Let's do the Time warp again!

Posted by Graham Thompson — 28 June 2013 at 1:06pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: petepassword
Thanks to petepassword for this Time Magazine spoof cover

So why did David Rose put a forgery of a Time Magazine cover in the Mail on Sunday? Well, the simple answer is that there weren't any real Time covers which supported his point, otherwise I'm sure he would have used one of them. His point was, to quote Michael Crichton, "in the 1970′s (sic) all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming.”

The subtext being that climate scientists are slightly hysterical doom-mongers who were wrong then and so can be wrong now. I'm sure you can guess who really has the monopoly on wrongness in this debate.

According to a meta-analysis conducted by the American Meteorological Society of the relevant peer-reviewed literature, between 1965 and 1979 there were 44 papers published predicting global warming, 20 papers which took no view on whether the world was warming or cooling, and only seven which predicted cooling. So there wasn't really a scientific consensus on global temperature in the 70s, but a large majority of climate scientists believed that the world was warming, not cooling.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the relatively flat period in the surface temperature record stretching from WWII to the seventies was probably caused by sulphur dioxide and aerosol pollution blocking sunlight, and that this effect lessened over subsequent decades, when we saw the most rapid rise in temperature. Some scientists in the seventies thought the blocking effect might continue and increase, leading to cooling, most thought it would be overwhelmed by the warming impact of CO2 emissions, and the majority turned out to be right.

So there's your answer regarding the scientific consensus in the 70s; there wasn't anywhere near the level of unity there is now, with issues now long-settled being the subject of genuine controversy, but the warmists outnumbered the ice-agers by 44 to seven.

But, and this is a small ‘but’, the US media did run with the ‘new ice age’ idea in a big way, possibly because the 70s saw a lot of cold weather in the US, and so whilst it was not representative of the actual science, the mainstream coverage in the 70s could easily lead one to believe that there was a cooling consensus. At the very least, there was enough media taking that line to provide a strong evidence base for the claim that there was a media scare, even if it didn’t come from climate scientists.

Or at least, that’s what I thought.

But now that I’ve done a little digging, it turns out the fallback ‘media predicted an ice age in the 70s’ meme is nearly as over-hyped as the ‘scientists predicted an ice age in the 70s’ meme.

As one example, the famous American columnist George Will has quoted a 1975 New York Times piece in three separate columns - one in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and two in the Washington Post. The NYT piece claimed that climatologists were seeing “many signs” that “Earth may be heading for another ice age”. Except that it didn’t. The line Will quoted did not appear in the NYT at all, and the article he claimed to be the source was actually titled ‘Warming trend seen in climate’.

As another example, many of the denier blogs compile lists of media articles which support the ‘70s ice age scare’ meme, and their favourite image to illustrate such lists is this (real) 1977 Time magazine cover –

Except, the ‘Big Freeze’ article isn’t about an imminent ice age, or even climatology. It’s just about the undeniably cold weather the US was having at the time. And if you check those lists on the denier blogs you’ll find they aren’t really lists of articles supporting the meme, they’re lists of articles with titles which sound as though they might support the meme, if you don’t bother to check. For example, there's yet another very similar Time cover from 1973 with the exact same title, 'the Big Freeze', which is also not about climatology, but about the energy crisis.

And, if you can be bothered, it’s easy to find media predictions of global warming from the seventies (in, for example, many of the more scholarly articles cited by deniers to support their ice age meme), and also from the sixties and the fifties, but why would you bother? What the media may or may not have said half a century ago is not really all that relevant. What is relevant is what the science says – we’re warming and we will continue to warm - and in the scientific literature, you can find warming predictions all the way back to Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

Deniers can’t fabricate peer-reviewed papers to support their false 70s ice age meme, but they’ve clearly had a good go at fabricating or misrepresenting media reports to try to make that meme more plausible, and the fact that they’ve fabricated or misrepresented those reports is enough evidence that the meme can’t be supported honestly. If they had real evidence, why fabricate?

This youtube video provides quite an entertaining debunking of the whole 1970s ice age myth, and is well worth watching, as is this one on the same topic. They both cover a lot of ground, so if any reader wants me to defend one of the claims made in either film, please quote the exact claim and the time in the video when it is made along with your reasons for doubting it – they both have timed transcripts so that shouldn’t be too hard.

If you want your sources and references to be more accessible, then the ever reliable Skeptical Science has an explanation here.

Finally, I would like to express once more my gratitude to Carbon Brief for all their work on David Rose's haplessness - what must seem at times to be a thankless task. 

Thank you, Carbon Brief, thank you for all of this.

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