Global Warming: How History Is Being Manipulated to Undermine Calls for Action

News Abroad

Mr. Weart is Director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

Informed people now understand that global warming is perhaps the most severe challenge facing the well-being of human society in the coming century. Only a dwindling minority of Americans now denies this (an even smaller fraction believe that we are regularly visited by space aliens). But those who deny it include powerful people, whose interests or ideology are threatened by government regulation of the fossil fuels that are the main source of the danger we face.

History is often used in these arguments. Its role can be direct, as when global-warming denialists assert that not long ago scientists were “spectacularly wrong” in claiming that not warming but a new Ice Age threatened us. So writes, for example, the columnist George Will, quoting from news magazines of the early 1970s. However, when people checked the history they found that Will, following a practice common among denialists, “cherry-picked” a few items that served his purpose from a much larger body of evidence.1 Here’s the real history. In the 1970s scientists discovered that climate can be catastrophically variable; they didn’t agree on what would come next; but they all agreed that they knew too little at the time to make a confident prediction. Any resemblance to the current strong scientific consensus is a fantasy.

A subtler historical fantasy is that the warnings of climate change are a political plot of radical, anti-business environmentalists (so says Michael Crichton’s recent best-selling thriller). In the actual history, concerns arose in the 1950s well before any environmentalist movement. These concerns spread among scientists who were either apolitical or supported by US military agencies. But the most important historical story that people should know is how the concern gave rise to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Reagan administration wanted to forestall pronouncements by self-appointed committees of scientists, fearing they would be “alarmist.” Conservatives promoted the IPCC’s clumsy structure, which consisted of representatives appointed by every government in the world and required to consult all the thousands of experts in repeated rounds of report-drafting in order to reach a consensus. Despite these impediments the IPCC has issued unequivocal statements on the urgent need to act.

Yet perhaps the most important use of history can come through simple explanation. Historians have often worked to illuminate current affairs through their historical descriptions of social and political forces. With a technical subject like the science of climate, history can also clarify the subject itself. Such is the main use of a website I created to describe the history of scientific work on climate change. With a quarter-million words and a thousand references, it is the equivalent of a thick tome. Several hundred visitors come to the site each day. Most are brought by a search engine, either because they entered a general term like “history global warming” or because they sought specific facts about a particular scientist or technical point. Others come through links provided by other climate Websites, blogs, or personal recommendations. What do the visitors want, and do they get it?

A monitoring program shows that many visitors go away quickly, and I presume they either found the specific fact they wanted, or decided the site was too long and scholarly. But many stay for hours, and some read every word. A visitor who reads extensively will come unexpectedly upon a request to answer a brief survey. I’ve gotten only 400-odd responses so far, but these exceptionally motivated readers are worth notice. The majority of respondents are students, typically driven by class assignments; and, indeed, the number of visits to the site exceeds a thousand per day during term-paper periods. Scientists constitute the second largest group of respondents. Most of the visitors, scientists or otherwise, attempt to sort out a subject that they feel they should understand. Some come in search of detailed textbook facts rather than history, and are disappointed. But most say they got what they sought, while others report, as an economist put it, “though I have not found what I'm looking for, I'm enjoying the CO2 history essay, and finding it helpful.”

Not only students and scientists, but also many concerned citizens (describing themselves, for example, as lawyer, physician, engineer, and “unemployed”) wanted enough information to formulate their own opinions.  Environmental activists, teachers and science writers — and a few industrial lobbyists — came not only to inform themselves but also to prepare for explaining or debating the subject. A farmer wondered how warming was affecting the weather; a chemist in Britain wondered if a rising sea level would affect a seaside home. Only a small fraction said they came to find history as such. But a strong majority of respondents said they were getting what they came to find, and many were enthusiastic about the form of presentation.

History, as we all should know, is a great help for presenting complex topics — not just thoroughly but clearly, not just with balance and nuance but with readability and even excitement. Technology lets us do this better than ever.  Historians should note that putting work on the web, with appropriate attention to “marketing” through search-engine placement and the like, can bring a real increase in the social utility of their efforts.

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Andrew D. Todd - 10/23/2006

Some relevant links:

At latest news, the Saudis are actually cutting back oil production, to make sure that the price of oil keeps going on up.


It seems that this is the price of securing the cooperation of Iran and Venezuela. No doubt the discouraging news from Iraq plays a part in their calculations.


