Same fears, different name?

Maurizio Morabito uncovers a 1974 CIA report showing that the ‘scientific consensus’ then was that the world was cooling.

Maurizio Morabito

Topics Science & Tech

Panic about climate change is not an entirely contemporary phenomenon. In fact, 40 years ago, some scientists were similarly fearful about an impending climate catastrophe. The world would be harmed and life would become harsh, we were told. Policies were drawn up to deal with the coming change, and the scientists crossed their fingers. But there is one vital difference between the panic then and the panic now. It wasn’t global warming that was concerning scientists 40 years ago; it was global cooling.

This revelation comes from a recently unearthed 1974 CIA report. Because of this we now know that a large number of scientists really were convinced that world temperatures were on the way down. The only uncertainty centred around the strength and duration of the upcoming cooling of the planet. Yet this apparent consensus around global cooling, so prevalent during the 1970s, seems to have been erased from history. Why?

The principal reason is that awareness of this contrasting consensus threatens the current climate change edifice. Try to put yourself in the uncomfortable shoes of an advocate of climate change policies, determined to scare the wits out of the majority of voters and world leaders about global warming by presenting it as the consensus view amongst scientists. What would you do with a previous consensus that contradicts the current view? ‘If scientists in the 1970s were predicting an imminent ice age’, summarises John Fleck in the Skeptical Enquirer, ‘how can their forecasts of greenhouse warming today be trusted?’ (1)

It doesn’t take much effort to find ‘the world is cooling!’ articles in the online archives of the New York Times and the Washington Post, or on websites reporting what appeared in a famous Newsweek article from 1975, ‘The Cooling World’ (2). Written by science correspondents, many of them now dead, these pieces show plenty of scientists ready to depict a colder future in doom-laden words. There are even mentions of government agencies getting involved.

All of this seems incompatible with the contemporary view of catastrophic global warming. First of all, the phraseology used then to describe a cooling world of floods and droughts is identical to the phraseology used now to describe a warming world of flood and droughts. Worse, even the mere acknowledgement that climate change alarmism is not new would undermine fears being stoked around impending environmental, social and economic disasters due to unfavourable changes in temperatures.

Take, as an analogous example, the panic around Y2K or the ‘Millennium Bug’. Despite the predictions of a techno-meltdown, a cyber-geddon, computers the world over spectacularly failed to crash on 1 January 2000. With all of that very clear and fresh in most people’s memories, it would be very difficult to spread fears about a ‘Year 2100 Bug’. It’s because of experiences like this that scepticism has kept apace, despite a number of scares and panics in the British and worldwide print media over the past decade. Look at the reaction first to the problem of BSE (or Mad Cows’ Disease), then to SARS and now to swine flu: they tell a story of ever diminishing returns, of a general public becoming more immune to panics.

Likewise, if it becomes widely known that a number of scientists agreed that catastrophic cooling was happening little less than 40 years ago, current fears about climate changes will be seriously undermined. It might then be possible to view climate change as a set of possible scenarios to be investigated instead of panicked over.

That’s what has likely spurred some proponents of climate change to action. Take the Wikipedia entry on global cooling (3), which presents global cooling as ‘conjecture’, a ‘hypothesis’ that ‘never had significant scientific support’. Such a statement is just too easy to falsify (you only have to show it had significant scientific support, once). Tellingly, the Newsweek article (4) is left perfectly unexplained in Wikipedia; and, ironically, most of the global cooling entry appears to be about the surfacing of global warming concerns.

This rewriting of history isn’t confined to Wikipedia. Prominent examples include a couple of entries from January 2005 and October 2006 on the RealClimate blog (5, 6), an article in the Skeptical Enquirer by John Fleck called ‘The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus’ (7), and a piece in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Thomas Peterson together with William Connolley and John Fleck in September 2008.

In the Realclimate blog, Connolley points to a 1976 paper by BJ Mason stating that ‘there is no physical basis for predicting either the timing or magnitude of [climate] changes’. Connolley quotes a 1975 US National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report that states ‘it does not seem possible to predict climate’. He then spends a lot of time talking about the timescale needed for an ice age to materialise, before labelling the Newsweek article ‘regrettable’, a ‘science stor[y] from the mass media’ (8).

Fleck’s Skeptical Enquirer article goes further, asserting that ‘scientists in the 1970s did not predict imminent global cooling or a looming ice age’. That is used as a springboard to explain how at the time ‘scientists began to look at the possible role of increased carbon dioxide emitted when fossil fuels are burned’.

