Commentary: Chilling out on climate change

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A key argument climate skeptics always rely on is the now debunked prediction of a ‘new ice age.’ But the story of that 1970s debate is compelling as current evidence of global warming.

In any debate about climate change — and more importantly, its potential impact on agriculture — there are always skeptics who try to deflect the debate by noting that “In the 1970s, these scientists were predicting global cooling.”

The implication being, they didn’t’ know what they were talking about then, and they don’t have any credibility now.

It’s true that a number of scientific studies in the 1970s discussed the threat of an ice age that might occur in the future, including an influential 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider, then a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Schneider suggested that the cooling effect of “dirty air,” due to ongoing particulate pollution (the major provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1963 had only begun to be implemented at that time) could outweigh the potential warming effect of CO2.

The other contributing factor at the time, for those who remember their eco-history, was a growing fear that the ozone-destroying propellants in aerosol products would aggravate global warming.

In essence, it was an intellectual battle over warming versus cooling.

According to a comprehensive review in the New Scientist magazine published a few years ago, “There was a chill across the world [back then], and it wasn’t just the cold war. From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, the planet seemed to be in the grip of a global cooling. For a while, almost every outbreak of extreme weather was blamed on it [by] members of the new scientific discipline, climatology.”

However, here’s a bit of history everyone does remember.

Seventy-five years ago, global cooling was real, not some theoretical phenomenon. In the summer of 1941, Hitler’s blitzkrieg had swept across most of Western Europe and the Nazis were pounding the Russian army as it pushed toward Moscow.

As a BBC history of the campaign on the Eastern Front noted, “One week into the German invasion, 150,000 Soviet soldiers were either dead or wounded. As the German armies swept further into the Russian heartland, [the city of] Kiev fell to the Nazis wehrmacht and 600,000 Soviet soldiers had been captured. By October 1941, three million Soviet soldiers were prisoners of war.”

But as historians have noted, the winter of 1941-42 was one of the most severe in decades, and the heavy snow and bitter cold accomplished what Stalin’s Red Army could not: inflicting a crippling defeat on Hitler and changing the course of World War II.

Reversal of opinion

Even before the 1970s were out, average global temperatures began to rise, and many of scientists who had been predicting an ice age now began warning about global warming instead. Plenty of critics now use that reversal as the basis for arguing that climate scientists are simply scaremongers and shouldn't be believed, then or now.

As the UK’s The Guardian reported, as the decade came to a close, Schneider (and other climate scientists) realized that climatologists had “overestimated the cooling effect of aerosol pollution and underestimated the effect of CO2, meaning warming was more likely than cooling in the long run.”

In his review of a 1977 book called “The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age,” Schneider acknowledged that, “We just don’t know . . . whether we are in for warming or cooling — or when.”

A New Scientist story also noted that between 1965 and 1979, 44 scientific papers predicted global warming, 20 were neutral and just 7 predicted global cooling. “So while predictions of cooling got more media attention, the majority of scientists were predicting warming even then,” according to the story.

The current scientific consensus on human-induced global warming, however, is based on a significant body of research by thousands of scientists over more than 50 years — all of put under intense scrutiny by other scientists, energy industry lobbyists and a veritable horde of professional skeptics and conspiracy believers.

The fight over whether predictions of a new ice age decades ago were legitimate or not is a moot point. The data on rising average temperatures is conclusive, although the aforementioned “horde” continues to insist that the phenomenon is part of the “natural climate evolution.”

Although climate doesn’t “evolve” in one generation.

But it’s important to chill out on the subject, so that productive debate can resume — not over whether we’re facing potentially devastating change in the world’s climate, but about how best to respond before agriculture gets permanently damaged.

Along with the rest of civilization.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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us  |  May, 13, 2014 at 07:55 AM

Seems every time the ice sheet recedes, they find a mastadon that had gotten caught in a storm while grazing on lush grasses. So which is the perfect temperature for our planet? The temp the mastadon ate the lush grasses in? Or the storm that caught him off guard? Or the temp that covered him with ice? Or is the current temp the right one? Good question!

rascal rick    
May, 13, 2014 at 09:55 AM

Nice job, Dan, of evading the real controversy here. Sure, there are a few folks who deny climate is changing the way envirofascists insist but the real question is: what makes any of you think you can actually reverse climate trends? Since when have you righteous fakers every been able to control climate? Or weather? Or much of anything else, for that matter. Why should I believe any of you when you whine that I should resort to living in a cave and that will cool the planet to your satisfaction? It won't cool the planet and you activist jerks are never satisfied anyway. You always find more and more things I must sacrifice to meet your arbitrary standards. Climate is changing - it always has and always will - that's what climate does. However, sculpting climate in your own image, Dan, on demand, with only the tools of taxation and regulation and litigation...well, I suspect your brain cells are melting faster than those glaciers you and your panicky friends keep carping about. Chill out Dan. Just give it a rest and chill out, buddy.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  May, 14, 2014 at 08:38 AM

Not really sure if rr read the same article that I did but Dan, seems you gat you know what kind of slap from the rascal. What I get from the article is we need to step back and do better research and stop with the emotions of the problems. I think they need to spend more time on how we are going to live with the conditions over trying to change them, which we may not be able to do.