Here is what the Europeans are doing about global warming:


And an indication of the marginalization of of our own technical community



Andrew D. Todd - 10/22/2006

Of course, when talking about energy, you have to take account of regions, to make sure you are talking about the same thing. One of Al Gore's blunders, as promoter of environmental legislation in the 1990's, was trying to impose water conservation measures on the whole country through federal standards which were more appropriate for the Southwest and Southern California. Here in West Virginia, about ten percent of my water bill is a storm sewer fee, levied at so much per square foot of pavement, which basically goes to flash-flood mitigation. By the time an inch or two of rainfall has descended a mountain creek for half a mile or so, at a grade of ten percent, it has picked up considerable energy.

West Virginia is climatologically part of the Midwest, though culturally part of the South. In the Midwest and Northeast, heating and cooling is a much more dominant component of household energy consumption. The average temperature is about 50 deg. F, consisting of swings to 90 deg. F and 10 deg. F, and under those conditions a geothermal heat pump can compete against almost any kind of generating plant. Electric utility companies are promoting geothermal heat pumps, but cautiously, with words rather than with money. They aren't interested in owning millions of installed heat pumps and being paid for their thermal output, rather than for the electricity which powers them. So costs have to be driven down to prices low enough that homeowners will buy a heat pump on a dare. As near as I can make out, the single most expensive component of a geothermal installation is a two hundred foot well, and that in turn works out to the wages of a crew standing around to insert pipe as needed. You can develop an automated well-drilling rig, and probably reduce the cost by a factor of ten. What is needed is a bit of pump priming, to create a market and get an industry going. You know the drill, a requirement that certain classes of public buildings be refitted, at federal expense, etc. Likewise, if you can introduce appropriate requirements into building codes, that might accelerate switchover.

The Midwest is the center of coal-burning. Not being on the coast, it never switched over to then-cheap Middle Eastern bunker oil, and therefore did not have a sufficiently positive incentive to go massively nuclear in the 1970's. The Midwest's electric supply is something like 75% coal, 25% nuclear. It seems probable that by the time enough geothermal heat pumps had been installed, and electricity consumption correspondingly reduced, the electric supply might be something like 80% nuclear (a figure comparable to France), without any additional nuclear plants being built. The effects of geothermal heat pumps on the Northeast would probably be even more drastic, given the greater fraction of nuclear power in use at present (say 60% nuclear, 25 % coal, the rest hydropower, gas, and oil). Taken together, the Midwest and Northeast have enough nuclear capacity to easily cover their residual needs after geothermal heat pumps and solar water heaters are generally adopted. Similarly, the West Coast gets about half its electricity from hydropower, a quarter from nuclear, and the rest from assorted fossil fuels, mainly coal burned in Arizona and Nevada. Again, it would not take very much in the way of energy savings for the west coast to cease using coal. This switchover is happening anyway, on a slow time scale. All that is required is to accelerate the process. Where photovoltaic cells will really come into their own in the near future is in the Deep South. The average underground temperature along the Gulf Coast is about 70 deg. F. This means that while a geothermal heat pump would be more efficient than a conventional air conditioner, it would not be ten times more efficient, the way it would be in the Midwest or Northeast. The virtue of a photovoltaic panel is that it generates power exactly when the sun is heating the house up, so there is a natural fit between photovoltaics and air conditioning. The most probable use of windpower is as an eventually replacement for nuclear power, but that is of comparatively low urgency.

john crocker - 10/22/2006

Coal or other fuel fired plants also offer economy of space. Windmill and solar farms require considerable space as does OTEC. There have been some creative ideas for overcoming this hurdle, but it is still a hurdle. Covering parking areas with solar panels is one partial solution to this that has been proposed.

Ultimately I think it will take a crisis that is too large and immediate to be ignored to motivate large scale adoption of solar and other alternative energies on a massive scale. I just moved away from SoCal. Solar is incentivized there more than most places. Even relatively old and inefficient solar systems could function well year round and solar and solar water heating has been viable there year round for over a decade, yet vitually no solar systems are installed on houses or apartment buildings.

