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Was Broecker really the first to use the term Global Warming?

Posted on 30 September 2015 by Ari Jokimäki

"Global warming" is a term that is most commonly used to describe an increase in global mean surface temperature. Sometimes global warming has been used more broadly to also include temperature evolution in troposphere. In some cases the term has been falsely used in the place of the term "climate change", which has a different meaning. "Climate change" can be any change in climate parameters (for example rainfall or wind) and it doesn't have to be global.

J. Murray Mitchell. Photo from AIP website.

J. Murray Mitchell, Jr. at his home weather station. Photo from Emilio Segrè Visual Archives via AIP website.

The usage of global warming can be traced back at least to 1961 by J. Murray Mitchell Jr. (more on this below). However, NASA has a page by Eric Conway on the terminology which mistakenly claims on the origin of the term global warming:

"Its first use was in a 1975 Science article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory: "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?""

Let us see what earlier papers we can find that used the term. What is interesting, among other things, in Broecker's paper is that it uses both climate change (in the form of climatic change) and global warming in its title. Going further back from the claimed originating year of the term global warming, we somewhat interestingly find Idso (1974):

"Thus, the potential effects of a mean global warming trend upon other climatic elements and some of the earth's established agro-ecosystems are investigated."

What is interesting is that S. B. Idso is well-known by his rejection of anthropogenic global warming, and based on the abstract, this paper seems to be affirming anthropogenic global warming.

Next we encounter Wilkniss and others (1973):

"Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have been suggested as a cause of ground level global warming through the “greenhouse” effect."

And then Orheim (1972):

"Models proposed to explain climatic changes must account for a global warming from late last century to about 1940, and an antiphase cyclic relationship, characterized by dominant periods of about 11 and about 20 years, in the climatic elements that affect glacier mass balances in middle to high latitudes in the two hemispheres."

Going back further, we find Frisken (1971):

"Sellers [1969] has estimated that by the time we reach the 5% level we should have experienced global warming by more than 10°C, and eventual melting of the polar ice caps."

Going back further still, Park (1970):

"This closely coincided with a distinct global warming trend that led to an increase in world temperature by as much as 1.0°C."

From the same year, Jablonski (1970):

"All of these problems are minimized in the youngest part of the fossil record: the last 5.2 million years since the start of the Pliocene, with their oscillations between glaciations and global warming trends, are being explored in increasing stratigraphic, geochemical, and paleobiological detail (12, 50)."

And then Fletcher (1969):

"Thus, an increase in CO2 increases the so-called "greenhouse effect" and causes global warming."

Malkin (1968):

"But as soon as the ice sheet retreated northward (say, as a result of a global warming trend) and vacated the depression, it again became the site of storm tracks."

Still going further back, and this time taking a larger leap in years, we finally find Mitchell (1961):

"In attempting to identify the ultimate causes of secular climatic variation, it should be ascertained whether this global warming trend has actually leveled off in recent years, as suggested by latter-day studies of Arctic data in the Scandinavian sector (WallCn and Ahlmann, 1955; Hesselberg and Johannessen, 1958) where the warming in earlier years was particularly noticeable."

And this is as far back as I can go. So, we find that global warming has been used at least as early as 1961. As a sidenote, Mitchell uses also the term climatic change in this 1961 paper, and he also uses it in his earlier paper (Mitchell, 1953), so even this limited analysis shows that climatic change/climate change was around earlier as a term than global warming. This of course addresses the false claims that global warming was supposedly switched to climate change in 2000s.

But who was this J. Murray Mitchell Jr.? In his climate research he studied different factors affecting climate, such as aerosols, greenhouse gases, and natural variability. Here are some of the titles and quotes of his papers to give you an idea of his work:

