Part II: History of climate change science (1969-1990) according to Daniel Yergin [General Commentary]

August 27, 2014 1:21 am0 comments

Introduction by Michael QuirkeAs a layman trying to understand the climate change issue, I have been on the hunt for a fair and readable accounting of the history of climate science [and the science of climate change] for the CCNF Scientist Community and readers to discuss. In a previous post, I presented a set of excerpts from Daniel Yergin’s 2011 book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, which covered the period of 1836 to 1969. For this post I am presenting a second set of excerpts from ‘The Quest,’ covering the period of 1969 to 1990, republished here under fair use for public commentary by scientists and readers.


Summary of initial comments

 

Dr. Bart VerheggenDr. Bart Verheggen:  After reading the excerpts below I would not change my recommendation and would point people to Spencer Weart’s book The Discovery of Global Warming (available online) over Yergin’s. Weart’s book is really a great resource for the history of climate science and a source I often recommend to lay people to get an understanding of how (climate) science works, how we know what we know, and how solid (or not) this understanding is. Plus, it’s written as a detective story that you can hardly put down once you start reading. It’s telling that Yergin mostly cites non-scientific sources to back up his narrative of the world being afraid of global cooling in the seventies and no peer reviewed scientific articles. This seems to be in line with what Peterson et al show: The scare for global cooling was mainly present in the public realm, not in the scientific realm.

Dr. Will HowardDr. Will Howard:  This fits my understanding as well. The fears of global cooling were communicated mostly in the media and in some policy circles. The scientific community as a whole did not articulate a predominant view on the future direction of climate.  I second Bart’s recommendation of Spencer Weart’s history – it’s far more thorough and comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen. As for recommended readings, I would suggest Weart’s online history or Imbrie & Imbrie’s “Ice Ages.” …Much of this history highlights a historical political irony: a liberal Democratic administration (Carter) was not receptive to a message about the risks of greenhouse gases, for geopolitical reasons. Conservative Republicans backed action on CFCs (Ronald Reagan, along with fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher), acid rain (George H.W. Bush), and other environmental reforms (Richard Nixon with the Clean Air Act, the EPA, among others). More recently Democrats, in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, could not pass cap & trade legislation to mitigate carbon emissions. My point is that that these issues do not cut cleanly across party lines as they are sometimes presented.  This irony has had some media attention. Perhaps Phase II could explore this issue more fully.

Dr. Michael TobisDr. Michael Tobis:  Bart hits most of the points I’d like to hit. I think the emphasis on the “cooling” crowd is misplaced and will reinforce a mythology… Cooling never had much purchase among physically oriented climate scientists.  I also have to object to the title: this is in no way a history of climate science; it is merely an attempted history of climate change science. …No history of climate science should miss Akio Arakawa, but he was never a player in climate change science. The point is that climate science is more than the science of climate change – a great deal of physical understanding of the underlying system has been developed over the past century or so, and losing sight of this progress weakens the standing of climate change science which is only a consequence of climate science.

CCNF Journalist (MQ):  In light of your comment, I went ahead and changed the titles and headlines from “History of climate science” to the more fitting “History of climate change science.”


Picking up where we left off…

 

1969 – Charles Keeling, the Keeling Curve, and an early registering of “danger”

400ppmKeeling’s work marked a great transition in climate science. Estimating carbon in the atmosphere was no longer a backward-looking matter aimed at explaining the mystery of the ice ages and the glaciers. It was instead becoming a subject about the future. By 1969 Keeling was confident enough to warn of risks from rising carbon. In 30 years, he said, “mankind’s world, I judge, will be in greater immediate danger than it is today.”

1970s and early 1980s – Global warming vs. global cooling (and threat of a nuclear winter)

The implications of Keeling’s work on carbon were beginning to seep into the policy community. A 1965 report on “environmental pollution” from President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee included a 22-page appendix written by, among others, Revelle and Keeling. It reiterated the argument that “by burning fossil fuels humanity is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” that almost certainly would change temperatures. Yet these early statements not withstanding, at least as much of the discussion was about global cooling as about global warming.

[In response to a memorandum by Nixon White House adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan arguing that rising CO2 was “very clearly a problem” and that the Nixon administration should “really ought to get involved” in], the deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology wrote “The more I get into this, the more I find two classes of doom-sayers, with of course, the silent majority in between. One group says we will turn into snow-tripping mastodons… and the other says we will have to grow gills to survive the increased ocean level due to the temperature rise from CO2.” [Footnote 1]

"Preparing the world for a new Ice Age" headline from The Melbourne, Feb. 18, 1979.

