My perspective on ‘climate change’ and global warming. 2. A chronology of the scare

In this second essay about my perspective on global warming I step back to provide a chronology. An interest in weather and its variability is part of our culture, and may even be embedded in the human psyche. It continues to be important to know when it rained last year, when floods come, how long droughts last, and so on. Human societies are vulnerable to changes in the weather, and even more to changes in climate (meaning, the average of weather over thirty years — the current conventional definition). Rome got its bread from the wheat grown on the North African shores on the Mediterranean; that would not be possible today, because of long-term climate change that has made the whole of North Africa much dryer than it was two thousand years ago.

The global warming scare, now referred to more vaguely (and all-embracingly) as ‘climate change’, because warming levelled out in the 21st century, followed a global cooling scare in the 1970s, about which more anon. But its scientific origin is in the 19th century.

In 1857 John Tyndall, an English scientist, defined the ‘greenhouse gas effect’ and showed that the principal actor in the effect was water vapour.  At the end of the 19th century (1896) a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, explored the greenhouse effect further and discovered the importance of carbon dioxide in it. He proposed that an geometric progression in the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would produce an arithmetic increase in atmospheric temperature.

He was followed in 1938 by an English engineer, Guy Callendar, who showed that the relationship between an increases in carbon dioxide and increases in temperature was likely to be logarithmic. Callendar is an interesting fellow, and I wrote an essay about his work here. He thought the warming effect was beneficial to humanity, and that it might keep the next ice-age away indefinitely.

While the planet had warmed from about 1910 to 1940, warming then slowed down,  and there was in fact a mild cooling over the next three decades.


The climate botherers of the 1970s were worried about a continuation of that cooling, and they included James Hansen and Stephen Schneider, later passionate warmists. The peak years for the coolists were the mid 1970s, with many articles in major newspapers and magazines pointing to a doom around the corner. The articles were based on what ‘scientists’ had said. They were no ‘climate scientists’ at that time.

Fortune Magazine won a Science Writing Award from the American Institute for Physics for such an essay, which included this summary: As for the present cooling trend a number of leading climatologists have concluded that it is very bad news indeed. The New York Times told its readers that the facts of the present climate change are such that the most optimistic experts would assign near certainty to major crop failure…mass deaths by starvation, and probably anarchy and violence. Nigel Calder, then the editor of New Scientist, averred that The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.

That sort of language is familiar to us, but the prophesied doom then was ice, not fire. No matter, from 1975 warming returned and went sharply upward. It was not long before the botherers began to worry about ‘where this would all lead’, and in June 1988 James Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), testifying before a Senate committee, said that ‘global warming’ had begun, and that this was a very bad thing. His testimony was reported around the world, along with scary stuff about what would happen unless humanity stopped burning fossil fuels and clearing forests. The following extract, from The New York Times report of his speech, is characteristic.

If the current pace of the buildup of these gases continues, the effect is likely to be a warming of 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit [1.2C to 4.2C] from the year 2025 to 2050, according to these projections. This rise in temperature is not expected to be uniform around the globe but to be greater in the higher latitudes, reaching as much as 20 degrees [9.4C], and lower at the Equator. The rise in global temperature is predicted to cause a thermal expansion of the oceans and to melt glaciers and polar ice, thus causing sea levels to rise by one to four feet [25 to 100 cm] by the middle of the next century.

By and large the scary stuff has never stopped. Hansen prophesied that in twenty years the West Side Highway in New York City would be under water, and that apartment windows would be taped against the high winds. What did happen was something else: a rapid acceleration both of the global awareness of ‘global warming’, and in the attempt to do something about it. Green parties had begun to appear in the 1970s, and were significant in Tasmania, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The major parties now began to take notice.

The dates now come thick and fast. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, and it issued its first, somewhat tentative, report in 1990. The United Nations hosted a conference in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro that was called the ‘Earth Summit’. It agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which included the intellectually vapid ‘precautionary principle’. The IPCC’s second report, in 1995, said that it had identified the signature of human activity in global warming, though that signature was hard to see, and remains elusive even today. Carbon dioxide was now unmistakably the unpopular villain in the piece.