  • "On the causes of instrumentally observed secular temperature trends" (Mitchell, 1953). "Except in the period of rapid climatic temperature change occurring since about 1890, observed temperature records, with few individual exceptions, are concluded to be very misleading as direct measures of macroclimatic change over periods longer than a few decades. With their use in climatic studies, particularly those extending back of 1900, isolation of the effects of widespread urban development and frequent thermometer relocation is imperative. At average stations in the United States, urban development has contributed local temperature rises at the rate of more than 1F in a century. The influence of very large cities has not been in proportion."
  • "The Temperature of Cities" (Mitchell, 1961b). "That certain cities are warmer than their environs has been known for a very long time. London's heat island was documented by Luke Howard (1) as long ago, apparently, as 1818. More than a century later, Vienna's was described in great detail, among others by Wilhelm Schmidt (2) who in 1927 was the first to use an automobile to obtain thermal cross-sections of a city."
  • "The Effect of Atmospheric Aerosols on Climate with Special Reference to Temperature near the Earth's Surface" (Mitchell, 1971). "Suggestions by several previous authors to the effect that the apparent worldwide cooling of climate in recent decades is attributable to large-scale increases of particulate pollution of the atmosphere by human activities are not supported by this analysis."
  • "The natural breakdown of the present interglacial and its possible intervention by human activities" (Mitchell, 1972). "The principal effects of man's activities on present-day climate are then reviewed. and the thermal effects of anticipated future increases of atmospheric carbon dioxide and particle loading are compared. It is concluded that the net impact of human activities on the climate of future decades and centuries is quite likely to be one of warming, and therefore favorable to the perpetuation of the present interglacial."
  • "An overview of climatic variability and its causal mechanisms" (Mitchell, 1976). "The overall spectrum suggests the existence of a modest degree of deterministic forms of climatic change, but sufficient nonsystematic variability to place significant constraints both on the extent to which climate can be predicted, and on the extent to which significant events in the paleoclimatic record can ever manage to be assigned specific causes."

Also, his obituary from The New York Times (1990) reveals a scientist who saw that there was something to worry about in mankind's intrusion on the climate system long before global warming really started happening.


Broecker, Wallace (1975), Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?, Science, vol. 189 (8 August 1975), 460-463.

Conway, Eric (2008), What's in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change, NASA website, May 12, 2008.

Fletcher, J.O. (1969), MANAGING CLIMATE RESOURCES, DTIC Document AD0684386, Feb 1969.

Frisken, W.R. (1971), Extended industrial revolution and climate change, Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, Volume 52, Issue 7,  pages 500–508, July 1971, DOI: 10.1029/EO052i007p00500.

Idso, S.B. (1974), Climatic effects of increased industrial activity upon the world's established agro-ecosystems, Agro-Ecosystems, Volume 1, 1974, Pages 7–17, doi:10.1016/0304-3746(74)90003-1.

Jablonski, David (1970), Extinctions: A Paleontological Perspective, Science 16 August 1991: Vol. 253  no. 5021  pp. 754-757, DOI: 10.1126/science.253.5021.754.

Malkin, N.R. (1968), The Retreat of the North American Ice Sheet and Shifts in Cyclone Tracks, Soviet Geography, Volume 9,  Issue 10, 1968, DOI:10.1080/00385417.1968.10771051.

McFadden, Robert D. (1990), J. Murray Mitchell, Climatologist Who Foresaw Warming Peril, 62, The New York Times, October 8, 1990.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1953), On the causes of instrumentally observed secular temperature trends, Journal of Meteorology, 10, 244–261, doi:;2.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1961), Recent secular changes of global temperature, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 95, Solar Variations, Climatic Change, and Related Geophysical Problems, pages 235–250, October 1961, DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1961.tb50036.x.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1961b), The Temperature of Cities, Weatherwise, Volume 14,  Issue 6, 1961, pages 224-258, DOI:10.1080/00431672.1961.9930028.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1971), The Effect of Atmospheric Aerosols on Climate with Special Reference to Temperature near the Earth's Surface, Journal of Applied Meteorology, 10, 703–714, doi:;2.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1972), The natural breakdown of the present interglacial and its possible intervention by human activities, Quaternary Research, Volume 2, Issue 3, November 1972, Pages 436-445, doi:10.1016/0033-5894(72)90069-5.

Mitchell, J.Murray Jr. (1976), An overview of climatic variability and its causal mechanisms, Quaternary Research, Volume 6, Issue 4, December 1976, Pages 481–493, doi:10.1016/0033-5894(76)90021-1.

Orheim, Olav (1972), A 200-Year Record of Glacier Mass Balance at Deception Island, Southwest Atlantic Ocean, and Its Bearing on Models of Global Climatic Change. Institute of Polar Studies Report No. 42, Research Foundation and the Institute of Polar Studies, The Ohio State University, 118 pages.

Park, G.N. (1970), Palaeoclimatic Change in the Last 1,000 Years, Tuatara: Volume 18, Issue 3, December 1970.

Wilkniss, P.E., Lamontagne, R.A., Larson, R.E., Swinnerton, J.W., Dickson, C.R., Thompson, T. (1973), Atmospheric Trace Gases in the Southern Hemisphere, Nature, 245, 45-47 (17 September 1973) | doi:10.1038/physci245045a0.


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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. I know this is in ‘English language books’ and not ‘scientific papers’, but

    show the term “climatic change” showing up regularly since about 1850, “climate change” since the 1920s and “global warming” since the late 1950s. “Climatic change” usage peaked in the 1990s, and “global warming” and “climate change” took off in 1986. In British English, “Climate change” became significantly more used than “global warming” after 1992.

