A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Apocalyptic climate change? We've heard it all before.....

On August 27, 1974, the Christian Science Monitor carried the following dramatic headline: 'Warning: earth's climate is changing faster than even experts expect'. Beneath this warning, they reported that the world's glaciers "have begun to advance", that "growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter", and that "the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool."

Earlier, in February, 1973, the Science Digest had set the scene, stating that "the world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next Ice Age."

By 1975, the media were pretty well at one. In 'The Cooling World' (April 28, 1975), Newsweek asserted that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that catastrophic famines could result from 'global cooling'. The New York Times (September 14) concurred, stating that events "may mark the return to another Ice Age." Earlier, the Times (May 21)* had said that "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" and that it was "well established" that the Northern Hemisphere climate "has been getting cooler since about 1950."

On December 10, 1976, Science magazine capped it all, warning of an "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation."

I am deeply grateful to a most interesting opinion piece in today's Washington Post for these very timely journalistic reminders: 'Let cooler heads prevail' (The Washington Post, April 2).

As the author goes on to say: "In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling."

But what interests me more are the direct parallels in the media reporting with the 'global warming' stories of today, especially as represented by newspapers like The Independent and The Guardian, and, perhaps more worryingly, by a swath of the BBC . Just note the following from the 'global cooling' reports of the 1970s:

(a) the emphasis on scientific consensus - meteorologists [today climatologists] "are almost unanimous";
(b) the changes are "faster than even experts expect";
(c) evidence comes from glaciers, from the North Atlantic, and from changing seasons;
(d) the changes will lead to famine and to disaster; and,
(e) the changes are "widely considered inevitable".

The alarm bells should be ringing, loud and clear. If they were so badly misguided then, why should we believe them now?

'Global cooling' and 'global warming' represent classic examples of how Barthesian myths, and potentially dangerous grand narratives, gain ascendancy, depending on the political priorities of the age, always, of course, aided and abetted by an uncritical media and apocalyptic journalism of the type espoused by The Independent.

The time has come to call the current 'global warming' bluff. After all, we've heard it all before - consensus; change faster than expected; glaciers, the North Atlantic, and the seasons; disaster; and inevitability.

It was misguided then, and it is misguided now. Fundamentally, the media must learn to distrust any projections based on just one or two selected variables.

Philip, off to watch the 152nd Boat Race. This is much easier to predict than climate - blue will win! Postscriptum: Oxford won easily in very rough conditions, poor old Cambridge shipping water just like 'global warming'. [*Correction: apologies - I originally put this as The Times of London. It is, of course, the New York Times. If anybody has copied this to another blog, please make the necessary correction. Thanks.]

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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