Headline from The Melbourne Age, Feb. 18, 1979.

Already at the end of the 1950s, Betty Friedan–later famous for writing The Feminine Mystique–popularized these [global cooling] theories in an article on “The Coming Ice Age.” […] By the early 1970s the CIA was investigating the geopolitical impact of global cooling, including “the megadeaths and social upheaval” that would ensue.

In 1972 Science magazine reported that earth scientists meeting at Brown University had concluded “the present cooling is especially demonstrable” and that “global cooling and related rapid changes of environment, substantially exceeding the fluctuations experienced by man in historical terms must be expected.” Around the same time, a number of scientists who had participated in a Defense Department climate analysis wrote to President Nixon that the government needed to study the risk that a new glacial period was coming. Others warned that the increasing concentrations of aerosols in the atmosphere could be “sufficient to trigger an ice age.”

[BV:  If I’m not mistaken (I’m writing this in a rather loose way, don’t have the ref by hand), in one particular study the cooling effect of aerosols was overestimated, and a “what-if” prediction was made along the lines of ‘IF we continue emitting many of these (precursors to) aerosol particles, THEN global cooling may ensue.’]

The U.S. National Science Board reported a few years later that the last two or three decades had a recorded cooling trend. It was not a one-sided argument by any means, as is clear from the pages of Science. In 1975 one scientist blasted the “complacency” of those who focused on the falling temperatures “over the past several decades,” which was leading them to “discount the warming effect of the CO2 produced by the burning of chemical fuels.”

The increasing interest in climate change meant that money was beginning to flow into climate study. The reason was clear. “The propelling concern for climate research,” as two students of the era have observed, “was the possibility of climate cooling, rather than climate warming.” [Footnote 2]

Dr. Bart Verheggen

Dr. Bart Verheggen

[BV:  This is quite different from what is noted elsewhere (e.g. National Academies of Sciences Archives, 1979). Also, in the footnote for this excerpt, Yergin mentions The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus, a 2008 BAMS article by Peterson et al. This article shows, quite convincingly in my honest opinion, that in the peer reviewed scientific literature, predictions of global cooling were heavily outweighed by predictions of global warming. Yet Yergin maintains that there is some sort of equivalency between those who predict(ed) global cooling and those who predict(ed) global warming.I find that very surprising and it strikes me as a false equivalency.  This impression is only strengthened by him referring to both sides as doomsayers and then presenting a silent middle, seemingly oblivious to the fact that one of those sides may have the evidence firmly on their side whereas the other one has not. Reminiscent of the fallacy of the middle ground.]

The same concerns were reflected in public discussion. “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” wrote Newsweek in 1975. While meteorologists argued about the “causes” and “extent”, they were “almost unanimous” in seeing a cooling trend that could lead to another “little ice age”, as between 1600-1900, or even another “great Ice age.” In 1976 National Geographic gave equal weighting to the question as to whether the earth was “cooling off” or warming “irreversibly.” The same year Time magazine was reporting, “Climatologists still disagree on whether earth’s long-range outlook is another Ice Age, which could bring mass starvation and fuel shortages, or a warming trend, which could melt the polar icecaps and flood coastal cities.”

[MT:  I think this emphasis on the “cooling” crowd is misplaced and will reinforce a mythology. Cooling never had much purchase among physically oriented climate scientists. To indicate that it did is both misleading and a comfort to the fabulists.] 

By early 1980s, discussion about global cooling had taken a new form–the harsh “nuclear winter,” the extreme cooling that could be set off by a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. This would be the result of vast smoke and dust clouds triggered by the atomic explosions, which would cut off sunlight and darken the earth, lead to “subfreezing temperatures” even in summer, and “pose a serious threat to human survivors.” The best known proponent of the threat of nuclear winter was Carl Sagan, who as a young man had achieved fame among astronomers for identifying the extreme greenhouse atmosphere of Venus, and then went on to achieve much greater fame as host of the PBS television series Cosmos.

Early 1980s – Global warming begins to win out

Notwithstanding the fear of nuclear winter, by the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, a notable shift in the climate of climate change research was clear—from cooling to warming. Keeling’s Curve was beginning to flow into a larger realm of scientific research, ranging from direct observations in the air, on land, and on sea, to what would prove most crucial indeed: advances in modeling climate in computer simulations.

