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