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Climate science’s long history matters—and so does the history of news reporting about it

11 November 2016

New York Times online science columnist Andrew Revkin treasures a “fascinating sift for early news on greenhouse-driven global warming.”

Across centuries, the scientific literature documents climate research unceasingly. But from week to week, ephemeral journalism reports it unevenly. Climate-change deniers can exploit the unevenness, falsely portraying the science as unseriously contrived, not painstakingly established. That’s a reason for attention to Andrew Revkin’s New York Times posting “News coverage of coal’s link to global warming, in 1912”—and to other reporting that embraces climate science’s development since the 19th century and recognizes how the subject has, or has not, been publicly discussed.

After summarizing the history of “scientific analysis pointing to a human role in warming the climate through burning fossil fuels,” and after citing a 1956 Times article about that, Revkin’s 21 October online Dot Earth column zeroed in on this question: “But when did news coverage begin?” As evidence for answering, he quoted a 1912 news blurb, published in New Zealand and Australia. Via an update later, he added that, validating the blurb’s authenticity, found that it had actually appeared earlier in Popular Mechanics. Here’s the blurb:


The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

Revkin announced himself “eager to find earlier news coverage, in any language, of human-driven global warming.” Readers sent, and he appended, evidence of still “more early coverage of the carbon dioxide/climate connection.” Several articles from 1883, he wrote, “including one in the Times, point back to a Nature article.” That Nature piece from one and a third centuries ago expressed concern about Earth’s atmosphere being “polluted” by “carbonic dioxide” from the burning of coal and about the possibility “that the increasing pollution of the atmosphere will have a marked influence on the climate of the world.”

These “gems” of climate-news history, as Revkin calls them, don’t exhaust the supply of publicly recognized evidence that climate science actually began long ago. And they don’t by themselves defeat disdainful scoffers’ attempts to dismiss climate science as unseriously, and merely recently, contrived. But they do make such attempts harder.

Consider public attacks on climate science based on the over-imagined “global cooling scare” of the 1970s—attacks mounted by conservative pundits Charles Krauthammer in 2014 and Mike Huckabee in 2015, by others, and in 2009 by conservative columnist George F. Will, now also a Fox News commentator. In his newspaper column, Will challenged the climate views of then Energy secretary Steven Chu, a physics Nobel laureate. In a paragraph claiming implicitly to establish important science history, yet adducing mainly media sources, Will sought to show that scientists four decades ago had casually—unseriously—contrived a consensus opposite to that of the present, thereby rendering climate science both then and now ridiculous. He wrote:

In the 1970s, “a major cooling of the planet” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950” (New York Times, May 21, 1975). Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively). The “continued rapid cooling of the Earth” (Global Ecology, 1971) meant that “a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery” (International Wildlife, July 1975). “The world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age” (Science Digest, February 1973). Because of “ominous signs” that “the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that “the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century,” perhaps triggering catastrophic famines (Newsweek cover story, “The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975). Armadillos were fleeing south from Nebraska, heat-seeking snails were retreating from Central European forests, the North Atlantic was “cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool,” glaciers had “begun to advance” and “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 27, 1974).

Will holds a Princeton PhD and has publicly admired the intellectual integrity of his late father, a University of Illinois scholar. Yet for this “global cooling” attack, Will hadn’t done his factual due diligence. Soon Washington Post science commentator Chris Mooney pointed out the obvious: a debunking paper titled “The myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus” had appeared a year earlier in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It noted that when the cooling myth “arises in contemporary discussion over climate change, it is most often in the form of citations not to the scientific literature, but to news media coverage.” It reported that a survey of peer-reviewed scientific literature “identified only 7 articles indicating cooling compared to 44 indicating warming.” And it charged that even “cursory review of the news media coverage of the issue reveals that, just as there was no consensus at the time among scientists, so was there also no consensus among journalists.”

As to the 1975 Newsweek cover story that Will cited in his litany, in 2014 Inside Science News at the American Institute of Physics published and circulated Peter Gwynne’s “My 1975 ‘Cooling World’ story doesn’t make today’s climate scientists wrong.” The thumbnail summary said a lot about why climate-journalism history efforts like Gwynne’s and Revkin’s matter: “It’s time for deniers of human-caused global warming to stop using an old magazine story against climate scientists.”

By citing a blog posting from historian Cameron Muir of Canberra, Australia, Revkin introduced another reason climate-news-reporting history matters: because people connect with news articles. What Revkin called Muir’s “fascinating … sift for early news on greenhouse-driven global warming” begins this way:

I Tweeted a few snippets of digitised newspaper articles on the subject of fossil fuels, the atmosphere, and climate change. The earliest was from 1912, titled “Coal consumption affecting climate”. I collected them in preparation for a BBQ at which I knew there would be some older, country conservatives (not particularly partisan conservative, but fairly fixed views, and mistrustful of expertise on such matters). I knew there was a good chance of climate change coming up in conversation….