In 1997 came the Kyoto Protocol in which nations signed up to do the right thing. The USA did not agree to sign, and neither did Australia. The following year brought a major el Nino, a sharply pronounced warming episode, originating in the Pacific. El Ninos had been known by meteorologists for fifty years, and by Peruvian fishermen for three centuries. El Ninos are not brought about by greenhouse gas emissions, but the episode nonetheless intensified the scare, now one of the staples of the mass media. The IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (TAR) introduced the world to the ‘hockey stick’ of Michael Mann, an unknown young American academic who became famous overnight for a graph that purported to show that neither the well-known Mediaeval Warming Period nor the later Little Ice Age had ever existed, and that  warming began almost in our own lifetimes and was therefore due to us.

In 2005 the Kyoto Protocol came into effect (Australia would sign two years later, when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister). In 2006 Al Gore, former Vice-President of the United States released a film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which was genuinely scary, and intended to be so. We must act now. ‘The debate is over’. A year later the IPCC’s AR4 said that things were really bad, in fact worse than we had expected. A Conference planned for Copenhagen in 2009 would agree on on a global plan to turn things around.

Just before Copenhagen (whose Conference was greeted by spectacular snow) appeared a leaked series of emails that had originated in the University of East Anglia’s climate group, but involved people from all over the world. It did not present climate science activists in a good light. The Conference in Copenhagen could agree on nothing of consequence, and was a flop. The scare subsided, though it never went away. In 2013 the fact that warming had slowed down remarkably (or stopped, according to which dataset you liked) was finally recognised officially. By then more than 50 different reasons for ‘the hiatus’ had been produced by those convinced that CO2 was the  real problem. In 2015 the world finally agreed in Paris to sign something that committed nobody to anything of any importance.

I came into all this around 2005, with Kyoto. It has been an amazing intellectual journey ever since, quite without precedent in my life. This is probably a good place to say, firmly, that in my opinion the AGW scare is not a scam, a hoax or a conspiracy. It is much more complex than that. If you want an analogy, it would be the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s, the sort of popular delusion that infects every society from time to time. This one has infected the Western world, though not Russia, China or India.

What has changed is the timing of the scares. For the early climate botherers, doom was close, and that helps to explain the urgency to get a global agreement in 2009. Today the forecast doom is conveniently far away, perhaps because none of the  originally forecast dooms actually occurred. And exactly what the future doom will bring is rather vaguer, too.

Next: The core argument behind the AGW scare

Join the discussion 41 Comments

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Thanks Don – a good reminder of how long this affair has been going on. It’s longevity in the face of decades of failed dire predictions says much about our claims to be a rational species, but I agree with you that it is not a scam, a hoax or a conspiracy. But why so many so-called scientists continue to ignore facts and back the scare both confounds and worries me – if scientists don’t use the scientific method, where are we headed?

  • Well it really is a combination of scam, conspiracy and popular delusion. People like George Strong were driving a political agenda at the UN level from the beginning. They had the ideal platform with funding, power and influence without accountability or responsibility for the consequences of their actions like the tens or hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation due to the corn taken out of the food chain to put in petrol tanks.

    Looking at the corruption and degeneration in some areas of climate science and the commentary upon climate issues, something has clearly gone badly astray. It helps to follow the money and it also helps to understand what it means to have science dominated by what Kuhn called “normal science” which consists of highly trained technicians doing what they are told. Still more is required and it is possible that the late Gordon Tullock provided it.

    “IT” is a MECHANISM to account for the process of decay in scientific credibility (interestingly, published in 1966, before anyone ever talked about climate science!).

    There are examples of important theories which were not accepted for want of a mechanism to explain the facts. Simmelweis practically eliminated childbirth fever in his some wards in a Vienna hospital by having people wash their hands but this was before the germ theory so there was no explanation.

    And acceptance of continental drift theory was held up until there was an account of the energy source required to move the masses.

