Iain Stewart is -ahem- wrong about global cooling

Oh dear. Yet another victim of the std.nonsense global cooling error. "Thanks" to ABM for pointing this out. If you can bear watching piles of twaddle, get in quick before the BBC watch-again feature expires.

But if you're unfamiliar with the issue, don't watch sh*t* on the Beeb, read wiki or RC.

I've mailed him to see if its his fault or the Beebs. We'll see.

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Iain Stewart is always entertaining. He is a real hands on earth scientist with a background in geology, not mathematics or the physical sciences. In previous programs he has absailed into volcanoes, and survived on alpine snow fields. It is great, the way he turned up video footage of the scientists typing their letter to the President :-)

[Whether he is a scientist or not will depend on how he reacts to having his errors pointed out to him -W]

The story of Camp Century was news to me, but the program is really about the spreading of climate sceptic propoganda. The next episode will be shown on Sunday, a little while after the first episode is repeated.

Cheers, Alastair.

Oh now, this is getting downright exciting. My horsey's nose seems to be elongating.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink

Do I have to watch it, or can you just tell us what he got wrong? Is it a rehash of the 1970s imminent ice age notion?
3.05 today.

[Well, the pretty moving pictures add nothing, so all you have to do is listen. Sadly they don't release a transcript. Basically its just a rather thoughtless "everyone predicted global cooling until 1976, when there was a hot summer and everyone switched to warming". He starts off fake-typing the 1972 letter (see about 1/4 way down http://www.wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/), falls for the std.schneider stuff, I think there were some clips from Calder (t' weather machine, lad), and thats all I can remember - there is a lot of pointless filler. As someone has already said, 1976 *wasn't* warm globally, or even hemispherically, so it all looks rather parochial.

As far as I can tell, he doesn't give a toss for the actual truth of the matter -W]

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink

Those of geographically challenged can't watch it, because the Beeb won't let us.

(Getting close now - closer than I expected a month ago. Good job we're betting on CT and not NSIDC or IJIS...)

3.004 Mkm^2 per cryosphere today. I have seen a realclimate comment mentioning 2.92 for 2007. So (~?) 84000 higher and last three days have been -57000 -21000 and -25000. Will reach the minimum soon now.

Just in case I'm not the very last person to notice this but Jonathan Renouf is the producer /director of this programme. To my mind this puts the Times article in some sort of marketing perspective and he certainly is not just a journalist who wasn't concentrating. I don't particularly like Iain Stewart's style. Its a bit'Oo look at me' and melodramatic for my tastes but its the way these programmes are made these days. They won't get shown otherwise.

Did you watch it first before declaring it a pile of twaddle, or base that verdict on the BBC summary?

[I haven't read the BBC summary. Like I said, I watched the prog -W]

You are misrepresenting the 1970s cooling scare. There was quite definitely a strong case being made by a growing "consensus" of scientists including some who are now advocates of global warming. Had it not been for contrary evidence in the mid-70s(i.e. the data) the global cooling movement would have comfortably matched the current support for AGW. Iain Stewart is NOT, by any measure, a "climate sceptic".

[I'm afraid you're simply making up this 1970's consensus-on-cooling. Though if you can produce evidence to the contrary, I'll be interested -W]

There was, however, one error in the programme. Dr Stewart blamed industrial aerosols for the cooling (as does the wiki link). This is nonsense. The concentration of industrial aerosols is highest close to the source of the emissions (papers by Mann & Jones and Levitus et al confirm this) In other words the climatic effect (cooling)should be most noticeable in the industrialised regions which in the 1940-70 period was in W.Europe/US. The GISS temp record, though, shows considerably more cooling in the Arctic. Funnily enough, so does the wiki page you linked to(see graphic). In fact the post-1975 warming is almost a mirror image of the pre-1975 cooling which suggests a cyclical process.

I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that ocean circulation explains the cycles and solar amplification explains the fact that current global temps are a few tenths higher than in the 1940s.