Finally, in the piece from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the authors declare that ‘There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age. Indeed, the possibility of anthropogenic warming dominated the peer-reviewed literature even then’. Time and again, they show evidence of a growing scientific consensus on global warming.

Is that the end of it? Is it really a myth that a large number of scientists believed the world was getting cooler? Not quite. Peterson’s, Connolley’s and Fleck’s first trick is to narrow the ‘myth’ to ‘an imminent ice age’, rather than simply ‘global cooling’. They then argue that for it be even approaching a consensus view amongst scientists, there would have to be ‘both the presence of many articles describing global cooling projections and the absence of articles projecting global warming’. Absence? As in not even one? Is that really possible, even in theory?

Peterson, Connolley and Fleck proceed to conduct a scientific literature survey, but they exclude, for example, geology-related works, which is ironic given that they argue that ‘the myth’s basis lies in a selective misreading of the texts’. They carry on even after admitting ‘most’ of the surveyed articles ‘do not… make clear predictions’. They manage also to find a feeble excuse for the 1975 Newsweek article, enlisting New York Times uber-warmist Andy Revkin to explain that ‘cooling’ could have been a ‘good peg’ for climate stories at the time. They also extend the temporal window of their search so wide (1965-1979, with citations counted up to 1983) that it would have been truly remarkable if a scientific consensus of any sort had been maintained without an IPCC-like body to sustain it, especially in a science as young as climatology.

This certainly doesn’t seem like a healthy way to look at, and understand, history. There simply was no IPCC in the 1970s, and there was still space for a number of new hypotheses. To go out looking for a 2008-style consensus, and perhaps even an IPCC-equivalent body in the 1970s, is to be anti-historical. It is a view analogous to those paintings from the Middle Ages that naively portrayed ancient Romans in contemporary garb.

But that’s not all. Peterson, Connolley and Fleck include this little gem: ‘By the early 1970s, when [Dr Murray] Mitchell updated his work (Mitchell 1972), the notion of a global cooling trend was widely accepted, albeit poorly understood.’ Is that the sound of somebody shooting themselves in the foot? Is it possible that a single paragraph undermines a whole article? After all, it does mention a ‘global cooling trend’, and uses an expression such as ‘widely accepted’ (the consensus that dare not speak its name perhaps). Continue now a few lines down the article and this is what you’ll find: ‘It was not long, however, before scientists teasing apart the details of Mitchell’s trend found that it was not necessarily a global phenomenon.’

A pattern is clearly emerging. We have a ‘widely accepted [by the scientific community]…global cooling trend’, at least judging from Mitchell’s work in 1972; doubts about that growing in the same scientific community from 1975/1976, as per Damon and Kunen’s paper; but not early enough to prevent Newsweek from publishing its 1975 article, one that even mentions a certain Dr Murray Mitchell. That means that pieces of the global cooling puzzle do suggest that cooling was a widely-held view in the 1970s.

Admittedly, such an agreed view did not last the whole decade: rather, it concerned the 1972 to 1975 period. Says who? Says the CIA, in a unique report I was recently able to re-discover in the British Library (9). It seems that even in the era of the internet and Google it is possible to unearth ‘lost files’.

Forgotten for 35 years, the CIA report, A Study of Climatological Research as it Pertains to Intelligence Problems frequently mentions a scientific acceptance of global cooling. It also reveals how most climate fears have never really left us, regardless of the underlying temperature trend.

Having seen the CIA report mentioned in a 1976 Washington Post piece, but with no copy of it on the internet, I obtained the microfiche document from the British Library. The content of the report’s 36 pages is striking. It may have been written in 1974, but the depictions are uncannily familiar: climate change, it says, will lead to floods and famines, and leaders in climatology are issuing stark warnings about threats to ‘the stability of most states’. The only thing to differentiate it from today’s scaremongering is the fact that the CIA in 1974 was concerned about global cooling, not warming. The report even mentions a ‘consensus’ among scientists.

The document is embarrasing to read. The ‘new climatic era’ is described in 1974 as a harbinger of famine, starvation, refugees, floods, droughts, crop failures, monsoons and the cause of all kinds of meteorological phenomena. As expected, potential benefits are downplayed and potential harms highlighted: the Sahara is expected to expand, and world grain reserves may last less than one month, the report claimed. There is even a cursory list of past civilisations destroyed by climatic episodes: The Indus, the Hittites, the Mycenaean and the Empire of Mali.