[BV:  In light of what I commented above and the Peterson article, it’s telling that Yergin mostly cites non-scientific sources to back up his narrative of the world being afraid of global cooling in the seventies and no peer reviewed scientific articles. This seems to be in line with what Peterson et al show: The scare for global cooling was mainly present in the public realm, not in the scientific realm.] [WH:  This fits my understanding as well. The fears of global cooling were communicated mostly in the media and in some policy circles. The scientific community as a whole did not articulate a predominant view on the future direction of climate.]

Early 1960s-1988 – Computer models and satellites broaden knowledge of climate

Specifically, two technologcal advances were broadening the scientific base for understanding climate. One was satellites. The first U.S. weather satellite was launched in 1960, opening the doors not only to a much more holistic view of the earth but also to a much greater and continually growing flow of data. […] The second advance was the invention of, and extraordinary development in, computer power, which in turn made possible the new discipline of climate modeling.

John Von Neumann

John Von Neumann. Source: cs.stanford.edu

[John Von Neumann] had emigrated to the United States in 1930 to become, along with Albert Einstein, one of the first faculty members at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Von Nuemann would prove to be one of the most extraordinary and creative figures of the twentieth century, not only one of the century’s greatest mathematicians but also an outstanding physicist and, almost as a sideline, one of the most influential figures in modern economics (he invented game theory and is said to have “changed the very way economic analysis is done”). Not only that, he is often described as the “father of the computer” as well as the inventor of nuclear deterrence. […] He also fathered the modern mathematical analysis of climate modeling that became the basic tool for diagnosing global warming. He accomplished all this before he died in 1957, at the age of fifty-three.

Von Nuemann’s quest to understand stratospheric circulation and atmospheric turbulence was giving rise to increasingly sophisticated simulations of how the atmosphere worked–the patterns and flows by which the air moved around the world. These became known as general circulation models [GCMs]. They had to be global because the earth only had one atmosphere. The modelers were constantly trying to make their models more and more realistic, which meant more and more complex, in order to better understand how the world worked.

Dr. Michael Tobis

Dr. Michael Tobis

[MT:  Von Neumann never really did any climate modeling (which would have been premature in his lifetime) nor did he, as far as I know, pay any attention to climate theory. What he did achieve, with Charney (see below) as coauthor, was the first fluid dynamical models of weather. This casually conflates meteorology and climatology in ways that are misleading.

Also, Akio Arakawa’s role in building the first General Circulation Model (GCM) at UCLA is commonly ignored, but it’s a shame to see that oversight repeated here; somehow the transition between von Neumann’s initial forays into numerical meteorology and the vast modern GCM appears in this story unbridged by the herculean and successful efforts of Dr. Arakawa to get the whole system working on a simulated globe. I would say this oversight illustrates the skew of the article and the distinction I’d like to make about it — no history of climate science should miss Arakawa, but he was never a player in climate change science.

The point is that climate science is more than the science of climate change – a great deal of physical understanding of the underlying system has been developed over the past century or so, and losing sight of this progress weakens the standing of climate change science which is only a consequence of climate science.]

Climate modeling was difficult, taxing, and definitely pioneering. “The computer was so feeble at the time,” recalled Syukuro Manabe, recruited to the [Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, now part of NOAA] from the meteorology faculty at Tokyo University and one of the most formidable of all the climate modelers.

But already in 1967 Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald, members of the Princeton Lab, were hypothesizing, in what became a famous paper, that a doubling of CO2 would increase global temperatures by three to four degrees. They backed into the subject by accident. “I wanted to see how sensitive the model is to cloudiness, water vapor, ozone, and to CO2,” said Manabe. “So I was changing greenhouse gases, clouds.. playing and enjoying myself. I realized that CO2 is important, as it turned out, I changed the right variable and hit the jackpot,” he continued. “At that time, no one cared about global warming… Some people thought maybe an ice age was coming”

Notwithstanding his conviction that “probably this is the best paper I wrote in my whole career,” Manabe led further breakthroughs on modeling in the mid-1970s. Over the years data from satellites provided a benchmark against which to test the accuracy of the ever-more-complex models. And yet, that 1967 hypothesis–that a doubling of CO2 would bring a three-to-four degree increase in the average global temperature–would become a constant in the debate over global warming. And a fuse.  [Footnote 3]

[BV:  It is not correct to refer to the climate sensitivity measurement of about 3-4- degrees per doubling as a “1967 hypothesis”; it is much older than that (Arrhenius).] [WH:  Callendar had also anticipated warming, as Yergin writes in the first part.]