Andrew D. Todd - 10/21/2006

Well, if I remember correctly, the wholesale price of coal-fired electricity is about three cents per kilowatt-hour, and the wholesale price of nuclear electricity is about seven cents. I'm not exactly sure what the current figure for wind is, but the last I heard, it was rapidly closing on nuclear. Along the northeast corridor, where most of the nuclear power plants are, retail rates go as high as fifteen cents, but a good chunk of that is "urban overhead," the fact that in a place like Philadelphia, bill nonpayment runs something like 50%, (*) and the paying customers have to pick up the tab for the others. At any rate, the spread between wholesale prices for coal-fired electricity and other kinds of electricity is narrow enough that it would not be very hard for coal to be simply priced out of the market. Its principal virtue is cheapness of fuel, after all. There is a point at which building additional anti-pollution equipment onto a coal plant becomes unproductive because you could be building windmills instead.

I bought my first compact fluorescent lights (CF's) getting on twenty years ago, when they still cost about twenty dollars each. At the time, David Suzuki, on his PBS science program, said: "It's not just a free lunch-- It's a meal they pay you to eat," and that was true enough at one level, but events proved more complicated. In Philadelphia, with the high electricity prices, the things paid for themselves in less than a year, but I had to order the things from techno-green companies in California and Vermont, which advertised in magazines like Mother Jones or Utne Reader. Local shopkeepers had never heard of CF's. By now, you can buy the things in the grocery store for about five dollars, and I understand Wal-Mart just made General Electric one of its famous ultimatum-offers to reduce the price to three dollars. That may _finally_ suffice to drive out the incandescent light bulb. What it comes down to is that over the last twenty years, the average householder behaved as if the money for a CF would have to come from a loan shark. I think you have to drive the net costs to the point where energy saving pays for itself within the time frame of a single paycheck.

Don't forget that the bottom third of the population has no federal income tax liability. If you want a tax incentive to take full effect, you have to put it in the form of a fully refundable credit, eg. Earned Income Tax Credit, or at least a credit instead of a deduction, eg. Hope Credit for college tuition. If you really want people to install a device, there is a presentable case for having the Postal Service just leave one on each doorstep.

(*) By comparison, here are some figures for jury duty in Philadelphia, when I lived there, circa 1990: about 100,000 people were sent questionnaires, 50,000 did not reply, 25,000 replied, claiming exemption, 12,000 did not report as ordered, and 12,000 actually did report.

john crocker - 10/21/2006

Carbon sequestration would be one part of a much larger comprehensive approach. It is, in the foreseeable future, only potentially usefull for capturing and sequestering large point sources of CO2.
Oil wells are one potential area for sequestration. Something will be pumped down the wells to replace the oil that is drawn out anyway so it seems reasonable to me to have CO2 in the mix that is pumped down.

Use of solar water heaters and geothermal heat pumps are certainly effective in reducing CO2 emmissions. The technologies are readily available and systems will generally pay for themselves in the long term. A solar water heating system costs are several hundred to a few thousand dollars (depending on your usage and local climate) for a typical residential installation. A full solar system with panels, batteries, inverters and other necessary electronics for a residence starts at about ten thousand and can be several tens of thousands depending on your energy and aesthetic concerns (solar roof tiles give the benefits of solar without large, unattractive collectors). Some states offer tax rebates to defray the cost.

john crocker - 10/21/2006

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty reviewed the complaints of scientific dishonesty against Lomborg. They found his work on climate to be dishonest but did not find Lomborg guilty because of his lack of expertise (his degrees are in political science).

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MSTI) later overturned the ruling because:
* The DCSD did not use a precise standard for deciding "good scientific practice" in the social sciences;
* The DCSD's definition of "objective scientific dishonesty" was not clear about whether "distortion of statistical data" had to be deliberate or not;
* The DCSD had not properly documented that The Skeptical Environmentalist was a scientific publication on which they had the right to intervene in the first place;
* The DCSD did not provide specific statements on actual errors.

This is not a vindication of his work which is still viewed as misleading by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. You will notice that one of the findings in his "vindication" is that it was not made explicit whether his "distortion of statistical data" had to be intentional. The case was sent back to the DCSD for further review, but was not reheard due to the previous not guilty verdict.

When conducting research on climate science it is best to go to a research library. Your local university should have reasonable access to the scientific literature and will generally make accomadations for people in the community even if they are not taking classes (there may or may not be a nominal library fee for access). From here you can download journal articles as pdfs or read hard copies. "Science" and "Nature" are good journals to begin with and are among the most respected. The article reviews are generally more accessable to lay people than the modelling papers. If you have a good math and computer science background you should read some of the recent modelling papers for a more in depth understanding. Even without a strong math background you can read the abstracts and scan the methods to see what variables are included in the models.