According to the CIA, these climate models are being refined (as always) and the energy balance of the atmosphere is perfectly explicable without a single reference to greenhouse gases. Thanks to government intervention (of course), many famous scientists, until then victims of ‘personality clashes’, have managed to establish a ‘scientific consensus’ about ‘global climate change’, including vague threats about a ‘greater variability’ in climate and serious economic problems around the world. And not only that; they all agree on a series of proposals about the creation of new government agencies. This is exactly the agreed scientific position as reported at the time by Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post and so on.

So what prompted the CIA’s interest in climate? The prime reason was the reported loss of a ‘significant part’ of the USSR’s wheat crop during the winter of 1972. Aware of the potentially dire consequences on the ‘politics of food’, the CIA was forced to acknowledge the lack of serious ‘analysis tools’ for climate. Hence, it wanted scientists to respond (unanimously) to policymakers, another feature of climate discussions common to both then and now.

In any case, on the back of the 1974 CIA document, Peterson’s, Connolley’s and Fleck’s reporting of the 1972 Mitchell paper, and the Damon and Kuten 1976 article, it seems clear that there was an agreed view amongst scientists that the world’s climate was cooling.

Why, then, was the CIA report overlooked until now? For one thing, it was classified at the time. Furthermore, Peterson, Connolley and John Fleck, and countless other people with even a passing interest in climate change, might not have obviously looked for it.

However, there are several websites with plenty of evidence pointing in the same direction. We have excerpts from a 1977 book, The Weather Conspiracy – the Coming of the New Ice Age (where the CIA-inspired scientific consensus is mentioned) (10). We can also learn that a 1972 conference of scientific leaders was convened at Brown University to discuss ‘The Present Interglacial: How and when will it End?’ Unless all participants believed a glacial period was in the making, that question would be meaningless. In fact the ‘42 top American and European investigators’ present concluded that ‘a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experience by civilized mankind, is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon’ (11).

The consensus was strong enough for Henry Kissinger to address the UN General Assembly on 15 April 1974: ‘The poorest nations… have been threatened by a natural [disaster]: the possibility of climatic changes in the monsoon belt and perhaps throughout the world.’ (12) Finally, indications of a build-up of a seeming scientific consensus on global cooling could be traced back as far as 1961.

Years ago, an Italian scientist humorously suggested the following to all aspiring climatologists:

‘To the question “Is the climate changing?” by all means never, ever, reply: “No, everything’s normal” […] because people would unanimously conclude that you understand nothing about meteorology, and nothing about climate. It would be the end of your career. The only sensible answer is: “Of course it is changing! It’s a well-known fact, scientifically confirmed and one that none could argue against.” You can then launch yourself into forecasting for the next hundred years a climate identical to the current one, amplifying the latest phenomena to extreme consequences.’ (13)

Let’s face it: today’s climate fears are similar to those of 35 years ago – even if the science has changed, and the thermometer readings have changed, and the climate models have changed, and the policies themselves have changed. Wouldn’t it be nice to see us become Climate Adults, leaving the infantile scaremongering behind, once and for all. We might even be able to devise better solutions than things like the hurried-up disaster called ETS (emission trading scheme).

Maurizio Morabito is a banking consultant, journalist and blogger.

Previously on spiked

Christopher C Horner told Rob Lyons that censorship and conformism are preventing proper investigation of climate change hysteria. Stuart Blackman said climate change is not beyond questioning. Christopher Monckton felt that Al Gore was too chicken to debate him. John Gillott asked whether there really was a consensus on global warming. Brendan O’Neill examined global warming’s chilling effect on free speech. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Free speech.

(1) The great global cooling myth and the politics of science, John Fleck, Skeptical Enquirer, May 2009

(2) The Cooling World, Newsweek, 28 April 1975

(3) Global Cooling, Wikipedia

(4) The Global Cooling Myth,, January 2005

(5) Global Cooling Again,, October 2006

(6) Symons Memorial Lecture by BJ Mason, QJRMS, 1976, p473

(7) UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE CHANGE: A program for action, US National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Report, 1975

(8) Symons Memorial Lecture, by BJ Mason, QJRMS, 1976, p473

(9) A study of Climatological Research as it Pertains to Intelligence Problems, CIA Report, 1974

(10) Excerpts from The Weather Conspiracy, the Coming of the New Ice Age,

(11) See An Important Letter Sent To The President About The Danger Of Climate Change,, 21 October 2009

(12) Cited in Our Changing Weather Patterns, Alan Wilkie, 1976, p48

(13) How to Be Right About the Climate: Always!, by Vincenzo Ferrara (trans. Maurizio Morabito), originally in Rivista di Meteorologia Aeronautica, Vol XLII no 1, Jan-Mar 1982

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Topics Science & Tech


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