Climate Science Glossary

Term Lookup

Enter a term in the search box to find its definition.


Use the controls in the far right panel to increase or decrease the number of terms automatically displayed (or to completely turn that feature off).

Term Lookup


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.

Home Arguments Software Resources Comments The Consensus Project Translations About Support

Twitter Facebook YouTube Mastodon MeWe

RSS Posts RSS Comments Email Subscribe

Climate's changed before
It's the sun
It's not bad
There is no consensus
It's cooling
Models are unreliable
Temp record is unreliable
Animals and plants can adapt
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
View All Arguments...

New? Register here
Forgot your password?

Latest Posts


George Will - Still Recycling Classic Climate Change Myths for The Washington Post

Posted on 27 February 2013 by dana1981

In an opinion article for The Washington Post about the impending automatic budget sequestration in the USA, George Will inexplicably compared the situation to the long-debunked climate myth of an ice age predicted in the 1970s.  In the article, Will argues that President Obama and American liberals are effectively "crying wolf" about the effects of the sequestration on the economy, and compares the situation to supposed predictions of impending cooling made in the 1970s.

Reality Check - 1970s Scientists Predicted Global Warming

In reality, a survey of peer reviewed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 showed that fewer than 10% papers predicted global cooling while significantly more papers (62%) predicted global warming (Peterson 2008; Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of papers classified as predicting global cooling (blue) or warming (red). From Peterson 2008.

Willful Misrepresentation

So how does Will argue otherwise?  See if you can spot the similarity between most of the sources he cites to support this myth:

"Remember when “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” (New York Times, May 21, 1975) with “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976) which must “stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery” (International Wildlife, July 1975)? Remember reports that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age” (Science Digest, February 1973)? Armadillos were leaving Nebraska, heading south, and heat-loving snails were scampering southward from European forests (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 27, 1974). Newsweek (April 28, 1975) said meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that cooling would “reduce agricultural productivity.”

The New York Times, International Wildlife, Science Digest, Christian Science Monitor, and Newsweek – these are all mainstream newspaper and magazine sources, not peer-reviewed scientific journals.  The one exception is a study published in Science magazine by Hays, Imbrie, and Shackleton (1976); however, the paper investigated the Earth's orbital cycles which operate on timescales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years (emphasis added to the portion of the quote Will conveniently left out):

"...the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is towards extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate"

Will has badly misrepresented their study by claiming that Hays et al. were predicting an impending ice age.

Will You Please Learn from your Mistakes?

Perhaps the worst part of Will's argument is that he has been repeating the same myth for years and years.  As the Center for American Progress has documented, Will made the same argument, citing the same references in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2006, 2009, and now again in 2013.  The climate scientists at RealClimate debunked Will repeating this myth using the same sources in January of 2005, over eight years ago, as did Gilbert Martinez in 2006, and Brad Johnson in 2009

But apparently Will has refused to learn a thing about this subject in the past 21 years.

Where Did the Myth Come From?

Obviously there was some basis to the media stories Will cites; as Peterson (2008) noted, there were a few scientific papers predicting potential global cooling in the 1970s.  Perhaps the most famous such paper was Rasool and Schneider (1971):

"An increase by only a factor of 4 in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5°K."

Yes, their global cooling projection was based on a quadrupling of atmospheric aerosol concentration (aerosols cause cooling by blocking sunlight).  This wasn't an entirely unrealistic scenario at the time – after all, sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions were accelerating quite rapidly up until the early 1970s (Figure 2).  These emissions caused various environmental and public health problems, and as a result, a number of countries, including the USA, started limiting SO2 emissions through Clean Air Acts.  Consequently, not only did atmospheric aerosol concentrations not quadruple, but emissions even declined starting in the late 1970s:

SO2 emissions

Figure 2: Global sulfur dioxide emissions by source (PNNL)

As Peter Gleick recently discussed, there is a difference between a projection based on a possible scenario and a prediction.  The possibility of global cooling in the 1970s was based on a conditional scenario in which human aerosol emissions continued to rise rapidly.  That scenario did not actually occur.