By John Finn (not verified) on 14 Sep 2008 #permalink

>"3.004 Mkm^2 per cryosphere today."

Did I post that at the right time? Will William be relieved to see 3.035Mkm^2 for today?

Hi William,

I just watched the first programme, and in my ignorant opinion Iain Stewart does a great job explaining, as an overview to laypersons who are not climate scientists, the climate story as it unfolded.

[He does a nice job of telling a story. The problem is that people like you don't know enough to realise that *it isn't true*. You don't quite seem to have realised that rather important point. Check the RC pag, or my page, or the wiki page, or the paper, if you happen to be interested in the truth. If you like an interesting fairy story, then go with IS.

Have you realised, for example, that the summer of 1976 (which you even quote with approval!) simply wasn't warm: not globally, not hemispherically. The data is available: http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/crutem3nh.txt Now, you tell me: why does IS say its warm? Because he carefully checked the data nad decided to get it wrong? Or because he lazily remembered the summer in England that year, decided that it would fit conveniently into his fairy tale, and decided to extrapolate wildly without bothering to check? -W]

He helps people understand how the twists and turns in the emerging 'plot' happened and how hurdles and delays were introduced for political reasons. When I read your comments, it is as if you watched an entirely different programme from the one I saw. (I watched part 2 too ...)

First of all, it is good to see a geologist tackling this issue, because in my experience it seems that--of all the disciplines that have a hard time accepting evidence of climate change--older geologists and atomic physicists have formed a large proportion of the more vocal group with contrary climate views ... not to mention classicists, who curiously have performed roles as influential elder statesmen, e.g. Energy Ministers in HM Government ;-)

Anyway, when you wrote:
[Whether he is a scientist or not will depend on how he reacts to having his errors pointed out to him -W]
Dr. Stewart is a geologist. He explained clearly why he thought Steve Schneider should get credit for changing his mind:

"The summer of 1976 broke all records. ... the planet began to warm up. And as the warming trend strengthened, it became clear that the science behind the ice age theory was flawed.

You know, it's easy to criticise Schneider, but to me there is nothing wrong in what he did. This is how science works: you've got a theory, you look for evidence, and if the evidence doesn't fit, you change the theory. The ice age theory was based on what was known at the time. When new data came in, Schneider changed his mind. I think he deserves a bit of credit for that."

That, for me, is an important point in the sense that it contrasts sharply with the way others in the climate story respond to new evidence as it became/becomes available ...

When you wrote:
[Basically its just a rather thoughtless "everyone predicted global cooling until 1976, when there was a hot summer and everyone switched to warming". He starts off fake-typing the 1972 letter ...]

It was not thoughtless, at least not in the way you describe, and not if you consider the target audience.

Iain Stewart did not say, as you suggested ["everyone predicted global cooling"].

What he actually said is in my transcript of the opening sequence (see blockquote below). Later in the same programme, Stewart tells us that another group of scientists were working on an alternative theory. (This provides the context that I guess you think is lacking.)

The typing was, I felt, effective--it gave viewers a sense of the seriousness with which the topic of climate change (albeit cooling in this case) was raised with the president in the first place. The scene was like a flashback, recreated for effect. You may describe that as "fake-typing", but I think most telly viewers get the idea, without feeling they have been misled ... ;-)

In any case, my 'best guess' as to the letter referred to was the one prepared by (glaciologists? and) geologists Kukla and Matthews and sent to President Nixon in December 1972, as described and displayed in this document.

The programme simply used a good hook to grab audience attention at the start, stating (my transcript):

"In 1972 a group of eminent scientists sat down to write a letter to the President of the United States. They were frightened. The earth's climate seemed to be going haywire. They worried that war, pestilence and famine were on the way. For the first time, climate change had become a hot political topic. The letter warned the President he had to prepare not for global warming--but for the complete opposite: a new ice age." Yep. 36 years ago, a lot of leading scientists really thought that an ice age was just around the corner. And yet today, they're all apparently convinced that global warming is a big threat. But if scientists were so wrong back then, how can we be sure they've got it right today? In this series I'm going to explore some simple big questions: How do we know the climate's warming up? How do we know humans are causing it? And how do we know what's going to happen next? As the story of global warming has unfolded, we've learned that the very nature of scientific truth (and about how that) has been falsified, manipulated and twisted--and even bought.
Sceptic voiceover: "As close to scientific fraud as you can get."
This is the story of how science discovered global warming. Perhaps the greatest challenge we've ever faced.