David M Ward - 10/20/2006

Dear Mr. Edic:

The writer of the blog displayed a bias in the way he portrayed the non-believers.

David M Ward - 10/20/2006

Dear Mr. Cable:

Mr. Cable:

I am particularly pleased that you highlight the need for a person to conduct ones own research into Global Warming.

I recommend you read any of Bjorn Lomborg's work. Lomborg, a proponent of Global Warming, noticed that a lot of the research did not have a scientific basis. Lomborg set out to validate the work. Lomborg discovered that the work was not supported by the facts.

He published his research and was expelled from the academy of sciences. After a review of his research by an independant tribunal he was vindicated.

Andrew D. Todd - 10/17/2006

To: John Lederer:

Here's a Google link on Starr Carr. As I recall from my archeology core course, a good many years ago, they dug up pond sediments, recovered pollen, and classified it under the microscope, and cross-referenced the results against carbon-14 dating.


People have correlated seria of tree rings, starting with living trees, and working back through pieces of wood in archaeological artifacts. Of course archaeological evidence is rather tricky-- it's sort of like those cases where you only have a few documents, and no prospect of getting more, eg. Robert Darnton's Great Cat Massacre.

More fundamentally, when I look at Global Warming from an engineer's perspective, that of 'what is to be done,' it becomes much less relevant whether or not Global Warming is true or not. The practical measures for Kyoto Protocol compliance are very much the same as the practical measures for Energy Independence. Practically speaking, we use much more fuel than any other class of raw material, except for water. A typical automobile, over its lifetime, can be expected to use about 15,000 gallons of gasoline, or forty-five tons. Similar statistics can be compiled for the major electrical appliances (a ton of coal yields about 2500 Kw-H of electricity, about $250 worth, depending on where you live). There are three mass-produced machines (automobile engine, domestic air conditioner/furnace/heat pump, domestic water heater), which account for nearly all the energy consumption, and consequently, nearly all the pollution. There are fairly straightforward solutions, many of which are already in mass-production. However, experience has shown that the man in the street will not buy energy-saving technology if the payback period is more than six months, perhaps no more than three months. The difficulty is in getting the technology to the point where it will cover loan-shark rates. This difficulty could be obviated by a suitable program of government financing, reducing the barrier to five percent interest.

To: John Crocker:

Carbon sequestration is a clumsy approach, which seems unlikely to yield useful results. For starters, how do you recapture carbon dioxide from the tailpipes of a hundred million automobiles? About the best you can do is to take carbon dioxide from coal-fired electricity plants, pressurize it, send it in pipelines to Texas, and pump it down oil wells to increase oil production. I haven't done the thermodynamic calculations, but I've got a shrewd idea that this would work out to be more expensive than nuclear power. You can get much cheaper results by reducing electricity or natural gas consumption with things like solar water heaters and geothermal heat pumps. The problem is that the President is a creature of the oil industry, and any official proposals will be first and foremost directed towards the advantage of Houston. Most of the people who are well-positioned to profit from selling solar water heaters and geothermal heat pumps live in California. They are going to arrange for something to be manufactured in China at the lowest possible cost, and set up a nationwide network of plumbers trained to install the things in houses, standard franchise fashion, supply whatever specialized tools are necessary, etc. Informed cost estimates are less than $10,000 per house, probably a good deal less, with payback in less than ten years, assuming, of course, that energy prices stay at their present level. But, as I said, the target one has to hit without government backing is three months payback.

To: Amin Ali Golmohamad

Greenland is green today, in about the same sense that North Dakota is green. When one of the Viking settlements was dug up, it turned out to be underneath someone's farm. Judging from the pictures in Magnus Magnusson's _Vikings!_ (1980), it looks pretty much like Iceland, that is alluvial soil along the fjords which supports grass, and moonscape and glaciers inland at a higher altitude. Iceland has a higher proportion of moonscape, and a lower proportion of glaciers, but that doesn't matter much because you cannot live on either. Trees can grow under the conditions along the fjords, but they cannot also resist the attentions of sheep and goats. Goats cannot actually eat tin cans, though I understand they do like the paper labels and especially the glue used to attach the labels. At any rate, they don't mind eating tree bark during a hard winter, and that kills the tree. Cold intervals are relative: it may mean that the hay supply has to last until April instead of March, that kind of thing. There was a certain point at which a Viking farmer threw up his hands ("The troll take this field!"), stopped trying to get in a big enough hay crop, slaughtered his livestock, smoked the meat, and went walrus-hunting with the Eskimos instead. That seems to be how Greenland went native in the fifteenth century.

john crocker - 10/17/2006

The question you pose has largely been answered. All available evidence points toward anthropogenic causation of current global climate change. As I mentioned earlier the most recent evidence I have seen indicates that global warming is currently being masked by a periodic cooling trend.