Similarly, future global warming projections are based on various possible greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.  If we can get our greenhouse gas emissions under control, we can limit future global warming as well.

George Zombie Will

It's difficult to understand why George Will keeps raising this climate myth from the dead.  Perhaps he needed another 100 words to meet his quota.  Perhaps he forgot the many times this myth has been debunked.  Perhaps he wanted to add more controversy to his article.

Whatever the reason, it's very difficult to take George Will seriously if he can't learn from repeatedly making the same mistake over a period of two decades.  The lesson to be learned here – aside from "stop repeating a myth at least a few years after it's been repeatedly debunked" – is that we should listen both to what climate scientists actually say, and their explanations for why they say it.  Because unlike George Will, climate scientists know a thing or two about the climate.

0 0

Printable Version  |  Link to this page


Comments 1 to 24:

  1. Dana: Kudos on an excellent post.

    For those who may not be aware, George Will's columns are routinely re-published in numerous newspapers throughout the U.S. This is why it is so important for authors like Dana to rebute the poppycock about climate science and climate scientists that he frequently spreads.  

    0 0
  2. The 1970s global cooling concern was engendered by a 1972 conference at Brown University called "The present interglacial: how and when will it end?"  (Quaternary Research, November 1972). George Kukla and Robert Matthews, who organized the meeting, wrote to President Nixon about the need to study climatic change that might signal the onset of renewed glaciation.  Concern for global cooling was very real and well documented.

    0 0
  3. The final paragraph of the 1976 Hays, Imbrie and Shackleton Science paper seems clear enough (emphasis added):

    7) A model of future climate based on the observed orbital-climate relationships, but ignoring anthropogenic effects, predicts that the long-term trend over the next several thousand years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.

    But perhaps Will hasn't had a chance to read it yet.

    0 0
  4. I'm surprised that Will would head back into this territory.  Several of his recent climate-myth laced opinion pieces have resulted in the Post publishing rebuttals from scientists.  I think one even generated an article by the paper's ombudsman.  I guess he feels safer in the 1970's.  He has become a laughingstock inside the DC area with recent opinion pieces on the evils of blue jeans and criticism of an elementary schools' student government elections.  I think the single biggest reason he still gets published is because his peers have gotten even worse with the facts.

    0 0
  5. I believe we may have an apples and oranges thing here. 

    Will did not claim anything as far as peer reviewed papers goes.  He just listed several stories in the media.  To refute his anology with a chart of peer reviewed papers is not accurate.  He doesn't even make the claim that these articles that he is citing are the majority of the articles written on the subject, or that they are even written by scientists - in fact, he is implying that they were written by the "liberal media".

    0 0
  6. Hayduke @2 - again, it sounds like you're referring to very long-term climate changes, not imminent ones.

    Magma @3 - good point.

    0 0
  7. Kevin @5 - if you want to compare apples to apples, then Will should have listened to climate scientists in the 1970s, and he should be listenting to economists about the effects of the sequester today (which he is not doing, but that's off-topic).

    0 0
  8. What Magma said, Hayduke.  We now know with high confidence that orbital forcing is no match for anthro forcing.  See Tzedakis et al. (2012).

    0 0
  9. What Will cites is quite irrelevant. He's pushing the "scientists predicted cooling on the 70's" thing, which is a fat pile of BS. Anyone who actually has looked into it knows it's BS. Will knows it's BS.If he doesn't by now, he has likely gone somewhat senile. It is rather sad that the W.P. is compromising itself with such nonsense. 

