Global Cooling: The Underlying Problem

Let us assume, for purpose of argument, that you are deeply concerned about the potential for humans’ impact on climate, but that you have some uncertainties about the reliability of the science that lies at the foundation of that concern.

Today, you note, scientists tell us the planet is warming. But did they not argue back in the 1970s that we were at risk of new ice age?

It would seem that if you took this argument seriously, you might go back to the literature of the 1970s, both the peer reviewed science and the media coverage, and try to understand what people were saying then, and how they could have been so wrong. It an important question, and a serious issue if we are to understand how climate science works, and whether we can trust the enterprise to help guide our decisions today.

On the other hand, if you merely wanted a bit of rhetoric, a debating point, you might stop before ever reaching that point. You might say something like “[B]efore we take global warming as a scientific truth, we should note that the opposite theory was once scientific verity.” ((Bray, A.J., 1991: The Ice Age cometh. Policy Review, No. 58))

This distinction can be made because a serious review of the literature shows that there was no such “scientific verity”. There are anecdotes that can be plucked from the record, primarily from the popular media. But a rigorous review by Tom Peterson and William Connolley (with some minor help from myself) shows that, even as the planet was in a short term cooling trend in the 1970s, concerns about greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature. The paper documenting our results has been accepted for publication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and Doyle Rice did a nice job summarizing the paper last week in USA Today. ((Study debunks ‘global cooling’ concern of ’70s, USA Today, 2/20/2008))

It’s an easy test. Any time you hear someone claim there was a “‘consensus’ panic over ‘global cooling'” ((Horner, C.C., 2007: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism)), you know the author has reached for the easy rhetorical point rather than seriously reviewing the problem.

I think the paper is of value because it does a credible and defensible job of summarizing the literature of the day. But the central premise is not new. William has been making and defending this argument for ages. ((Was an imminent ice age predicted in the 1970s? No.)) People who claim to take the intersection of climate science and politics/policy seriously should know better.


  1. Perhaps something of this can be attributed to the special concerns of politicians seeking reelection, whose terms overlapped with three of the coldest winters on record. To tell the public, when the public is freezing, that “No, really, the problem is warming” would have been unfeasible, and even if this wasn’t a huge political concern, the media was more than willing to grasp on the immediacy of the cold. The social science of this debate can be seen as lots of short-term personal experiences, media interest in answering the short-term question, and politicians’ unwillingness to make any moves that run counter to what people think leading to a sort of consensus on reality as perceived at the moment. That people, politicians, and the media all got it wrong in the face of available science and a scientific consensus can be partially explained as the lack of far-sighted leaders, but also on science being distant and detached from the everyday life and experience of the common person.
    It is amusing, then, that people (having just lived through some of the hottest years in recorded history) look back into the past to refute global warming and find this case, where when it was cold, the media covered cooling.

    I guess the point of this is that perhaps a fundamental problem of the public perception of science (and the media coverage and political action that results from this perception) is still hard to divorce from the world as seen and understood on an individual and simplistic basis.

    Oh, and great post, btw.

  2. I’ve been seeing references to that USA Today article all around the net, but I haven’t had time to read it until now. Nice work!

  3. And of course the USA Today article has a Pat Michaels quote in it. After all, journalists know that if an article makes a point about global warming, it’s important to give the other side a chance to make their counterpoint. It’s simply good journalism!

    In all seriousness, the Pat Michaels quote is interesting. It sounds like he’s trying to disagree (“does not place the late ’70s in its climatic context”), but if you read his quote carefully, he doesn’t really disagree with your analysis.

  4. Andrew –

    I’m no fan of “false balance”, but in this case I think contacting Patrick Michaels was entirely appropriate. As I mentioned when this issue came up in a thread on William’s blog, Michaels is one of the people we singled out in the paper for his use of the “global cooling myth,” so I think getting his response is journalisticaly appropriate.

  5. Note how USA Today’s headline blurs the question.

    Study debunks ‘global cooling’ concern of ’70s

    Can a clearer headline be written to that size?

    ”70s science had no ‘global cooling’ concern

    ‘Global cooling’ worries in 1970s a ’90s myth

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