I think that a three pronged approach is best. We need to change behaviors, improve technology for lower emmission and no emmission power generation (including that within vehicles) and work on sequestration technologies. Ideally this would be organized within a global framework, but failing that we must still work to address the problem as individual nations or coalitions of nations.

Yehudi Amitz - 10/17/2006

If the present global warming isn't caused by human industrial development but it's a part of the periodical global climate changes, the control of the CO2 emission isn't going to help and will be a waste of precious time. I strongly believe that concentrating the research on controlling the CO2 quantities in the earth atmosphere is the smart and effective way to go.

Martin Edic - 10/17/2006

I write a blog about climate change as an observer of how it's unfolding and affecting my life- unscientific and amatuer, hopefully in the classic positive meaning of that word. It's great to get a historical perspective on the subject that seems relatively non-political. I'm looking fotward to digging into the book site. burnertrouble dot com.

john crocker - 10/17/2006

Mush older climate data has been gathered and is utilized in current models.

Periodic climate shifts are also included in the models. From the last data I have seen we should now be in a minor cooling period.

Total global CO2 emmissions need to be addressed.

There is considerable researh into carbon sequestration. It is, however much easier to release CO2 into the atmosphere than it is to remove it and sequester it. These technologies may provide a useful supplemental role. Technologies that reduce or elliminate emmissions associated with power production (including transportation) are another necessary element in any comprehensive strategy and humans will have to modify their behaviors to some degree in order to reduce emmissions to the target levels.

Amin Ali Golmohamad - 10/17/2006

As far as I know, I thought calling greenland green was a ploy to bring settlers....or something...

Seth Cable Tubman - 10/16/2006

As a college history major passionately interested in his craft (with environmentalism a new hobby) I would like to say to anyone who does not believe in global warming: See Al Gore's "An Inconvinent Truth" and read "The Revenge of Gia"--put it in a search engine if you've never heard of the latter. Once you have finished both, carefully weigh the evidence both provide, using your historical methodology. Compare with the nonsense theories of the super-MINORITY who disagree, and decide. I was skeptical when I saw "An Inconvinent Truth"--now I read all I can on climate change when I'm not reading history (something I NEVER would have done, even three months ago). The longer people deny, the shorter the period when we can stop dramatic change from occurring. PLEASE do SOMETHING to help our planet. Go to climatechange.org and start reading. If you read this whole spel, thanks!

John H. Lederer - 10/16/2006

I would have thought history could make contribution by pinning down some historical climate data -- were grapes grown in England, how green was Greenland, what were the northernmost limits of crops like wheat, oats, and rye, where was the navigable edge of the ice cap, etc.

I know that wouldn't allow historians to be so political, but it might be much more useful and much more, well, historical.

John H. Lederer - 10/16/2006

I would have thought history could make contribution by pinning down some historical climate data -- were grapes grown in England, how green was Greenland, what were the northernmost limits of crops like wheat, oats, and rye, where was the navigable edge of the ice cap, etc.

I know that wouldn't allow historians to be so political, but it might be much more useful and much more, well, historical.

Yehudi Amitz - 10/16/2006

The weather data collection has about 100 years worth of data and not for the entire planet but mainly for the advanced countries with established weather forecasting services. Considering the amount of data the models are still in the statistical margin of error range. Even considering the above limitations I still consider global warming as a very plausible scenario.
Another question is if the global warming is caused by human industrial development (which of course is adding to the problem) or is a part of periodical climate changes taking place on earth (we all know about periods of global cooling followed global warming that took place many times in the history of the earth)
The last (but not least) question is if limiting the CO2 emission in the developed world (when China and India do not join the effort) can solve the problem? An idea may be to concentrate the research on finding a way to remove the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere surrounding the earth (instead of trying the long process of changing human behavior)?