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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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What were climate scientists predicting in the 1970s?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

The vast majority of climate papers in the 1970s predicted warming.

Climate Myth...

Ice age predicted in the 70s

"If you go back to Time Magazine, they actually were proclaiming the next ice age is coming, now it's become global warming… How do you believe the same people that were predicting just a couple decades ago that the new ice age is coming?" (Sean Hannity)

At a glance

If you are aged 60 or over, you may remember this particular myth first-hand. For a brief time in the early to mid-1970s, certain sections of the popular media ran articles describing how we were heading for a renewed ice-age. Such silliness endures to the present day, just with a different gloss: as an example, for the UK tabloid the Daily Express, October just wouldn't be October without it publishing at least one made-up account of the impending 100-day snow-apocalypse.

There were even books written on the subject, such as Nigel Calder's mischievously-entitled The Weather Machine, published in 1974 by the BBC and accompanying a “documentary” of the same name, which was nothing of the sort. A shame, because the same author's previous effort, The Restless Earth, about plate tectonics, was very good indeed.

Thomas Peterson and colleagues did a very neat job of obliterating all of this nonsense. In a 2008 paper titled The myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus, they dared do what the popular press dared not to. They had a look at what was actually going on. Obtaining copies of the peer-reviewed papers on climate, archived in the collections of Nature, JSTOR and the American Meteorological Society and published between 1965 and 1979, they examined and rated them. Would there be a consensus on global cooling? Alas! - no.

Results showed that despite the media claims, just ten per cent of papers predicted a cooling trend. On the other hand, 62% predicted global warming and 28% made no comment either way. The take-home from this one? It's the old media adage, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!


Further details

In the thirty years leading up to the 1970s, available temperature recordings, with a poor global coverage compared to today, implied at times there might be an ongoing cooling trend. At the same time, research was continuing into the building levels of carbon dioxide and their effects on future climate, but the science world of that time was somewhat disconnected, compared to the modern age of instant communication, Zoom and so on.

There were also some notably cold winters scattered through that time, such as the UK one of 1962-63. As a result of these various goings-on, some scientists suggested that the current interglacial period could rapidly draw to a close, which might result in the Earth plunging into a new ice age over the next few centuries.

We now know that the smog that climatologists call ‘aerosols’ – emitted by human activities into the atmosphere – caused localised cooling closest to the areas where most of it originated. Smogs constitute a deadly health hazard and governments acted quickly to clean up that type of pollution: highly visible (unlike CO2), it was hard to ignore. Once largely removed, its effects no longer influenced Northern Hemisphere temperatures, that have steadily climbed since around 1970.

In fact, as temperature recording has improved in coverage, it’s become clear that the cooling trend was indeed localised – it was most pronounced in northern land areas. Other places around the world revealed a different story. Furthermore, at the same time as some scientists were suggesting we might be facing another ice age, a significantly greater number - approximately six times more - published papers indicating the opposite - that we were warming. Their papers showed that the growing amount of greenhouse gases that humans were putting into the atmosphere would cause much greater warming – warming that would exert a much stronger influence on global temperature than any possible natural or human-caused cooling effects.

By 1980, with northern hemisphere smogs a distant memory, the predictions about ice ages had ceased, at least among those working on the science, due to the overwhelming evidence for warming presented in the scientific literature (Peterson et al. 2008). Unfortunately though, the small number of predictions of an ice age were far more 'sticky' than those of global warming, so it was those sensational 'Ice Age' stories in the 1970s popular press that so many people tend to remember. Sticky themes sell papers. Today of course, with 40+years more data, far better coverage and a far bigger research community, we've reached a clear scientific consensus: 97% of working climate scientists agree with the view that human beings are causing global warming.

Last updated on 14 February 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Further reading

Denial101x video

Related video from DENIAL101x - Climate science in the 1970s

 

Comments

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Comments 101 to 125 out of 145:

  1. Don:

    Yes, I agree that the Wikipedia article I linked to does not specifically state that  Gordon MacDonald was of the view that cooling was the dominant factor. That is why I followed up with comment #93. Oreskes does say in the paper that she is examining certain issues "through the experience of one influential individual: Gordon J.F. MacDonald". If you have the information about the conference and other papers that were presented, that may give additional context.

    I disagree with your suggestion that Oreskes wanted to promote the cooling argument. I omitted the lead-up to the quote I presented in comment #92. The lead-up says:

    But one aspect of the debate not often noted by climate
    contrarians, but which they might exploit if they thought about it...

    I do not see that as an intention to promote the idea - rather, it is simply an expression of surprise that the argument is not made more often by people intent on discrediting climate science. It is an observation, not a recommendation.