1979-80 – A loud but short-lived call for action by the Charney Committee Report and study by the Jason Committee

Rafe Pomerance, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, was reading an environmental study when one sentence caught his eye: increasing coal use could warm the earth. “This can’t be true,” Pomerance thought. He started researching the subjective, and he soon caught with a scientist named Gordon MacDonald, who had been a member of Richard Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality. After a two-hour discussion with MacDonald, Pomerance said, “If I set up briefings around town, will you do them?” MacDonald agreed. […]

Dr. Jule Charney. Source: MIT Museum, republished here under fair use.

Dr. Jule Charney. Source: MIT Museum, republished here under fair use.

The president of the National Academy of Sciences, impressed by the briefing, set up a special task force under Jule Charney. Charney had moved from Princeton to MIT where, arguably, he had become America’s most prominent meteorologist. Issuing its report in 1979, the Charney Committee declared that the risk was very real. A few other influential studies came to similar conclusions, including one by the JASON committee, a panel of leading physicists and other scientists that advised the Defense Department and other government agencies. It concluded that there was “incontrovertible evidence that the atmosphere is indeed changing and that we ourselves contribute to that change.” The scientists added that the ocean, “the great and ponderous flywheel of the global system,” was likely to slow observable change. The “JASONs,” as they were sometimes called, said that “a wait-and-see policy might mean waiting until it is too late.” [Footnote 4].

The campaign “around town” led to highly attended Senate hearings in April 1980. The star of the hearing was Keeling’s Curve. After looking at a map presented by one witness that showed the East Coast inundated by rising sea waters, the committee chair, Senator Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts, commented with rising irony: “It means good-bye Miami, Corpus Christi… good-bye Boston, good-bye New Orleans, good-bye Charleston… On the bright side, it means we can enjoy boating at the foot of the Capitol and fishing on the South Lawn.”  [Footnote 5]

One of the recipients of the Macdonald-Pomerance briefings was Gus Speth, chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Speth asked for a report short enough for policymakers. The authors were those at the forefront of the global-warming study–Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, George Woodell, and Gordon MacDonald. They warned of “significant warming of the world climates over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately.” In contrast to Arrhenius and Callendar, who had seen virtue in a warm climate, they were emphatic: “There appear to be very few clear advantages for man in such short-term altercations in climate.” They offered a four-point program: acknowledgement of the problem, energy conversation, reforestation–and lower carbon fuels. That last meant using natural gas instead of coal. [Footnote 6]

President Jimmy Carter. Source: Carter on Crisis of Confidence, July 15, 1979.

President Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979. Source: history.com

Speth took the report to the White House and the Department of Energy. The reception was frosty. For at the moment the Carter administration–reeling from second oil shock, the Iranian Revolution, and natural gas shortages—was restricting natural gas use and promoting more coal. Speth did not give up. He made the issue central to the 1981 annual report from the Council on Environmental Quality. But that was the end of the road, at least for the time being. For Jimmy Carter had already been defeated by Ronald Reagan in November 1980. But some environmental groups were beginning to take up climate as a core issue. Under the Reagan administration, government money for climate research was reduced. [But] the integrity of the carbon-monitoring project at Mauna Loa in Hawaii was preserved.

[WH:  This earlier 1975 report by The National Academy of Sciences should also be mentioned:Understanding Climate Change: A Program for Action.”]

1980s – A key breakthrough of knowledge of ancient climate: “These ice cores [are] truly time machines.”

A key breakthrough in the science of climate change occurred in the 1980s with the recovery of ice cores, extracted deep under the earth’s surface both in Greenland and at Vostok, the Russian research station in Antartica [ …].

Scientists drilling core in Greenland in 2009. Source: Meredith Hastings, republished here under fair use

Scientists drilling core in Greenland in 2009. Source: Meredith Hastings, republished here under fair use.

These ice cores were truly time machines. They provided crucial evidence to the theory of climate change. For the tiny air bubbles trapped in these cores preserved the atmosphere as it had been thousands of years ago, and could be dated through radiocarbon analysis. Painstaking study seemed to make one thing clear: that carbon concentrations has been lower in the preindustrial age—275 to 280 parts per million compared with 325 parts in 1970 and 354 parts in 1990. [Footnote 7]

[MQ:  We are now at 400 ppm, as recently noted by Dr. Stephanie Thomas and others in the Forum.]

1985 – Emergence of a global scientific network on climate change; out of concern, scientists begin seeking collaboration with policy makers on an international scale.

