin with if it weren’t for trapping infrared.”


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