    0 0
  10. Kevin@5 - I suppose you can assume Will is not promoting the idea that the media's distortion of what scientists "really thought" as indicated in the survey of peer reviewed papers in Figure 1, and instead say he is simply saying the "liberal media" got it wrong about an imminent ice age and are wrong now about the impact of the sequester. But that was his point, it would have been easy for him to simply add a sentence clarifying that the "liberal media" was wrong in the 1970's because they were misinterpreting or misrepresenting the then-current state of the science.  But he didn't - and the likely reason is because he doesn't respect the now-current state of scientific understanding. Which is why Will himself is acting just like the "liberal media" did regarding ice age stories in the 70's.

    0 0
  11. Dana, John - Check figure 1 caption against the year 1971 in that year. I think the caption wants some correction? as that ONE year of that decade when it isn't. Needn't leave this comment up but you really want to make the caption exactly match the graph.
    0 0
  12. George Will is one pundit who, in service to his deeply-held conservative beliefs, will twist almost everything he says.  Some part of his mind knows he's repeating a lie, but another part overrules it because it provides much-needed 'confirmation bias' for his readers.  In the particular battle for ideas Will and others are engaged in, in America, the truthfulness of those ideas is no longer important.  Their 'truthiness' IS.

    0 0
  13. Kevin's comment @5 is probably more revealing than he would like.  What George will wrote was:

    'Remember when “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” (New York Times, May 21, 1975) with “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976) which must “stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery” (International Wildlife, July 1975)? Remember reports that “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age” (Science Digest, February 1973)? Armadillos were leaving Nebraska, heading south, and heat-loving snails were scampering southward from European forests (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 27, 1974). Newsweek (April 28, 1975) said meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that cooling would “reduce agricultural productivity.” '

    Note the lack of mention of the term "liberal media".  Therefore it is Kevin, not George Will who has classified Science as part of the "liberal media".  Presumably Nature, PNAS, etc are also "liberal media" in his eyes.

    While on the subject of Science Magazine, the discussion of "Future Climate" in the paper Will cites (all two paragraphs of it) indicates that in the absence of anthropogenic factors, "... the long term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and a cooler climate".  (My emphasis)  What scaremongering.  Suggesting that in the absence of anthropogenic factors we may face future glaciation sometime in the next 20,000 years. (/sarc)

    In fact, in defending Wills, Kevin completely misrepresents his argument.  Wills is at pains to suggest that there was a concensus of scientists believing in global cooling in the 1970s, hence the quotation of comments such as "the world's climatologists are agreed" and 'meteorologists were “almost unanimous” ' .  That suggestion is necessary to his argument because there is undoubtedly a concennsus now that human emissions are causing global warming.  By restricting the claim to "liberal media" Kevin undermines its logical force (even if he makes it more accurate).

    As a final note, the most breathless quote reported by Wills is from International Wildlife, saying that global cooling must "stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery".  That quote is from Nigel Calder, co-author with Svenmark of "The Chilling Stars".  So the irony is that while Will can ony suggest the scare mongering of scientists by misrepresentation, he provides evidence that one of the denier's own darlings is a poor analyst of climate data, and not to be trusted.

    0 0
  14. The New York Times

    Science Magazine

    International Wildlife

    Science Digest

    Christian Science Monitor



    These are not you typical locations to see peer reviewed science papers.  The article was written to demonstrate Will's belief that the President and liberals were/are participating in hysteria mongerring. 

    Those quotes about climotologists are agreed etc were the titles of the articles, not his opinions.

    I did not misrepresent Will's argument.

    0 0
  15. Kevin @14, Science Magazine, which dates back to 1880, is one of the top two general science journals in the world.

    0 0
  16. Kevin - I'm afraid you're just reinforcing Tom Curtis's observations. Will is portraying 'mainstream' climate science in the 1970's as having been in error, as a necessary antecedent for his assertion that mainstream science is wrong now. 

    You are the one who referred to the 'liberal media' and to liberals, not Will. That assertion of a biased media would in fact undermine Wills argument - it's entirely opposite to his claim. 

