“Even the shifting language from global cooling (remember that?) to global warming to (the very nebulous) climate change inspires nothing but doubt.” So said a commenter in response to a recent piece I did on the continuous spin cycle of climate change communications. One hears this skeptical “global cooling” mantra regularly, as I also did from the mouth of Sean Hannity during a spirited discussion with actress turned green activist Daryl Hannah on his radio show. There’s a lot worth talking about in the realm of climate science and policy (and plenty where I would differ from President Obama and company), but we never can seem to get past playing conspiracy theory Whack-a-Mole. Sigh.
Nevertheless, the authors of the National Climate Assessment have their mallets out and have produced a helpful FAQ that provides information that could be quite useful to the honestly uncertain. Topics like the difference between weather and climate, whether the globe is actually warming or not, the relevance of short term “pauses” in warming, the role of sun cycles, the level of consensus and disagreement, the history of climate science, and other topics are concisely covered—and usually rather well. And, yes, global cooling makes an appearance. Here, though, I have a small bone to pick.
The response highlights a historic review of the scientific debate about climatic warming and cooling factors and concludes, “For the period 1965 through 1979, the literature survey found seven papers suggesting further cooling, 20 neutral, and 44 warming. Even in the early years of the study of climate change, more science studies were discussing concerns about global warming than global cooling.” My concern is not with the meat of the answer—the underlying paper and its representation here both appear to be quite good—but with the question. The query was stated like this: “Weren’t there predictions of global cooling in the 1970s?” The shortest and straightest answer to that particular question would be, well, “Yes.” That’s not the answer they chose though. Instead the NCA authors led their response with the following:
No. An enduring myth about climate science is that in the 1970s the climate science community supposedly predicted “global cooling” and an “imminent” ice age. A review of the scientific literature shows that this was not the case. On the contrary, even then, discussions of human-related warming dominated scientific publications on climate and human influences.
The body of the answer makes the supportable argument that there was no global cooling consensus, and, if anything, the academic trend leaned towards expecting warming no matter what Newsweek wrote or Time did or did not put on its cover. Still, there was certainly some talk of global cooling, as the write-up itself makes clear. Why then not craft a question that could be honestly and directly answered with a “No”? The short answer is “I don’t know” but I suspect the authors fell into the trap of feeling they had to use bluster to hold up against the spin regularly thrown against them. Often fighting fire with fire just makes for a bigger conflagration, though. Overall, there is a lot of good stuff in the NCA, but one gets the sense that the authors were trying to convey as much urgency as possible without overstating the data. Occasionally, though, they do overstate things as this FAQ example shows.
The authors also wear their emotions on their graphic sleeves—there literally is a picture of a wildfire on the cover to accompany an America awash in shades of red. Now, I think the temperature trend we’ve seen is indeed significant, but does an increase of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over 22 years (thankfully a result that is far less than what many models predicted) really merit the sort of shading your local weatherman uses only in the deserts of Arizona. Elsewhere there are gratuitous stock photos of floods and lake-beds cracked by drought intermixed with hopeful shots like that of resolutely smiling young woman standing in front of solar panels.
It’s all the sort of thing one would more expect to see in a non-profit fundraising letter than an official taxpayer funded government report. I think many people would have responded better to a tone that was serious, calm, and cool—even when the topic is a hot one.