    Maybe Tullock provided the necessary x factor to explain what is going on in the dominant part of climate science.

  • Peter McCloy says:

    Australia under John Howard did sign the Kyoto agreement, and initiated legislation to take appropriate action. Rudd ratified the agreement.

  • Replying to Doug Hirst on scientists and the scientific method, part of the problem lies with the mainstream of the philosophy of science since the Vienna Circle of logical positivists in the 1930s. Their ideas contributed zero to the activities of scientists. Richard Feynman was notoriously contemptuous of philosophy but he never encountered Karl Popper, although he practiced the Popperian critical approach pure and simple. Popper was effectively sidelined by the mainstream as an interesting but out of date eccentric, superseded by Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend and the POMOS. Revive critical rationalism and the critical method “you may be right and I may be wrong, and with an effort we may be able to get closer to the truth”!

  • Alan Gould says:

    As ever,
    Lucid, engaging discussion, Don. You give the provenance, the progress and the underpinning. And you are ‘on the money’ regarding the social nature of the AGW panic. The proposition is that ideas containing a power to arouse dread are as infectious as influenza, and spread by simply being in the air. This accounts for how resistant to fairly reasoned argument the warmists seem to be. If one espouses the warmist conviction, AGW may have an effect on one’s thinking, but it has had a pre-emptive effect on one’s well-being.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    An excellent piece Don, as usual. The only part that I have some issue with is that you don’t see this as a ‘hoax, scam, or conspiracy’. When I see non-scientists (especially Gore) promote a scenario rooted in science to frighten people, and thereby profit from it, then I smell scam. As for scientists engaged in rent-seeking projects, is that driven by survival instincts? I don’t see how serious scientists exercising even a modicum of due diligence would not figure this out. That being so in very many cases, then it must surely revert to a belief or faith system and that makes it a religion, something that you didn’t mention. I also see (and understand) how survival instinct might compromise personal integrity when whole institutions like CSIRO and the BoM push an unscientific (not supported by evidence) view.

  • MarkA says:

    Don, my partially academic observation would suggest that there are schools at “war” to a certain extent here? Climate science and climatology and even satellite remote sensing are relatively new kids on the block. Pardon the pun, but I often find it is in the more established schools of Geology and the like where cooler heads prevail and the warmies aren’t so prevalent. This probably also relates to funding, grants etc… but it is something I have noticed; would you say it is an accurate observation?

  • JMO says:

    Well written, interesting and relevant – as always Don, however I have to partly agree with Aert.

    Although there is no question the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that CO2 concentration has risen and it is a (mild) infra-red absorbing gas resulting in a slight warming influence, the behaviour of the climate botherers and catastrophic warmists has been akin to charlatans. Those doomsters who are not scientists (eg Al Gore) or scrintists but not climatologists (eg Tim Flannery) predicted catastrophic sea level rises and then bought coastal properties (and why stop at 1 when the prices were deflated partly due to their published doomsday scenarios – ask any coastal real estate agent).

    Those who did not sell (rightly concluding alarmist near future sea level rises were a lot twaddle) were then hit with massive council rate rises to fund building sea defences Yes, this is an example of AGW being a scam.

    • JMO says:

      …and don’t get me on about the billions of dollars tied up in mothballed desalination plants, our unique Australian landscape being cluttered with windmills and desecration of the Mongolian landscape due to mining for rare earth minerals used in the manufacture of the windmill generators. What is never mentioned is the huge amount of CO2 emitted in the construction of windmills such as 400 tonnes of concrete needed for their base, the massive steel structure to support the turbine and the manufacture of the 3 huge blades made from either fibre reinforced epoxy or unsaturated polyester. It is line ball whether the CO2 debt would be paid back in their 15 – 20 year economic effective life.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      While I remain of the view that AGW itself is not a scam, a hoax or a conspiracy, there is no doubt that there have been (and are) hoaxers, scammers and conspirators at work — but that is true in real estate, selling motor cars and medicine.

      I hope that clarifies my position.