Robert Miller, Soils Specailist    
Windsor, CO  |  May, 14, 2014 at 12:04 PM

Interesting commentary. As a scientist (who receives no grant money for climate research) my take is that the climate is changing. There are those that behold to their beliefs that it's not, but facts dispute the deniers claims. CO2 air concentrations have increases 28% since 1958, a significant factor in increase grain yields over the last 55 years. Planting dates have advanced in the Midwest and rainfall patterns are more erratic. North Texas and California are now experiencing drought estimated at a 500 year frequency. Now to expect people to make the necessary changes to reverse the change, is unrealistic. There are too many well funded special interest groups who will block any actions to minimize the impact. What we need to come to terms with is how agriculture will deal with the changing climate. Be it drought tolerant hybrids, changes in tillage, or a shift in cropping systems we will have to adapt to the changes in climate. The key is to adapt to climate change just as we in agriculture have always done. - R

Mark Hayward    
MI  |  May, 15, 2014 at 09:17 AM

I should resort to living in a cave and that will cool the planet to your satisfaction? It won't cool the planet and you activist jerks are never satisfied anyway. You always find more and more things I must sacrifice to meet your arbitrary standards. Climate is changing - it always has and always will - that's what climate does. However, sculpting climate in your own image, Dan, on demand, with only the tools of taxation and regulation and litigation.. That pretty well sums up what they want to do about Climate change.. Taxes and Regulations...

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  May, 15, 2014 at 09:29 AM

"North Texas and California are now experiencing drought estimated at a 500 year frequency." So that statement means it happens every 500 years right? What did humans do to create and alleviate the last one 500 years ago?

Oklahoma  |  May, 15, 2014 at 11:41 AM

It semes it either rains a lot some years or we dont get any. I don't see how people think that who they vote for or how much extra in taxes they pay will change how much it rains one bit.

Kentucky  |  May, 15, 2014 at 03:45 PM

Weeell, it seems those who Dan refers to as the "horde" have come out of the "woodwork" again.... Sad to say, some people are ostriches and can't see the danger until it's "too late." Of course, there are always those with agendas, politicians in particular, who Dan again refers to. They will not change, but certainly like to throw darts at others who are willing to look at evidence closely. No side is perfect in its argument, and often we like to engage in rhetorical flourishes, but in the end the scientific consensus is clear - the climate is not only changing, but thanks to human intervention at a much rapid pace than in the past. The 500 years referred to is happening IN OUR LIFETIME, not over centuries, which should give pause, no...? As for the historical commentary, let me qualify a couple of issues. Number 1, the long, cold winter of 1941-42 did contribute greatly to the Nazi defeat in Russia (as it did to Napoleon over 100 years previously), but it was German arrogance and Russian strategy, endurance, and many millions of lives that defeated Hitler and his crew in the end. The war didn't really turn around until Stalingrad in 1942-43, and Russian sacrifice was tremendous. Winter was a partner, not the reason. As for climate cooling and warming, Dan is right that science was less precise back in the bad old days of the 1970s, but that's what has been honed to come to the much more definitive conclusions we have about climate change today. Thing is, the "horde" still lives in the '70s rather than make an effort to face reality in the 2010s. And for that reason the issue will not be easily resolved (esp. in the U.S.).

Iowa  |  May, 16, 2014 at 10:54 AM

This business of having agriculture continue to keep pace with change is going to be mighty bad news for the anti-agriculture crusaders whose prescription for sustainability is to regress all farming back to feudal times (or whenever the heck they think things were just splendidly perfect). Yep, there have been lots of changes in agriculture during the past 10,000 years, or so, and agriculture will continue to evolve and succeed. I'm not sure how much help these jittery climate scientists will be, though. Even if they are correct this time, and not wrong again like they were in the 70's, what are their credentials for seizing control of our modern farming technology? I mean, what exactly do they demand we actually do differently and just how soon do they insist we must do it? I figure we have the better part of a century or so to dial in a few necessary changes, and most of those will probably be great new advancements in agriculture, not compromises or negotiated setbacks as modern climate alarmists fear. We've farmed for generations now and the next few generations can be trusted to make good sensible decisions. I prefer to be remembered by my greatgrandchildren for passing on to them the absolute right to farm and a legacy of successful farming for them to work with. Not for squandering or straight jacketing their opportunities because I let some jittery nincompoops frighten me into making stupid permanent compromises we will have to live with for generations until smarter people compete my fossilized descendants out of existence altogether. I say beware of fear merchants who are too eager and too forceful in "helping" us purely out a passion to make the world a better place...according to them. What do they know?

Virginia  |  May, 17, 2014 at 01:41 PM

Climate change - where science and hysteria meet!

Lockwood Valley, CA  |  May, 19, 2014 at 10:00 PM

You know we really cant get around that God is in control. He could make next year the wettest and coldest year in decades if He chose too do that. If it gets hotter he will make a way for us to withstand it. But lets keep praying he makes it RAIN -Wendall CUDDY RANCH


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