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    Moderator Response:

    [Rob P] - The string you pasted, and now edited out, was breaking the page layout.

  2. Semantics aside, if you look at the global temperature graph published in Broecker's letter, It predicts the global average temperature in 2015 to within 0.1C as best as I can measure it.  Not bad for a napkin-quality projection.  I also find it interesting to compare this plot wiht the Berkeley BEST reconstruction.  Shockingly similar.

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  3. I do not know what source Tor B reffers to, but google n-gram shows "climactic change" first appearing in books in 1942"climate change" first appearing in 1776 and becoming increasingly popular after the 1960s, before skyrocketing in use from the late 1980s; and "global warming" first occuring in 1869, becoming increasingly popular from 1977 onwards, before skyrocketing in the late 1980s as well.

    On a related myth, "climate change" was initially more popular, and has been the more popular of the two terms, "climate change" and "global warming" since 1994 (significnatly so since 1996).  "Global warming" was the most popular only from 1990 - 1993.

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  4. I would argue that the examples in all the pre-1971 quotations except for Fletcher (1969) should be parsed as global (warming trend), not (global warming) trend, so 'global warming' as a term, rather than an incidental collocation, only goes back to 1969. The Google hits mentioned by Tom Curtis may take it back further, of course.

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  5. Some time ago I did the same analysis for "climate change" and "climatic change". First genuine use of "climate change" that I could find was by Willis (1925):

    Willis R (1925) Physiography of the California coast ranges. GSA Bulletin 36(4):641–678. doi:10.1130/GSAB-36-641.

    First genuine use of "climatic change" that I could find was by Mayer(1856):

    Mayer B (1856) Observations on Mexican history and archaeology: With a special notice of Zapotec remains, as delineated in JG Sawkins’s drawings of Mitla 9(4), Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

    I checked the Google book search Tom Curtis mentioned, and the 1869 book mentioning global warming seems to be faulty finding. I repeated the Google book search only for the year 1869 and I get a book by Sir Norman Lockyer which indeed seems to be from 1869. However, when you look at the actual findings from the text, you see that global warming has been found from somewhere that clearly is more modern text. I cannot check further as the search results don't give you an option to open the findings further. So, it seems to me that Google book search returns an 1869 book based on search hits from some other book which is more modern.

    This is the same thing I noticed when I was digging on this with Google Scholar: you don't usually find the truth simply by looking search hit numbers, you have to dig the search results to see which hits are genuine and which hits are not (I wrote an article on this a while back).

    That being said, it would be interesting to see what are the late 1950s books in Tor B's search results. Also, what was the search engine as the resulting numbers agree quite well with my numbers? I know that there are more accurate search engines than Google, but for scientific searches those engines usually require subsription and are limited in their historical paper content.

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  6. The 1776 "climate change" hits in Tom Curtis' search at first look seem to be genuine, excellent!

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  7. Treesong2 @4, the term "global warming" only appears in the title of Broecker's article.  In the abstract, he writes:

    "If man-made dust is unimportant as a major cause of climatic change, then a strong case can be made that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide. By analogy with similar events in the past, the natural climatic cooling which, since 1940, has more than compensated for the carbon dioxide effect, will soon bottom out. Once this happens, the exponential rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide content will tend to become a significant factor and by early in the next century will have driven the mean planetary temperature beyond the limits experienced during the last 1000 years."

    Clearly he is happy to use "a pronounced warming" and "global warming" synomomously.  That being the case, your argument applies as much to his article as to any prior.  The fact is that terms in a language are very rarely introduced by definition.  Rather, a standard usage will get frequent application to a particular context, and by familiarity come to name the phenomenon in that context specifically.  Thus, we will have a large number of instances of people referring to the "global (warming trend)" that currently exists, and is induced anthropogenic factors.  As a result, people will come to understand by "global warming" the current warming trend induced by anthropogenic factors, ie, "Global Warming".  Without that later linguistic development, we would interpret Broecker's use as "global (warming trend)" no less than any of the others.  It follows that the others have a greater claim to "first use of the term" even though they did not use it with its current meaning.

    Note that if we insist the "first use" be a use which clearly uses the modern sense, then a sorites paradox arises as usage will gradually shift from the earlier to the later.


    With regard to the n-gram, using a case sensitive filter, the first appearance of "Global Warming" is in 1890.  It occurs again in 1961, 1969, and 1975, occuring every year thereafter.  It becomes common in 1989, but remains a distinct minority usage relative to "global warming".  Arguable, any capitalization of the term other then in titles represents a modern usage. 

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  8. That 1890 case sensitive hit is "The Sanitarian" by Agrippa Nelson Bell. It contains the search phrase only once, and it is this:

    "Cholera in Persia, 60. Civic Cleanliness, Coleman, 3. Climate, Change of, 356. Clothing in its Relations to Hygiene, Hibberd, 139. Cocaine Poisoning, Ammonia in, 87. Codeine, 380. Coffin Nails, 147. Colds, Acute and How to Treat them, 382."

    This is one bad aspect of Google searches, the exact phrase search matches also those phrases that have punctuation marks in them.

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  9. Just to be clear, Wally Broecker did not promote himself initially as the person who coined the term “global warming”. Years ago he was asked by a reporter if his 1975 paper, quoted in this article, was the first use of the term. He was unsure, so he asked several of his colleagues, including me, if anyone was aware of a prior use of the term. As far as I know, no one did a rigorous search like that performed by Ari Jokimäki, but none of the people queried by Broecker was aware of prior use of the term. Nevertheless, largely as a consequence of Broecker’s query, it became conventional to ascribe the coinage of the term “global warming” to Broecker’s 1975 paper. I’ve been guilty of that myself. Now, thanks to this post, I won’t make that mistake again.

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  10. For the record, I used Google's Ngram (1st comment above), and discounted small numbers and 'early' blips of larger ones (and therefore my using the phrase "showing up regularly" and terms suggesting "about").  The link I attempted to include that was removed identified this source. [Sorry, Rob, for creating the problem.]  Removing the small numbered hits was my lazy method of attempting to avoid chance hits such as Ari notes in Comment #8.

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  11. Thanks for the insider information, boba10960. I have cited a NASA page from 2008 making the claim that Broecker was the first, but did the things you describe happen before that? I'm just wondering what is the route of this becoming a popular thing to say that Broecker was the first to use the term.

    Tor B, thanks for the elaboration. I quickly checked 1959 and 1958 results from Google books for the "global warming" and didn't see much else than books with wrong publication year in Google database. So perhaps there actually are no late 1950s books using the term.

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  12. What a great discussion of history.   Unique and dynamic times require the invention of new terms.  Language as significant, heroic action.   

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  13. There is an unavoidable confusion in use of the term "warming" which can mean "increase in temperature" and also "addition of thermal energy". It appears to me, from personal experience and from the fascinating discussions here, that Global "Warming" refers to increasing temperature. Myself, I am becoming more fond of the addition of heat, which, among other things, renders the "Global Warming Hiatus" meaningless.

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  14. Ari Jokimäki comment 8: I'm afraid my sense of time isn't as good as I wish it were. If I recall correctly, the question came up around the time that one of Broecker's books on climate change was released, but I don't recall which book. I believe it occurred before 2008, but I can't be certain.

    What I do recall more clearly is that Broecker was not concerned at that time about being credited with coining the term "global warming." In fact, at the time that he was querying his colleagues about the term's origin he was pretty certain that the term had been used previously, but he was unsure of its source. His priority has always been to inform policy makers about the urgency of dealing with warming, as illustrated so well in his "angry beast" metaphor.

    More important than the terminology, in my opinion, is that Broecker's 1975 paper presented the view of global warming held by the best informed scientists at the time. One often sees "skeptics" say that climate scientists have done a 180-degree flip-flop in their "alarmism," warning of a pending ice age in the 70's before switching to global warming in the 80's. My response to anyone who raises this flip-flop issue is to point them to Broecker's 1975 paper as evidence of the mainstream view at the time.

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  15. This of course addresses the false claims that global warming was supposedly switched to climate change in 2000s.

    Pointing out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 doesn't do the trick?

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  16. It would have been gooder if a few scientists had gotten together some decades ago and provided a definition of "global warming". The present eclectic mix of alleged definitions that I've seen are poor quality with a few having some hilarity aspect, and a waste of time in debate. Anthropogenic global warming is surface warming caused by humans that's mostly caused by humans as I understand it.

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  17. There is a book published in 1971 called 'Energy' by John Holdren (yeah that guy) and Phillip Herrera, which is sort of a textbbook. In it I was quite amazed to see a couple of pages discussing future global warming due to the CO2 greenhouse effect. It gives a suprisingly accurate estimate of the warming expected by the year 2000, of 0.8C. And it accounts for the trends of the previous 70 years in a way more or less similarl with today's explanation. It further explains that this small warming could cause sea level rise and changes in the global circulation patterns that would impact agriculture, etc.  

    The book cites a 1970 workshopat Williams college on "Man's Impact on the Global Environment" as a source (MIT press). 

    Whether or not they had coined the term by then, it is impressive how much the experts knew was coming by 1970.

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