Telling the country conservatives about climate change, rattling off facts and figures, speaking about the long history of the development of climate science, or appealing to the authority of NASA, the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation], and more, wasn’t going to help. Their experience and opinions trump those authorities, and they’re certainly not going to listen to me. In their view these are natural changes, or the science is too new, and variations of those.

So I thought I’d show them. Most people love history. A lot of people read popular histories. There are also a lot of people who don’t read much. For them, history is on TV, or in family photo albums, or at the local library. This was my audience at the BBQ. I figured the newspaper clippings would work well. They’re similar documents, or objects, and the way they look—with the extra small print and noisy reproduction—creates a stereotypical ‘historic’ aesthetic. They also appear more neutral than a government website, or a book by an academic. These are the publications of the people, the ordinary folk.

I could just show them on the iPad—have a look at this, isn’t this interesting, and so on. This avoided an argument. It seemed to open up possibilities for a conversation. These articles weren’t from left-wing, elitist, science conspirators, like the “bloody hopeless UN”, but respectable, late nineteenth and early twentieth century “Men of Science” theorising and experimenting on the relationship between atmospheric carbon and the earth’s temperature—a “greenhouse” or “blanket” effect.

Old newspaper “gems,” however salient, are mostly brief and undetailed, but in 2010 Revkin called attention to what he believed to be “our first substantial newspaper coverage of research pointing to the prospect that humans could substantially warm the climate.” It was that 1956 Times article, which reported on a then-new scientific paper. The Times piece explained the atmospheric greenhouse principle and closed by warning that coal and oil remained “plentiful and cheap.” It also included a comment that causes a problem for anyone who accuses climate-consensus defenders of having resorted to dramatic “alarmist” language only recently, and therefore disingenuously. Call it hype or call it emphasis, but that Times article of 60 years ago reported that “a rise in the average temperature of only 4 degrees C. would convert the polar regions into tropical deserts and jungles, with tigers roaming about and gaudy parrots squawking in the trees.”

Revkin’s 2010 piece linked also to something else in the popular media presenting dramatic language about climate prospects. In 1958, film creator Frank Capra produced a documentary titled The Unchained Goddess for television’s Bell Telephone Hour. A 78-second excerpt shows an actor declaring, “Man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization” with “more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide” released each year, ultimately threatening that “tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.”

What climate-denying pundits call “alarmism” isn’t newly invented. It goes back at least six decades. (And if longer, Revkin probably wants to know.)

Revkin isn’t alone in seeking to fill out the picture of public discussion of climate science’s long—and painstakingly established—history. In 2007, science historian Naomi Oreskes contributed a Washington Post op-ed headlined “The long consensus on climate change.” Spencer Weart of the American Institute of Physics engages the issue in The Discovery of Global Warming, his “hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change.” In 2015, a Science magazine editorial as did the blog Skeptical Science.

Both Oreskes and Weart address the 1938 paper of G. S. Callendar in the UK. It was celebrated on its 75th anniversary in 2013 by BBC and the Guardian. In a short commemorative paper, climatologists Ed Hawkins, from the University of Reading, and Phil Jones, from the University of East Anglia, explained that

  • Callendar was “first to demonstrate that the Earth’s land surface was warming.”
  • Callendar “also suggested that the production of carbon dioxide by the combustion of fossil fuels was responsible for much of this modern change in climate.”
  • Callendar’s “global land temperature estimates agree remarkably well with more recent analyses.”

Callendar’s paper included this observation: “Few of those familiar with the natural heat exchanges of the atmosphere, which go into the making of our climates and weather, would be prepared to admit that the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale.” BBC quoted Hawkins’s echo of that disbelief: “Scientists at the time also couldn’t really believe that humans could impact such a large system as the climate.” But Hawkins added an observation that bears on today’s climate wars. He called that kind of disbelief “a problem that climate science still encounters from some people today, despite the compelling evidence to the contrary.”

Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and other confident evidence-rejecters regularly assert that mistaken disbelief about nature. But not every dispute about scientists’ climate consensus involves unwillingness or inability to grasp that humans can affect the planet’s climate. On 1 November, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by two founders of the CO2 Coalition, a group with leaders including well-known consensus scoffers Roger Cohen, Will Happer, Richard Lindzen, Pat Michaels, and Roy Spencer. Under the headline “The phony war against CO2,” the op-ed argued that “a myth persists that is both unscientific and immoral to perpetuate: that the beneficial gas carbon dioxide ranks among hazardous pollutants. It does not.”

Nothing in this media report can settle that technopolitical question, but media attention to climate-science history has presented information relevant to the debate. Late last year Skeptical Science reported, “Although the US supreme court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant in a landmark 2007 case, many contrarians object to this description. Nevertheless, climate scientists realized a half century ago that human carbon emissions qualify as pollution due to the dangers they pose via climate change.”

A distilled it: Washington’s “first official reference to CO2 as pollutant predated Clean Air Act.”

Climate science’s long history matters, and so does the history of news reporting about it.

Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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