A Nutshell History of Climate-Change Hysteria
At a time when the push is on to subject humanity to more crazy, shortsighted progressive environmental programs (read carbon regulations) to "save the earth" from its human population, a brief look at progressive airy predictions of the past is in order.
Enlightenment from the campus teach-ins of the 1960s and early 1970s slowly invaded conventional college classrooms so that the hippie-generation mentality of the time eventually became the hip academic norm. But, excitement over such topics as the planet's imminent collapse from too many people and too much ice quickly waned when population increases yielded no global food fights and Mother Earth began to melt her once-advancing ice caps.
Up until at least the mid-1970s, the frenzy to rescue the planet from industrial chemicals, especially pesticides like DDT, was fueled by Rachel Carson's alluring book Silent Spring. This work, published in 1962, sparked the modern environmental movement, providing activists with both a laudable goal (cleaning up the planet) and reprehensible ones (portraying industry and modern society as enemies). Silent Spring made it rather obvious to some that the modern industrial society needed to be disarmed of its "weapons" (synthetic chemicals). Regardless of the fact that it is the careless practices of industry and the wasteful excesses of society that should have been precisely targeted, not modernity per se, the battle to save the planet was on.
One battleground that soon became the main theater of the war was society's culpability to climate change. But, early on, the conflict was quite different from what it is today. In the 1970s, besides Vietnam, society was sensitized to a worldwide cooling trend. In addition to cover stories in Time, Newsweek, and other popular magazines of the era, the cover of books like The Cooling by Lowell Ponte teased, "Has the next ice age already begun? Can we survive it?" Inside the book, Mr. Ponte notes, "A handful of scientists denied evidence that Earth's climate was cooling until the 1970s, when bizarre weather throughout the world forced them to reconsider their views."
The cover of Our Changing Weather: Forecast of Disaster? by Claude Rose pondered "Will our fuel run out? Will our food be destroyed? Will we freeze?" The back cover claimed: "Northern hemisphere temperatures have been falling steadily since the 1940s. Glaciers are advancing once again. Scientists no longer debate the coming of a new ice age: the question now is when?" ("Scientists no longer debate..." sound familiar?)
Kids were prepped for the coming catastrophe with a brief book by Henry Gilfond called The New Ice Age, which boldly displayed on its dust jacket large thermometers with ominously dropping temperature levels.
In addition, society was informed at the time from another sector, but with a more hopeful approach. A Christian tract by Walter Lang and Vic Lockman proclaimed: Need We Fear Another Ice Age?
And, of course, students were being properly taught to face the inevitable. For instance, some learned that polar bears might roam New York City (which proved true, but luckily they've been captured in the Central Park Zoo). Even future atmospheric scientists discovered the scientific foundations for the advancing ice in meteorology lectures at The Pennsylvania State University.
Well, as we all now know, the frights of the past were unfounded. We were encouraged to be scared of the wrong things. We have come to realize that it wasn't a "human volcano" of particles from an industrial society that would be chilling thermometers into the future, rather human-produced gases, primarily carbon dioxide, that would send the mercury soaring.
The current hype was officially kicked off with a proclamation by Dr. James Hansen of NASA in his testimony before Congress on June 23, 1988. Dr. Hansen announced that "the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now." With that statement, bolstered by a room purposefully made very warm and humid for the hearing and an unusually hot and dry summer in the eastern part of the U.S. that year, hothouse-earth hysteria was off and running.
In the late 90s, to support the new storyline, actual temperature measurements after 1900 were appended to proxy temperature data (e.g., using tree-ring analysis) from prior to 1900 to produce the infamous "hockey stick" graph. This graph replaced the traditional temperature trend graph in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change official global climate report for 2001. The supplanted traditional graph had clearly, but inconveniently, displayed a "medieval warm period" from about the 10th to 13th centuries AD and "little ice age" generally from the 17th century until the mid-1800s. Furthermore, the hockey-stick graph was featured in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and unfortuately has replaced the traditional graph in a popular climatology textbook used to instruct a new generation of Penn State students.
The rising temperature trend experienced most recently (a trend currently leveling off) began in the mid- to late 1970s. This trend was first referred to in the 1980s as the "greenhouse effect" (which is a generic descriptor of roughly -- very roughly -- how warming of the planet occurs), the popular term became "global warming" in the 1990s, and finally conveniently morphed into "climate change," just in time to hedge against weather variability (that continues to alert an increasingly incredulous public).
As it turns out, though, "all's well that ends well." Fortunately for Mother Earth and her people, academic scientists have been laden with plenty of government funds to thoroughly research the atmosphere to arrive at confident conclusions. These scientists are now finally able to assure us that climate calamity caused by industry and callous working-class culprits -- and definitely not, for instance, the sun -- can be declared with absolute total academic certainty, theoretically. And, fortunately with enough dollars (billions upon billions of them) redistributed in the right way to correct our errant ways, the global village may yet experience its climate nirvana.
Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist specializing in air-quality issues and environmental risk communication.