  • Dasher says:

    Don well said, looking to the next instalment. I still wait for the sensible discussion about this subject which with our new great communicator will never come. As Gillard said the science is settled (seriously) let’s now just get on with it. Get on with what? More windmills are better, more solar panels are better…. Base load power is not an issue…….if this is the greatest challenge mankind faces is it passing strange that it is never debated in parliament?

  • chrisl says:

    At what point in your timeline was the science settled?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Do you mean when somebody claimed it was?

    I don’t know who said it first, but I remember watching the TV account of the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 2007 when Al Gore got his Peace Prize. He was about to step on to the stage when someone asked him about objections to the orthodox view. He snarled, ‘The science is settled!’ and moved on stage. That’s my candidate date, but there were doubtless others who had said it earlier.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    A correspondent has pointed out by email that I had rather rushed over why the scare picked up such momentum in the 1980s, and has reminded me of a good essay I first read a few years ago. It does fill in some of the timeline, and you can read it at:

  • Patrick Caldon says:

    “Hansen prophesied that in twenty years the West Side Highway in New York City would be under water, and that apartment windows would be taped against the high winds. What did happen was something else:”

    The actual text is in the book Bob Reiss’ “The Coming Storm”, published in 2001 by Diane, across pages 30 and 31, it reads as quoted below – the blog post you quote has a hashed up version of this. It says that if CO2 doubles by 2030, then there will be more hurricanes, flooding, and the need for dikes. Note that this hasn’t happened yet on two fronts – doubling of CO2, and 2030.

    One month after the blog post you quote the West Side Highway was underwater thanks to Hurricane Sandy, and apartment windows were taped. And now there’s a plan for a storm barrier – the Big U, costing $335. And – here’s the real clanger – the designer is indeed a Dutch firm called “BIG”.

    [ sometimes a reporter would ask Hansen ] whether, if he was right, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere really doubled, anything down there would look different because of it by 2030. Would average people notice any changes?

    Hansen would say, “There will be more traffic on Broadway”. “Why” the puzzled reporter would ask, thinking at first that Hansen had not heard the question right.

    “Because the West Side Highway will be underwater … You might see Dutch engineers down there, to build dikes. The Dutch could sell their expertise in building dikes in New York, Florida. Lousiana.”

    “Dikes,” the reporter would ask, stunned.

    “As the warming progresses,” Hansen would continue, “and droughts get more severe, you might see signs in restaurants, ‘Water by Request Only’. Hurricanes and thunderstorms will be more frequent. You might see tape X’d on windows across the street, against wind.”

  • Don Aitkin says:


    I can’t see much difference between the steve goddard link and the words you use. And are you suggesting that Hurricane Sandy was caused by greenhouse gas emissions? Because that’s what Hansen was asked about. That was his proposed cause.

    • David says:

      Caught out Don, don’t you hate that. 🙂

    • Patrick Caldon says:


      The conclusion of your essay reads: “What has changed is the timing of the scares. For the early climate botherers, doom was close, …” Presumably this is one of the main points you’re trying to make in the essay, that these guys are apocalyptic doom-mongers who change the date of the doom when doom does not occur. The ultimate point you seem to be making is that this date-changing is the signature of global warming being a mass delusion, rather than a scientific enterprise.

      The only example you raise of “close doom” is the Hansen misquote. Presumably “twenty years” is “close” and “the West Side Highway in New York City would be under water, and that apartment windows would be taped against the high winds” is doom. There are no other concrete examples of events that have not come to pass in your piece.

      a) when you read carefully the quotation it does not support the “close” part of your claim. The conversations with journalists were pre-1988. The Goddard quote says 20 years, 1988+20 = 2008. 2008 is not equal to 2030. Further the real quotation details a CO2 doubling by 2030 which is now (in 2015) expected a little later thanks to various abatement measures. and
      b) the “doom” predicted – window taping, flooded highways, flood abatement (and indeed even the engineers from the Netherlands!) happened. I have no idea if Hurricane Sandy was caused by ghg emissions and I suspect the question in unanswerable. Neverthertheless the “doom” you suggested has not occured – did occur. I saw the pictures on telly.