The emergence of a global scientific network on climate change had already become clearly evident in 1985, three years before [Senator Tim Wirth’s] hearings, when a group of scientists met at Villach, in the Austrian Alps. Convinced by the range of evidence, from the supercomputer models to what had been learned about the lower carbon levels in the ice ages, they thought that climate change was neither far off nor would it be beneficent. They also concluded that “understanding of the greenhouse question is sufficiently developed that scientists and policymakers should begin active collaboration.” Their five-hundred-page report called for an international agreement to control carbon.  [Footnote 8]

1985 – British researchers first discover “hole” opening up in the ozone in NASA satellite data.

"Watching the Ozone Before and After the Montreal Protocol." Source: NASA

“Watching the Ozone Before and After the Montreal Protocol.” Source: NASA

A “hole” was opening up in the ozone over Antarctica. Chlorofluorocarbons [an extremely potent greenhouse gas found in propellants in aerosol cans and coolant in refrigerators] were eating at the ozone, literally thinning out and depleting the layer in the atmosphere. The threat was immediate. Ozone absorbed what would otherwise be deadly concentrations of ultraviolet radiation. The loss of ozone threatened massive epidemics of skin cancer around the world as well as devastating effects on animal and plant life on earth. […]

1987 – With breath-taking speed, 24-countries sign and begin enforcing international agreement restricting chloroflourocarbons.

UNEP forum on “Critical Environmental Issues: Ozone Depletion,” April 22, 1987. Source: UN photo/Nagata

UNEP forum on “Critical Environmental Issues: Ozone Depletion,” April 22, 1987. Source: UN photo/Nagata

The Montreal Protocol had a direct impact on the climate-change movement. It acknowledged that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases were dangerous. It dramatically underlined the acceptance of the nation that human activity imposes damage on the earth’s atmosphere. And it demonstrated that countries could come together quickly and agree to eliminate a common environmental threat. To climate activists, all of that seemed to be a dress rehearsal for what should happen with global warming… [But] fewer than forty companies manufactured chlorofluorocarbons, and just two had half the market… The whole world burned fossil fuels. Nevertheless, global warming, with all its complexity, was by the summer of 1988 entering the political arena.

[MQ:  Dr. Mauri Pelto recently identified stratospheric-ozone depletion and acid rain as two examples where a massive environmental threat was identified and effectively mitigated in the recent post, Do We Understand the Atmosphere Enough to Identify Problems and Solve Them? Heck Yes, We are Two-for-Two!In the piece, he emphasized that the identification and mitigation of these threats were all based on an imperfect but sufficient understanding of climate, weather, chemistry, and the atmosphere. He goes on to add that the understanding of the threat posed by man-made climate change is also based on an imperfect but sufficient understanding of our climate.]

[WH:  Mauri Pelto’s article covers the mitigation of ozone-depleting chemical and acid emissions quite nicely.]

1988 – Senator Tim Wirth Hearings on Climate Change and a “bombshell impression” by James Hansen

That particular day – June 23, 1988 – was very much a Washington summer day, for it was not only hot, very hot–with the temperature getting up to 100 degrees–but also muggy, almost unbearably so. Moreover, it followed months of high temperatures, and half the counties in the United States were officially suffering from drought. […] All this meant that the media would be intensely interested in anything to do with weather. In short, June 23rd was a perfect day for a Senate hearing on global warming.

[T]here has been a legend that the windows were left open the night before and the air-conditioning was turned off, to make certain that the hearing room would be sweltering. [Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, the chairman that day,] did later refer to some artful “stagecraft.” As it turned out, the room was sweltering, and sweat would glisten on the foreheads of the witnesses. […]

“The scientific evidence is compelling,” said Wirth, as he opened the hearings. “Now the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that trend.” The lineup of witnesses featured some of the strongest voices on climate change. But the most dramatic message came from the lead-off witness. Climate change was no longer an “academic” issue, said James Hansen, an atmospheric physicist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. A leading climate modeler, Hansen had already become prominent as one of the most apocalyptic in his predictions. And now, wiping sweat from his forehead in the sweltering room made even hotter by the television lights, Hansen told the senators, the long-awaited “signal” on climate change was now here. Temperatures were indeed rising, just as his computer models had predicted.

