Note to Stoat on Earth: The Climate Wars P.S. 11 days left to watch online

September 17, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Climate change, Environment, Global warming | 5 Comments
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N.B. Watch the programmes online here.
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 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?



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  1. Um, well, like I said:

    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 page, 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: Now, you tell me: why does IS say its warm? Because he carefully checked the data and 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?

  2. Hi William,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I did read wiki and your piece on RealClimate before I wrote to you, and I do understand why you chose to home in on the programme’s opening sequence where one climate theory was presented as causing concern amongst some scientists. I know you have studied the literature on cooling in great detail.

    My point is that Dr. Iain Stewart did not give the impression that ALL scientists agreed about global cooling. He presented it as a concern about the climate that was deemed—by some eminent scientists—as being serious enough to alert the US President, decades ago. And they were shown to be wrong.

    What I disagree with is your characterisation of him as being wrong. You seem to be accusing Stewart of declaring a scientific consensus that the world was cooling (and possibly heading for an ice age …), when he did not present the material in such a blunt and misleading way.

    Stewart went on to show how the global cooling theory was discredited as new data became available.

    I think the issue of correcting past mistakes (in any theory as well as in any observations) is right to be included in the history of (climate) science.

    Also, prioritisation of climate research—thrown back and forth as a political hot potato, as it is—is worth highlighting for general audiences to help them see how science is used to inform policy (or ignored, as the case may be). The contrast between the way debate is played out in the public sphere and the way ongoing research and political wrangling proceed behind-the-scenes is valuable background too.

    For a British audience, the long hot dry summer of 1976 was noteworthy: it did break temperature and rainfall records here in the UK.

    You only have to look at:

    Summer hot and summer even hotter in 1976


    1976 United Kingdom heat wave

    to see why that would resonate with British audiences. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a particular season, year, temperature and region of the world from a climate point of view, but people do try to understand the world in their own personal terms.

    The heatwave was a local, not a global, anomaly. I agree with you. Stewart did not make that part clear. He just breezed on from the UK to a planetary generalisation. For example, I do not like the way he phrased this:

    “Across the world, 30 years of cooling came to an abrupt end.
    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.
    For the scientists who’d been associated with the coming ice age, it was a chastening experience.”

    Having said that, I can understand why the script was so blunt, and why he talked about ‘cooling’ and ‘warming’ rather than positive or negative temperature anomalies. Perhaps he could have shown this graph to make his point:

    Global Temperature Record

    Anyway, in the context of the programme, the UK heat wave provided a segué into discussion of the possibility that the planet was warming, not cooling, and then introduced the work done by scientists looking at other aspects of the atmosphere, such as David Keeling’s dedicated measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

    In essence, what I am trying to do is underscore the value of Iain Stewart’s programme for lay persons (like me) who may be unaware of how we reached this point; his series does help us understand the connection between public awareness, politics, policy and science in the history of climate change.

    Finally, claiming bluntly that “Iain Stewart is wrong” does not help anyone, and your declaration certainly does Dr. Stewart a great disservice.

  3. This is a minor point, but giving Keeling credit over Revelle is rather odd. Was Revelle even mentioned?

    That NOAA document is very interesting, but peculiar for the lack of any reference to contemporaneous concerns about warming. Possibly those didn’t get mentioned because they didn’t request governmental action. If so the significance of the Kukla et al letter may be more apparent than real.

  4. Hello Steve,

    Perhaps Revelle was mentioned in passing?, but I’d have to check that when I get home this evening. Keeling’s son was in the programme, and Keeling’s CO2 apparatus that is used to calibrate other CO2 measuring equipment was shown, and so was the Keeling curve.
    That NOAA document was written, I believe, by geologists, after they held joint US-UK meetings with glaciologists, IIR. (Unfortunately, the significance of letters in the history of the world is in the influence they have apparently wielded over the path the world is on, not in the scientific reputation of authors.)

  5. Hi Steve,
    Revelle was not mentioned at all in any episode. (We just saw part 3 here, and I reviewed part 1 yesterday.) The Scripps Institution of Oceanography featured several times, but only Keeling and Nierenberg were included in the programmes, for different reasons of course. It seems strange that Revelle was not mentioned at all, not even a whisper …

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