This is a guest post by David Kirtley. David originally posted this as a Google Doc, and I’m reproducing his work here with his permission. Just the other day I was speaking to a climate change skeptic who made mention of an old Time or Newsweek (he was not sure) article that talked about fears of a coming ice age. There were in fact a number of articles back in the 1970s that discussed the whole Ice Age problem, and I’m not sure what my friend was referring to. But here, David Kirtley places a recent meme that seems to be an attempt to diffuse concern about global warming because we used to be worried about global cooling. The meme, however, is not what it seems to be. And, David places the argument that Ice Age Fears were important and somehow obviate the science in context.
The 1970s Ice Age Myth and Time Magazine Covers
– by David Kirtley
A few days ago a facebook friend of mine posted the following image:
From the 1977 cover we can see that apparently a new ice age was supposed to arrive. Only 30 years later, according to the 2006 cover, global warming is supposed to be the problem. But the cover on the left isn’t from 1977. It actually is this Time cover from April 9, 2007:
As you can see, the cover title has nothing to do with an imminent ice age, it’s about global warming, as we might expect from a 2007 Time magazine.
The faked image illustrates one of the fake-skeptics’ favorite myths: The 1970s Ice Age Scare. It goes something like this:
- In the 1970s the scientists were all predicting global cooling and a future ice age.
- The media served as the scientists’ lapdog parroting the alarming news.
- The ice age never came—the scientists were dead wrong.
- Now those same scientists are predicting global warming (or is it “climate change” now?)
The entire purpose of this myth is to suggest that scientists can’t be trusted, that they will say/claim/predict whatever to get their names in the newspapers, and that the media falls for it all the time. They were wrong about ice ages in the 1970s, they are wrong now about global warming.
But why fake the 1977 cover? Since, according to the fake-skeptics, there was so much news coverage of the imminent ice age why not just use a real 1970s cover?
I searched around on Time’s website and looked through all of the covers from the 1970s. I was shocked (shocked!) to find not a single cover with the promise of an in-depth, special report on the Coming Ice Age. What about this cover from December 1973 with Archie Bunker shivering in his chair entitled “The Big Freeze”? Nope, that’s about the Energy Crisis. Maybe this cover from January 1977, again entitled “The Big Freeze”? Nope, that’s about the weather. How about this one from December 1979, “The Cooling of America”? Again with the Energy Crisis.
Now, there really were news articles in the 1970s about scientists predicting a coming ice age. Time had a piece called “Another Ice Age?” in 1974. Time’s competition, Newsweek, joined in with “The Cooling World” in 1975. People have collected lists and lists of “Coming Ice Age” stories from newspapers, magazines, books, tv shows, etc. throughout the 1970s.
But if it was such a big news story why did it never make the cover of America’s flagship news magazine like the faked image implies? Perhaps there is more to the story.
In the 1970s there were a few developments in climate science:
- Scientists were finding answers to the puzzle of what caused ice ages in the past: variations in earth’s orbit.
- Scientists were gathering data from around the world to come up with global average temperatures, and they found that temperatures had been cooling since about the 1940s.
- Scientists were realizing that some of this cooling was due to increasing air pollution (soot and aerosols, tiny particles suspended in the air) which was decreasing the amount of solar energy entering the atmosphere.
- Scientists were also quantifying the “greenhouse effect” of another part of our increasing pollution: carbon dioxide (CO2), which should cause the climate to warm.
The realization that very long cycles in earth’s orbit could cause the waxing and waning of ice ages, coupled with the fact that our soot and aerosols were already causing cooling, led some scientists to conclude that we may be headed for another ice age. Exactly when was still a little unclear. However, the warming effects of CO2 had been known for over a century, and new research in the 1970s was showing that CO2 warming would more than compensate for the cooling caused by aerosols, resulting in net warming.
Check out our new science podcast, Ikonokast.
This, in a very brief nutshell, was the state of climate science in the 1970s. And so the media of the time published many stories about a coming ice age, which made for timely reading during some very cold winters. But many news stories also mentioned that other important detail about CO2: that our climate might soon change due to global warming. In 1976 Time published “The World’s Climate: Unpredictable” which is a very good summary of the then current scientific thinking: some scientists emphasized aerosols and cooling, some scientists emphasized CO2 and warming. There was no consensus either way. Many other 1970s articles which mention a Coming Ice Age also mention the possibility of increased warming due to CO2. For instance, here, here and here.
Fake-skeptics read these stories and only focus on the Coming Ice Age angle, and they enlarge the importance of those scientists who focused on that angle. They totally ignore the rest of the picture of 1970s climate science: that increasing CO2 would cause global warming.
The purpose of the image of the two Time magazine covers, and of the Coming Ice Age Myth, is not to show the real history of climate science, but to obscure that history and to cause confusion. It seems to be working. Because today, when there really is a consensus about climate science and 97% of climatologists agree that adding CO2 to the atmosphere is leading to climate change, only 45% of the public know about that consensus. The other 55% must think we’re still in the 1970s when scientists were still debating the issue. Seems newsworthy to me, maybe Time will run another cover story on it.
To learn more see:
- The Discovery of Global Warming: Revised and Expanded Edition (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine), Spencer R. Weart. The author has an online expanded version of this book.
- Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery, John Imbrie and Katherine Palmer Imbrie.
- “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” Peterson, Thomas C., William M. Connolley, John Fleck, 2008: Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 89, 1325–1337.