Later in the programme, Stewart did not express anything as outrageous as your paraphrase [there was a hot summer and everyone switched to warming].

Instead, he introduced the situation thus:

"With cooling off the agenda, the question now was very different: Why was the planet warming up? For many years, a group of scientists had been working on an alternative theory about what was happening to the climate. Now, their time had come.
The roots of this alternative theory lay with an obsessional genius by the name of Dave Keeling. If the scientific discovery of global warming has a hero, then Keeling is probably it. ..."

This three-part series on climate change provides a valuable addition to the documentaries available to the public. Unfortunately, I feel you have misrepresented the entire first programme in such a way as to put people off watching the three parts. That is not the best approach when we need the public to support policy to combat climate change. You are encouraging people to dismiss the programme, and that is counter-productive if you want this topic better understood (in layman's terms) and scientists' advice acted upon (by members of the public).

P.S. What did you say in your letter to Dr. Iain Stewart and BBC2?

Re: inel post above

Let me see if I've got this right.

In the 1970s Stephen Schneider was convinced that global cooling was taking place and, in fact, published a paper which suggested we'd be 2/3 of the way towards the next ice age by the end of the century.

In the 1980s, Schneider, noting that the data had changed (i.e. temperatures had began to rise) changed his mind and decided that global warming was the problem.

[No. You've got it wrong. Details available if you care. Where are you getting this picture from? Whats your evidence? -W]

And for this he should be lauded for his open-mindedness.

Ok - I thought global warming might be a problem in the 1990s but most of the data since 1998 shows cooling (or lack of warming) so I've changed my mind.

Schneider was an opportunist who simply jumped from one bandwagon to another.

If I get chance I'll respond more fully to William's comments.

By John Finn (not verified) on 19 Sep 2008 #permalink

Having now watched all three parts in the series, I must say I found it extremely disappointing. The hook for Part I was the so-called 1970s global cooling scare and fears of an imminent ice age, and it was wrong about that. Also in Part 1 it spent (wasted) a lot of time on an inaccurate and spurious coverage of the Jason and Nierenberg reports (trotting out the same line as the Times article). Then Part III claimed that it "traces the history of climate change from its very beginning". I presume it means the history of climate change research, otherwise it would have had to go back several billion years, but it didn't do that. It mentioned early attempts to model climate and weather in the 1950s, but there was no mention of Tyndall, Arrhenius or Milankovitch - it gave the impression that climate change research began in the 1950s. And when discussing modelling it kept using the terms weather and climate almost interchangeably, never explaining the difference between the two, or why we can't predict weather more than a few days in advance but can predict climate.

Less seriously, but still very disappointingly, I thought, when covering the key "sceptic arguments", it didn't mention the ice core CO2-lag argument (which was one of the most convincing sections of "Swindle" to uninformed viewers, judging by the blogs), which it could have covered as part of the history section if it had covered Milankovitch, because of the fact that it was realised long ago that orbital cycles on their own were too weak a forcing to explain the ice age cycles, and that GHG as a feedback was thought to be a major factor long before the ice age records confirmed that to be so.

I'm thinking of writing a complaint to the BBC Trust, at least about the first three items above.


There's a typo at end of the penultimate para of my previous post, sorry - should be "ice core records" rather than "ice age records", of course.


Also, I've just noticed the quote from the programme in Inel's comment, above: "The roots of this alternative theory lay with an obsessional genius by the name of Dave Keeling." The roots lay with Tyndall and Arrhenius - Keeling just put flesh on the bones ...