James Hansen testifying before Congress, 1988

NASA scientist James E. Hansen testifying in June 1988. Credit: NASA

“We can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” he said.  Afterward he summarized his testimony to the New York Times more simply: “It is time to stop waffling.” The story about his testimony and the hearings ran on the Times’ front page. [Footnote 9]

As another witness, Syukuro Manabe, one of the fathers of climate modeling, recalled, “They weren’t too interested by this Japanese guy who had this accent; whereas Jim Hansen made a bombshell impression.”The hearing “became a huge event,” said Wirth. […] One scientist summed up the impact this way: “I’ve never seen an environmental issue move so quickly, shifting from science to the policy realm almost overnight.” [Footnote 10]

1988 – With Hansen as new celebrity figure, other scientists express concern of his “failure to hedge his conclusions with appropriate qualifiers that reflect the imprecise science of climate modeling.”

To many in the political arena and the public, Hansen became the voice of science on climate, which created discomfort for other climate scientists who thought that he was too categoric. Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, summed up the issue in an article titled, “Hansen vs. the World on the Greenhouse Threat” by reporting “what bothers… his colleagues” is that he “fails to hedge his conclusions with appropriate qualifiers that reflect the imprecise science of climate modeling.” [Footnote 11]

Robert Revelle. Source: UC San Diego.

Robert Revelle. Source: UC San Diego

“We must be careful not to arouse too much alarm until the rate and amount of warming becomes clearer,” said Revelle. “It is not yet obvious that this summer’s hot weather and drought are the result of a global climactic change or simply an example of the uncertainties of climate variability.” Revelle added, “My own view is that we had better wait another ten years before making confident predictions.” [Footnote 12]

1988 – First worldwide conference of scientists, policy makers, and activists; on campaign, President H.W. Bush promises “to do something about it.”

Just a few days after the Wirth hearings, the World Conference on a Changing Atmosphere convened in Tornoto. It was the first time that large number of scientists, policymakers, politicians, and activists had gotten together to discuss climate change, and they did so with great urgency and sense of mission. The conference called for the world community to adopt coordinated policies to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. [Footnote 13]

President George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1988. Wiki Commons

President George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1988. Wiki Commons

Presenting himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” [George H.W. Bush] promised to be an Environmental President. Among his pledges was the noteworthy statement that “those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse effect’ are forgetting about ‘the White House effect.'” And the president added, “I intend to do something about it.” For the first time, a potential president had made greenhouse gases and climate change a campaign issue–and he had promised international collaboration to address it. [Footnote 14]

Dr. Will Howard

Dr. Will Howard

[WH:  All this highlights a historical political irony: a liberal Democratic administration (Carter) was not receptive to a message about the risks of greenhouse gases, for geopolitical reasons.  Conservative Republicans backed action on CFCs (Ronald Reagan, along with fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher), acid rain (George H.W. Bush), and other environmental reforms (Richard Nixon with the Clean Air Act, the EPA , among others).  More recently Democrats, in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, could not pass cap & trade legislation to mitigate carbon emissions.  My point is that that these issues do not cut cleanly across party lines as they are sometimes presented.   The irony I point to has had some media attention. Perhaps Phase II could explore this issue more fully.]

1988 – Climate change begins to be mentioned in media coverage of heat weaves, droughts, and other weather; “I don’t feel we should be packing our bags to move to Manitoba just yet.”

From the late 1980s onward, when people wrote about heat waves and droughts, it was not only about their severity and the disruptions and distress they caused, but also about the links to carbon dioxide and climate change, and as alarm bells for global warming. […]

Yet as the hot summer of 1988 faded, so did the sense of urgency. […] Jame Hansen’s “signal,” [one New York Times writer] concluded, was not so crystal clear as it might have sounded in the hearing room on June 23. The heat-wave summer of 1988 had turned out to be not the hottest, but only the eleventh hottest in the 58 years that records had been kept. […] When climate change was raised that same month at the U.N. General Assembly, one delegate said that it “still seemed like science fiction to many people.” [Footnote 15]

1988 – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established; “seek[s] to understand what was known in all its manifestations, and what was uncertain,” climate work coordinated by Dr. Bert Bolin

But before the year was out, far from the glare of public attention, the decisive step would be taken that would frame how the world sees climate change today. In November 1988 a group of scientists met in Geneva to inaugurate the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. […] The IPCC drew its legitimacy from two international organizations, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Development Program. But the IPCC itself was not an organization in any familiar sense. Rather it was a self-regulating, self-governing organism, a coordinated network of research scientists who worked across borders, facilitated by cheaper and better communications.

Dr. Bert Bolin, CSPAN

Dr. Bert Bolin, CSPAN

There was certainly a “coordinator in chief”–a Swedish meteorologist named Bert Bolin. If one man was at the center of the growing international climate work, and would be there for almost half a century, year in and year out, it was Bolin–the “indispensable man” of climate research. Hansen’s testimony and the Toronto Conference alarmed Bolin. He believed that the evidence had to be carefully evaluated, and that policy should not get ahead of what was known. As Bolin, the artful consensus builder, expressed it, “An intense debate amongst scientists followed” Hansen’s testimony, “and most of them disagreed strongly with Hansen’s statement. The data showing the global increase of temperature had not been scrutinized and there was insufficient evidence that extreme events had become more common. This was to me a clear warming of how chaotic a debate between the scientists and the public could become, if a much more stringent approach to the assessment of available knowledge was not instituted.”

Through workshops, papers, dialogue, reviews–and more reviews and still more reviews–the IPCC would seek to understand what was known about climate in all its manifestations, and what was uncertain. The days of the Tyndalls and the Keelings–individual atmospheric scientists, working on their own–were over. Science was now a multifaceted, cross-disciplinary, multinational enterprise. Yet when it came to climate, Bert Bolin was at the center of it all. […] One of the preparatory meetings,  held in Washington D.C., was opened by James Baker, giving his very first speech as secretary of state. In it he called for a “no regrets” policy on climate change–which meant that the international community, even if not sure, should take actions that would be prudential in case the risks turned out to be real. Bolin was happy to hear Baker’s speech but thought that it was “premature to rush into an action program.”[As the deadline approached], scientists and policymakers met in the northern Swedish own of Sunsvall. A week of acrimonious negotiations ensued, with enormous frustrating arguments even about individual words. What, for instance, did “safe” really mean? {…] [W]ithout agreement, they could not go to the United Nations General Assembly with concrete recommendations. [After the translators had walked off, a final draft was agreed on.] So it was that, in October 1990, the IPCC was able to deliver its First Assessment Report to the United Nations.

[WH:  “Big” global environmental science began with IGY but continued in the 1970s with programs such as GEOSECS. The importance of GEOSECS should not be underestimated as it represented an early attempt to comprehensively and rigorously get a “snapshot” of the physical and geochemical state of the global ocean. In particular it started the precise measurement of carbon dioxide in the ocean, leading to our current understanding of the carbon cycle and ocean acidification.]

[MQ:  Hope to hear more about ocean acidifcation in the future (the Forum has only scratched at the surface of that issue).]

1990 – IPCC delivers First Assessment Report to the United Nations

[As the deadline approached], scientists and policymakers met in the northern Swedish own of Sunsvall. A week of acrimonious negotiations ensued, with enormous frustrating arguments even about individual words. What, for instance, did “safe” really mean? {…] [W]ithout agreement, they could not go to the United Nations General Assembly with concrete recommendations. [After the translators had walked off, a final draft was agreed on.] So it was that, in October 1990, the IPCC was able to deliver its First Assessment Report to the United Nations. It answered the fundamental question by stating unequivocally: The earth was warming.

But was it man-made?

"Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (1990)," IPCC First Assessment Report.

“Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (1990),” IPCC First Assessment Report.

The warming, it said, was “broadly consistent with the predictions of climate models” regarding “larger man-made greenhouse warming.” But the problem was that it was broadly consistent with “natural climate variability.” It would take another “decade or more” for the “unequivocal detection of enhanced greenhouse effect from observations.” So said Bert Bolin’s first IPCC, it was too soon to say whether man was causing the warming. But that left a very big risk on the table. “By the time that question was clarified,” said Bolin, “the commitment to future climate change will be considerably larger than today”–and it would be that much harder to deal with. [Footnote 16]

And we’ll end on that note!

Gracious thanks to Drs. Will Howard, Bart Verheggen, and Michael Tobis for their participation. Stay tuned for a third and final part on the history of climate change science (with excerpts from a different source), which will pick up where we left off in the early 1990s and hopefully get us close to present time! Finally, remember that this fact checker/expert commentary section is for YOU, the reader! So if you have something you want the participating scientists to comment on or fact check, send it to us via email at ClimateChangeNationalForum-at-gmail.com (if you are asking for a fact check, please specify the exact claim that you want fact checked). 

*   *   *   *   *

Footnotes [as they appeared in The Quest, with scientists’ comments]:

1.   The White House, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment: Report of the Environmental Pollution Panel, November 1965, pp. 126-27 (“almost certainly”); Hubert Heffner to Dr. Daniel P. Moynihan, January 26, 1970, Monynihan Papers, Nixon Library; Steven R. Weisman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (New York: Public Affairs, 2010, p. 202 (“get involved”).] 2.   Hecht and Tirpak, “Framework Agreement on Climate Change: A Scientific and Policy History,” Climate Change 29 (1995), p. 377 (“propelling concern”). Thomas Peterson, William Connolley, and John Fleck disagree, strongly arguing that it is a “popular myth” and “falsehood” to say that in “in the 1970s the climate science community was predicting ‘global cooling.’ “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), Volume 89, Issue 9, pp 1325-27. They come to their conclusion by surveying “peer-reviewed literature,” including a number of citations of various articles between 1965 and 1979. In part they blame “the news media” for the “myth.” Yet, as the reply to Monyihan suggested, there was a clear division among scientists in those years. As the father of climate modeling, Syukuro Manabe said of his early research, “At that time, no one cared about global warming . . . Some people thought an Ice Age is coming.” However, by the end of the 1970s, the weight had clearly shifted away from cooling, toward warming, except for the “nuclear winter.” In short, there was no obvious “consensus” either way that characterized the entire decade.

[WH:  I second this point. Indeed as early as 1965 with the Environmental Pollution Panel report to the Johnson Administration, the risks of global warming were being anticipated: Environmental Pollution Panel (1965), Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, 133 pp, President’s Science Advisory Committee, Washington D.C. ]

[BV:  The BAMS article referenced above, titled “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” shows, quite convincingly in my honest opinion, that in the peer reviewed scientific literature, predictions of global cooling were heavily outweighed by predictions of global warming.]

3.   “‘Suki’ Manabe: Pioneer of Climate Modeling,” IPRC Climate 5, no. 2 (2005), pp. 11-15; Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherrald, “Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity,” Journal of Atmospheric Science 25, no. 3 (1967), pp. 241-59; Spencer Wert, “General Circulation Models of Climate,” The Discovery of Global Warming, at http://www.aip.org/history/climate/GCM.htm.

[BV:  The Discovery of Global Warming is really a great resource for the history of climate science and a source I often recommend to lay people to get an understanding of how (climate) science works, how we know what we know, and how solid (or not) this understanding is. Plus, it’s written as a detective story that you can hardly put down once you start reading.]

4.   Macrae, John von Neumann, p. 3245-326 (most prominent meteorologist); James G. Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 3; interview with Rafe Pomerance; Report of an Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979, to the Climate Research Board, Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, National Research Council (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1979) (“incontrovertible evidence”). 5.   “Effects of Carbon Dioxide Buildup in the Atmosphere,” Hearing, U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, April 3, 1980. 6.   George M. Woodwell, Gordon J. MacDonald, Roger Revelle, and Charles Keeling, “The Carbon Dioxide Report,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 35, no. 8 (1979), pp. 56-57. 7.   Walter Munk, “Tribute to Roger Revelle and His Contributions to Studies of Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change,” Colloquium on Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change, National Academy of Sciences, Irvine, CA, November 15–15, 1995. 8.   Spencer Wert, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 151 (Villach); Mohamed T. El-Ashry, “Climate Change, Clean Energy, and U.S. Leadership,” AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program, 30th Anniversary Symposium, May 13, 2004. 9.    New York Times, June 23, 1988: James Hansen interview; Frontline, PBS: James Hansen, testimony, U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, June 23 1988.

10.  “‘Suki’ Manabe: Pioneer of Climate Modeling,” IPRC Climate 5, no. 2 (2005), p. 14 (“They weren’t too impressed”); interview with Tim Wirth (“huge event”); New York Times, August 23, 1988 (“almost overnight”).] 11.   Richard Kerr, “Hansen vs. the World on Greenhouse Threat,” Science 224, no. 4908 (1989), pp. 1014-43. 12.  Tim Wirth to Roger R. Revelle, July 15, 1988, Roger R. Revelle to Tim Wirth, July 18, 1988, Roger R. Revelle to Jim Bates, July 14, 1988, Mc A6, Box 19, Folder “Correspondence July 1988,” Revelle papers. 13.  Andrew Revkin, “Endless Summer: Living with the Greenhouse Effect,” Discover, October 1988. 14.  George H. W. Bush, press release, September 1, 1988, George Bush Presidential Library; New York Times, September 2, 1988 (“White House effect”). 15.  Sports Illustrated, March 13, 1989; Time, August 6, 1936 (“U.S. Sahara”); New York Times, September 4, 1988 (“packing our bags”); Irving M. Mintzer and J.A. Leonard, “Visions of a Changing World,” in Negotiating Climate Change: The Inside Story of the Rio Convention, eds. Irving M. Mintzer and J.A. Leonard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 52 (“science fiction”).] 16. Bert Bolin, A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 63.


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