      So the main concrete example of your piece is not terribly well supported. To me that substantially undermines the thrust of your argument about date changing and delusion.

  • David says:

    Is Fortune Magazine peered reviewed academic journal ?

  • David says:

    If I do a search in Google Scholar on “Global warming” for articles published between 1960 and 1980 I get 1170 hits. If I repeat the search using “Global Cooling”, I get 246 hits. To argue that there was a scientific consensus for global cooling in the 1960s and 1970s is unconvincing.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    It would be if I had done so.

  • Mike Burston says:

    I agree with Don Global Warming is more complex than a scam. It has been described as the “Intellectual disease” which seems very apt. I also approve of the term “Climate Botherer”. My working dog is now a “Sheep Botherer” and similarly stirs up the ovine population. Someone else disclosed Climate Climate /Global Warming “scratches a lot of backs”. Think of everyone who stands to gain at the expense of the tax payer. Carbon dioxide is the ideal candidate for commercialisation. An environmentalist acquaintance pointed out to me many years ago before the days of Global Warming that energy was “too cheap”. The sacrifices being called for have the power to fulfill the environmentalists dream of people consuming less and eating lower on the food chain.
    Lastly there is the psychology of all, where our origins as cavemen predispose us to seeing nature as a force for good. Dan Gardiner in “Risk, the psychology and politics of fear” was instructive on this.

  • chrisl says:

    Global warmers love to conflate weather and climate. If the weather is below average or above average for this time of year or for that number of days it is seen as newsworthy. What do they expect, average temperature and rainfall every single day? It is a very clever tactic to conflate weather and climate because as weather changes, so must climate. And people are very concerned about the weather. Sometimes they ring into the radio station and breathlessly proclaim that it is raining in Suburbia Lakes. “Oh really” says the announcer “Is it raining anywhere else?”

  • NameGlenM says:

    Climate science is corrupt at its core.The premise is deception and this has been perpetrated by a few individuals.Peer-review? Rubber stamped.The charade now resembles a scientific soap opera.No gravitas.

    • David says:

      Don, do you feel encouraged by comments like “Peer-Review? Rubber Stamped” etc from contributors like GlenM?

      • dasher says:

        Not any more extreme than some of your posts David, in fact some of Judith Curry’s posts refer to the dilution of this time honoured practice that is now being corrupted by some. By the way have you looked at the friend of the earth breakdown of the 97 % “consensus” I mentioned some time back. I don’t know how accurate they are but if they are right why hasn’t the establishment disowned the “consensus” crutch.

        • David says:

          Well at least you recognize GlenM as extreme. Well done. 🙂

        • David says:

          What do you think is the correct %? It could be 93% or 92% or then again 98% or 99%. None of us need Judith Curry do a literature search for us. You can do it yourself. As I said have a look and tell us all what you find.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        The Comments section is open to anyone who wishes to comment, always providing that commenters avoid abuse. I come into it only when a comment is directed at something I wrote, which needs clarification or alteration. I wouldn’t normally respond to your comment above, save that it allowed me to state my general position on comments at the beginning of the year.

  • NameGlenM says:

    If I were to say ” in house” “pal-reviewed” would that be classed as extreme? A lot of publications supporting the orthodoxy seem to breeze through the gate.On the other hand one can’t see this paper passing review as wel’ll change what passes as peer-reviewed to keep it out.Lovely isn’t it David.

  • NameGlenM says:

    One casts their minds back to the many papers submitted to various journals over the past 20 or so years;papers pertaining to some computer derived scenario that portends some kind of ecological disaster.I’ll post some up for a laugh! Group-think in buckets!

  • NameGlenM says:

    What can we say about applying the null hypothesis.”It must be human induced- we can’t think of anything else” Every study alludes to their revered GCMs.Models all the way down my friends and not a skerrick of evidence.Proof please that CO2 influences temperature in the REAL world.

  • […] the alarm about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) originated in the 1980s when Dr Hansen saw a powerful correlation between the rise in temperature and the rise in carbon dioxide […]

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