Dave, you could make a not bad case for ~1950. See Weart's online book. What existed before then were individual threads which required significantly more data and data processing capacity.

Charles David Keeling. Evidently he was called by his middle name among colleagues and friends, which is not uncommon in the US, either because you have a close relative with the same first name and get into the habit young or because you don't like your first name. See the next to last paragraph in this appreciation.

Hi Ely

I don't dispute that Keeling's work was a step-change, but quoting from the article you linked to: "[Keeling's] work was motivated by the suggestion, originally made by Svante Arrhenius, that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might be increasing due to the burning of fossil fuels with potential consequences for global climate." And Arrhenius's suggestion was based on Tyndall's discovery of the greenhouse effect.

I thought my "putting the flesh on the bones" analogy was apt - as you say, their theory required more data, which Keeling provided.

I really don't see how one can claim to be tracing the history of climate change research "from its beginning" without mentioning Tyndall and Arrhenius, or (in the context of historical climate change) without mentioning Milankovitch.


It's not only Keeling, but Revelle and Suess, Gilbert Plass, Norman Phillips and Manabe. You can think of Tyndall, Arrhenius, Milankovitch, and Callandar as a pre-history. Studies that lay the base as it were. Each of those earlier studies were separated from the others by decades (not Milankovitch and Callandar tho). Climate (and weather forcasting) really took off in the 1950s after a very long induction period.

As I said, you could make a case for the claim and then spend a few years debating it but it surely is no slam dunk either way.

I agree that the history of climate and weather *forecasting* could be said to start in the 50s, but I am not persuaded that Tyndall's and Arrhenius's work was not "climate research". And given that so many people believe the Swindle line that greenhouse warming theory is very recent (with the implication of it therefore being unreliable), I think that educating the public about the fact that the basic theory goes back over 100 years is important.


Hmm, we need another description and quantum mechanics may provide it. The ideas that lead to QM (Panck, Einstein, Bohr, Sommerfeld, etc.) are usually called the "old quantum theory" and what grew out of it (Heisenberg, Schroedinger etc.) quantum mechanics! Thus, old climate theory (Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callandar, etc), and climate science (post 1950)

Thank you all for additional links debunking the 1970s cooling myth which are being added here http://www.realclimate.org/wiki/index.php?title=They_predicted_global_c… should you wish to reference these works and more.

I was unable to watch it past the opening as it immediately lost all credibility for me ... should I bother?

FYI the link in http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2008/09/iain_stewart_is_wrong.php#comment… has included the '),' and comes up as broken. I got it, but not everyone will.

Thanks again

Well it seems I'm the only person who thought it was a good series (on balance).

I could have gone through picking holes, no mention of diurnal range/strato or mesospheric cooling/expansion of the Hadley Cells etc etc etc. But this is public information and if you bombard people with too much they'll switch off, and I can always pick holes. It's interesting to watch the earlier programmes by Stewart like "Earth: Power of the Planet" (or indeed Attenborough's "Life on Earth") and see how many holes you can pick in them. Nothing is perfect.

Maybe I'm just too hardened to the compromises that have to be made when trying to inform the public.

[I've said this to Inel, and I don't see what new I can say: he wasn't informing the public. He was talking nonsense. Things didn't happen the way he said.

My best guess is that he simply failed to do any research and based it on his folk memories. Stuff about the 1976 summer is just simply false, as can be verified from the record. That he got the story of global cooling-vs-warming wrong is a bit harder to know - you actually have to read the wiki page, or the real climate page, or my page; which he has explicitly stated that he refuses to do. Nowadays you can also read my paper with TP or JF; and if he ever corrects himself I wouldn't be surprised if that became the excuse (conveniently forgetting the preprint, of course) -W]

If I thought we stood a chance of persuading people that the time for action is now, I'd be angry with the reception Prof Stewart has received from the non-deluded section of the climate change "debate" (i.e. I'd expect the denialists to start squawking crap - as indeed they have. But the reaction here and elsewhere has surprised me).