    As it stands:

    • Wills argument was wrong the first time he made it (as his quotes are not science papers, represented minority views, and include previous/current climate denialists)
    • It's wrong now (nothing has changed in his references, and he's been shown repeatedly to be incorrect)
    • You have with your introduction of the phrase "liberal media" indicated your position and outlook (an outlook not commonly open to persuasion or to facts).
    0 0
  17. I'd say this article does a pretty good, although unintentional, job of supporting Will's statements. But then it is normal for Global Warming enthusiasts to intrepret contrary evidence as supporting evidence.

    0 0
  18. pelewis...  Your statement makes no sense without anything to back up your conclusion.

    0 0
  19. pelewis @17, unless Will's point that you should not base policy on minority views in science; but only on a solid concensus, your claim is simply false.  Of course, if that was his point, as a firm concensus is in favour of sequestration, Will's article is self refuting.

    0 0
  20. There is a sizeable portion the conservative population that calls liberal media any outlet that publishes anything that is found threatening to an ideology with which there is an overwhelming emotional involvement. George Will demonstrates how that emotional involvement gets the better of one's judgement. A very clear example of this was given by the latest election.

    As results started to come in and forecast could be made more and more accurate, any source projecting a result that was emotionally unacceptable was subjected to some sort of attack, often personal and removed from the subject matter. Eventually an more emotionally pleasing reality was substituted to the threatening one, and it was kept up by all possible means until denial became competely impossible to keep up.

    The same behavior is observed toward AGW or anything that threatens the ideology. In the case of AGW, denial is rendered easier and deeper by the slow pace, the relatively subtle changes and the solid scientific litteracy necessary to understand the subject, litteracy that lacks in a large portion of the general population. I predict that, even when summer Arctic sea ice will have become a thing of the past, there will still be plenty of denial to go around.

    George Will or Kevin's behaviors are predictable and understandable: they are defense mechanisms. 

    0 0
  21. Dana @6, in the 1970's George Kukla and a few other climate scientists actually did believe that an ice age was pending on time scales relevant to humans.  That concern was expressed in his letter to President Nixon in 1972.  However, Kukla's was not the mainstream view of climate scientists in the 70's, which is better represented by Wally Broecker's paper:

    Broecker, W.S., 1975. Climatic Change - Are We on Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming. Science, 189(4201): 460-463.

    Broecker and Kukla are very close personal friends, but on more than one occasion I have seen Broecker show a slide of Kukla's letter to Nixon to tease him for being out of touch with the mainstream view in the 70's.  As noted by Dana and by many other comments here, it is incorrect to present a real but minority view from the 1970's as the consensus belief at the time among climate scientists.  

    0 0
  22. Even if, for the sake of argument, one were to concede that rapid global cooling was a mainstream view among climatologists and related scientists in the 1970s, as far as I can see it does nothing to undermine the present conclusions regarding the behaviour of the Earth climate, as these conclusions are built on a large, continually-expanding body of independent, convergent lines of evidence - more and better evidence than there was in the 1970s supporting any conclusion of global cooling.

    0 0
  23. It's worth pointing ut that Will was corrected on misuse of the same Science article (Dec 10, 1976)  seven years ago:

    It's one thing to make a mistake with science.  It's bad when you don't acknowledge your error.  But it's just plain dishonest when you do it again after being publicly corrected.  Will's professionalism is competely gone.


    0 0
  24. Will's column was carried in our newspaper (the Holland, MI Sentinel), and I wrote a letter to the editor in reply before seeing this section of :

    I wish I had seen the article here beforehand, so that I could have included a link to it.  I think it's really important to address the climate change denials that misrepresent science, scientists, and their motivations in even small newspapers every time we see them.  There are lots of folks who still get most of their news from such sources, and who are more likely to take a challenge from within their own community more seriously than one that originates from elsewhere.

    0 0

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or if you're new, register here.

The Consensus Project Website


(free to republish)

© Copyright 2024 John Cook
Home | Translations | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us