    I will also re-iterate the point I made in #92 that Oreskes refers to earth scientists, geologists, and geophysicists. Not climate scientists. Climatology as a distinct science was just beginning to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to that "climatology" was largely descriptive, not process-oriented. To this date, many earth scientists have little background in the processes that affect climate - and the poorer their understanding, it seems the more likely they are to fall into the contrarian camp.

    The "Further reading" list in the OP is more geared towards what climate scientists thought and published, not what non-climate specialists in earth sciences thought.

  2. To Rob Honeycutt

    To say that the Oreskes article as a draft is an incorrect interpretation.

    It was a pre-print and never published in scientific literature but she did present these views in a European meteorology conference in Germany 

    link: LINK

    I can't fathom why an American professor of her status would travel overseas to a conference and present her article is she wasn't aligning herself to the opinions as stated in the article.

    She offered no rebuttal in her article so one must assume that it stood on its own merits. And to encourage contrarians to exploit the reversal, that's a very powerful argument that the contrarians cooling era argument has merit ~ whether we want to admit it or not.

    Why not acknowledge the 'dominant view' was wrong and science coalesced into a new consensus?

    To assert that a scientific consensus can't be wrong is a foolhardy position to take, I'm sure you'll agree.

    :)

    Science moves forward but is dismissing the pov from a science historian as esteemed as Prof Oresekes is - the best way to move forward?

    Response:

    [BL] Link linkified.

  3. To Rob Honeycutt

    You appear to have moderator status "[RH] Shortened and activated link" but the link I provided has been disappeared?

    Response:

    [BL] Yes, Rob is one of the moderators here, as am I. As a general rule, though, we do not moderate discussions that we are involved in, except for simple clerical issues such as fixing links.

    In your comment #90, the link is still there, behind the LINK text that Rob added. Hover your mouse over the link and your browser should show you the full link. In any web page, the text that is displayed and the actual link URL are two different items.

    The web software here does not automatically create links from text. You can do this when posting a comment by selecting the "insert" tab, selecting the text you want to use for the link, and clicking on the icon that looks like a chain link. Add the URL in the dialog box. In the dialog box, you will see that you have explicit control over the displayed text and the URL for the link.

  4. Don @ 102:

    Is there any particular reason you keep ignoring the "earth scientist", "geologist" and "geophysicist" qualifiers that appear in Oreske's article?

  5. To Rob Loblaw

    What is a Geologist?

    A geologist is a scientist who studies the Earth, its history, and the processes that shape and change it. Geology is a broad field that encompasses the study of rocks, minerals, fossils, mountains, volcanoes, earthquakes, rivers, oceans, glaciers, and more. Geologists use a variety of methods to gather information about the Earth, including fieldwork, laboratory analysis, computer modeling, and remote sensing techniques. They often work in teams with other scientists, engineers, and professionals to solve complex problems related to natural resources, environmental protection, land use, and natural hazards.

    That meets the definition of 'climate scientist. btw Prof Michael E Mann has a PhD in Geology, not specifically "climate science"

    :)

  6. To Rob Loblaw

    I never stated that Oreskes wanted to promote the cooling but it was an awkwardly worded challenge to contrarians to exploit if they think about it.

    The most important aspect IMHO is the following:

    "unless we can give a convincing account of the empirical reasons behind that reversal"

    "that reversal" "cooling to warming" "abrupt about-face" needed a convincing argument, I'm not sure simply dismissing it is a very convincing argument.

    Perhaps she is trying to suggest a way to maintain solidarity in needed in order to not "undermine" the consensus argument - when and if the reversal is exploited?

    I think she realizes that without a convincing argument, it's not easy to dismiss it. The reversal has legs, how strong the legs are depends on how strong the arguments are from our side.

    :)

  7. To Rob Loblaw

    "why did geologists shift their attention from cooling to warming?"

    Oreskes keeps reiterating that point for a reason.

    To counter the (pending) exploitation with a convincing argument is required, I haven't seen that argument put forward. I've seen dismissals, denials but are those very convincing? 

    :)

  8. Here's a great argument from Oreskes in her 2007 paper on the consensus.

    "might the scientific consensus be wrong? If the history of science teaches anything, it’s humility. There are numerous historical examples where expert opinion turned out to be wrong"

    The "cooling" was obviously in the data (some say cooling from the 1920s, some say cooling from the 1940s) but the warming eventually came to the forefront as Oreske stated in her 2004 article.

    Will the warming continue? That can get into a very complex discussion about the hiatus - where many diverse opinions were offered. Some of the same scientists disputed and supported the reality of hiatus. Can cooling start again despite CO₂? We really don't know so locking in only one direction for temperatures leaves an opening for contrarians to pounce when it's not warming and they took advantage of that with the so-called hiatus. Some well known climate scientists were on both sides and that wasn't very helpful.

  9. Don... "I can't fathom why an American professor of her status would travel overseas to a conference and present her article is she wasn't aligning herself to the opinions as stated in the article."

    You are very definitely misinterpreting what she's stating again, I believe primarily because you don't understand what she's saying.

    I, or anyone else here, can explain it for you if you're willing to listen.

  10. "Why not acknowledge the 'dominant view' was wrong and science coalesced into a new consensus?"

    Don... This comment is exactly what I'm talking about. There was (and still currently is) a dominant view that the earth has been cooling for the past several thousand years. There was (and still currently is) a dominant view that the earth had been cooling from the 1940's up to about the early 1970's. 

    What she's saying is that "contrarians" might exploit these facts of science in order to seed doubt in the minds of the general public about the clear reality of CO2 driven global warming.

  11. Don @108... The fundamental facts of CO2 driven warming are incredibly well understood at this point in time. For this to be wrong would require nearly two centuries of physics to be fundamentally wrong. 

    Is there a possibility that nearly all the science is getting something really basic completely wrong? Absolutely. But the question arises, are you willing to bet a sustainable, livable planet for human civilization on the slim odds that the science is wrong?

  12. Don:

    Please first do me the courtesy of getting my name right. It's Bob, not Rob. You have repeated this several times, and it makes me think you are not reading carefully.

    Not all geologists are the same. I am a physical geographer, and my specialty was climate (and more specifically, microclimate). You can read more about my background in the "Team" menu option under "About" (beneath the main masthead).

    Other physical geographers specialized in topics such as geomorphology, hydrology, etc., and within those sub-disciplines they may have specialized in coastal geomorphology, glacial geomorphology, etc. And after they finish PhDs, they spend years continuing to learn (I would hope) that would allow them to become specialists in areas peripheral from their early studies. Although I am very familiar with many of these other sides of physical geography (which overlaps with geology in many cases), it does not mean that I am an expert in coastal geomorphology.

    Unfortunately, your position in #105 that Michael Mann has a background in geology means that all geologists can be considered to be "climatologists" only demonstrates your lack of understanding of the discipline. Only a very small subset of geologists learn the processes that drive climate and can be considered to be climatologists.

    As the saying goes, cats have four legs, and dogs have four legs, but cats are not dogs.

    Your comment in #106 about Oreskes using awkward wording is only evidence of your desire to read something into it that isn't there. And your devolution into "undermine the consensus argument" only demonstrates where your true bias rests. You are seeing this as a battle between two camps, rather than a scientific discussion.

    Most of the rest of your posts are exposing your bias: you have your talking points that represent "our side" (that is, your side). You think that your misrepresentations expose some nefarious intent on the part of a group you think of as your opponents. This is most unfortunate, as it makes it very difficult to have a constructive discussion with you.

  13. One more for tonight.

    Don, you state in #108:

    Some well known climate scientists were on both sides and that wasn't very helpful.

    My challenge to you is to do two things:

    1. State clearly what you think the "both sides" are.
    2. State clearly who you think was a well-known climate scientist that was on "both sides".
  14. To Rob Loblaw

    WRT "both sides"

    Micheal E Mann for one - You are familiar with that name or would you like some background on his achievements?

    He has a geology PhD so I'm not sure if that meets everyone's definition of *climate scientist*

  15. To Bob Loblaw

    I apologize for misspelling your name, it was unintentional.

    What Oreskes stated about undermining the consensus with the reversal from cooling to warming is her pov as a professor of science history and I can't dispute it. She has much more background to draw on for her conclusions and opinions than I would. I would defer to her as the expert.

    I specifically use her terms throughout the discussion to try limit any inference that it's my opinion or my interpretation. I hope this clarifies the situation.

  16. Don:

    @114:

    You have not specified what you think are the two sides implied by your "both sides" quip.

    If  you are going to be condescending about throwing out Michael Mann's name, your credibility is going to go to zero. Without a statement explaining what you think "both sides" means, then providing names is meaningless.

    It is not the label "Geology" on Mann's PhD that makes him a climatologist. It is the nature of the work that he did (paleoclimatology) and what he has done since. It appears that you would rather obfuscate, than clarify.

    @ 115:

    Let's look at Oreskes' exact words in the last paragraph of her introduction:

    If scientific knowledge can be characterized as the convergence of expert opinion, then this kind of abrupt reversal of opinion might undermine our confidence in that knowledge, unless we can give a convincing account of the empirical reasons behind that reversal, and the historical context in which those reasons became persuasive.

    Since sarcasm and condescension seem to be the kind of discussion you want to have, please note Oreskes' use of the word "might". In case you are unfamiliar with the word, it means "possibility". It is a conditional statement, and the condition is "unless we can give a convincing account".

    The simple fact is that we do have information about why old viewpoints regarding the cooling of the earth on geological time scales transformed into an expectation that CO2 would lead to warming. And Oreskes' paper discusses this.

    You appear to want to make a mountain out of a molehill.

  17. "What Oreskes stated about undermining the consensus with the reversal from cooling to warming..."

    Once again, the earth was cooling mid-century. The earth had been cooling for the past 5-6000 years. When CO2 forcing came to dominate the trend shifted to rapid warming. 

    I believe what Dr. Oreskes is saying is, that change in the dominant view could be used by "contrariants" to cast doubt on the science. It's a rather precient statement since they subsequently did exactly that.

  18. Also, Don... It was around the 1970's when there was some disagreement in the climate science community regarding whether the cooling effects of industrial aerosols or the underlying CO2 driven warming would dominate. At that point in time, there wasn't a strong consensus. It took additional study to convince the leading experts that CO2 was the larger, longer term problem.

    The good news was that we, as a species, were able to substantively address the issue of industrial aerosols through the clean air acts in the US and similar regulations in other countries. 

  19. "You appear to want to make a mountain out of a molehill."

    But that would fall under geology, wouldn't it, Bob? ;-)

  20. To Rob Honeycutt

    What "change" took place in the "dominant view"?

    "change" - as in reversal from "cooling to waming"?

    The "abrupt about-face"?

  21. To Bob Loblaw

    "unless we can give a convincing account of the empirical reasons behind that reversal"

    I think we can agree the reversal was real. It needs to be explained by convincing arguments (rather that dismissing it out-of-hand) ~ but was that directed to the contrarians or to the "new consensus"?

    The contrarians won't be convinced - they pounced on the flip flop as Ms Oreskes feared.

    I think her article is a valuable insight into the innate complexities of climate science. The warming can taper off or cool. Maybe natural variability plates a bigger role that we might think?

    Natural variability was a common refrain used in the hiatus discussions.

  22. Don @120... The "dominant view" changed precisely because it became clear the planet had moved from a cooling period into a warming period.

    You're clearly not grasping there is no inconsistency here. What Oreskes is discussing is how "contrarians" might pick up on this fact and utilize it to create doubt in the minds of the general public related to the critical nature of CO2 driven climate change.

    It's not like before 1970 researchers thought CO2 played no role in climate. It's not like they didn't know atmospheric aerosols would cool the planet. 

    I think the difference here is related to changes in the earth's mean temperature and the cause of changes in the earth's mean temperature.

  23. To Rob Honeycutt

    One of the main thrusts of Ms Oresekes' article was the reversal of the dominant view - whether contrarians picked up on it or not.

    Why wouldn't "this abrupt about-face—from cooling to warming" create doubt?

    It seems logical to question the reversal especially when the climate scientists themselves reversed their opinion.

    A few years after the new consensus was formed - the hiatus made it's unfortunate debut.

    I think I understand why people are interested in finding out why the abrupt about-face more than 'just accept the consensus because it's a consensus and we really mean it this time''

    :)

  24. Don Williamson @123 and prior :

    To put things in a more realistic perspective : the Ocean Heat Content continued to rise during the so-called Hiatus of atmospheric temperatures.  So there was actually no real Hiatus ~ it was just an interesting talking-point.  The globe was continuing to warm.

    Yes, we can discuss "the hiatus" as an abstract concept or as a propaganda topic  ~  but we are wasting our time if we tie ourselves into a pretzel trying to argue about consensus or scientific opinion regarding a physical non-event in overall global warming.

    Propaganda point: Yes . . . a real scientific point: No

    However, the 1945-1975 "cooling pause" was definitely real.

  25. To Eclectic

    The pause or slowdown was real, 100s of peer-reviewed papers on the subject so I don't think it was just someone's fantasy. There was a contributor to this website, he was cataloguing the papers. The last time I checked, which was a few years ago, he was expecting to top 300 papers on the subject. That's a lot of papers trying to explain a "talking point"

    I can see that we'll have to agree to disagree but I've done a lot of research into the hiatus - peer-reviewed papers 'research'

    :)

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