All that said as 1) we weren't going to get people to change en masse and 2) it's looking too late anyway. I guess it doesn't matter.

My advice to the reputable media - Drop the whole issue of AGW totally, it's just not worth it. You'll just end up being criticised on all fronts.

By CobblyWorlds (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink


"Stuff about the 1976 summer is just simply false, as can be verified from the record."

Yes granted, untrue. But it's the sort of narrative device used by the media today (ask Charlie Brooker - ScreenWipe). I don't like it, it's wrecked Horizon, but it's how they do it, and what people are used to (the device that is). So I accept it as a necessary evil.

[Its not a narrative device. Its a falsehood. In this case a result of failure to do proper research, ie just-believe-the-myth, I think, rather than deliberate lying -W]

Perhaps I need to re-read your site but I thought the main message was that the Cooling scare was a media circus and was not reflected in the literature. The impression I got from Dr Stewart was not to the contrary of that.

[Ah, the old "not contrary to that". I disagree. The main message from the prog was std.myth: scientists believed cooling, then switched to warming -W]

I'm going to watch them all again. I'll post back if I change my mind, don't expect me to post back though.

[Do please post back. Pay careful attention to the ratio of information to disinformation. Ask yourself, could you trust someone who didn't know the subject to come away better informed afterwards? Ie, would they be able to discard the false data somehow, and receive useful info from the prog. what useful info did it provide? -W]

Maybe the BBC would be better with a low budget "Climate at Night" hosted by Climate Science's version of Sir Patrick Moore.

[Yes. But the BBC is lost -W]

By CobblyWorlds (not verified) on 23 Sep 2008 #permalink

Hi CobblyWorlds

You appear to be arguing that it's okay for documentaries to be inaccurate as long as they are on the "right side" of the argument. If any sceptics in the true sense of the word "sceptics" thought that the BBC shared that viewpoint, then they would not only write off that particular series as propaganda, but would also write off any future BBC documentaries as well. Misinformation is completely counter-productive, IMO, as well as being morally wrong. The public has a right to receive accurate information in documentaries, which was why I organised the complaint to Ofcom about the Swindle programme, and why I'm still thinking of complaining to the BBC Trust about this one.

[Good point there. We shouldn't excuse inaccuracy from "our side" and then complain about it from the "dark side" -W]

Re. William's inline comments, I do think there was some good information in the series, and IMO, if it had been properly peer reviewed, it could have been converted into a good film. Part I in particular would need to have had a major rewrite though. They should have asked Spencer Weart to review it, instead of Oreskes ...


[Did Oreskes review part I?!? Are you sure? I'll definitely rant blog about it if so -W]

Hi William - re. Oreskes, no I'm not sure, but she was listed in the credits as a consultant, so if she didn't, she certainly should have!


[Shame. Thats probably not worth a rant :-( -W]

I can't remember the details of the programme you're referring to, but I do remember that the broad narrative across the three episodes was essentially:

1) Summary of the emergence of climate change theories - including some theories that were later proved to be wrong
2) Summary of the sceptics' arguments, each of which is disproved as new evidence emerged - i.e. concluding that the sceptics are wrong on most points.
3) So, having re-established that climate change is happening, that we are causing it and that the consequences are likely to be serious, what are we going to do about it?

From the original post and comments, you would think that Mr Stewart is himself a rabid sceptic. You are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees.

[I'm afraid you have to read what I write, which was about programme 1 only. And it was twaddle. I don't call him a "sceptic" and I don't think he is one - just badly misinformed as to the history. In that particular aspect he is no better than the freakos, or indeed the host of other people who are drawn like moths to the amusingly contrary idea that we used to predict global cooling; its just a shame the idea is wrong. In this case, I've made him aware by email of his error, and pointed him to our paper in BAMS on the subject. He has made some replies-by-email that can be cautiously interpreted as acknowledging the possibility of error, but he hasn't had the grace to correct himself even quietly in public, let alone in a forum as public as his original presentation. That is a poor show -W]

By Patrick Kirk (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink