The Skepticism of Hubert Horace Lamb


Lamb’s Skepticism: Cleansing the MemoryBefore the Warming Boom

SourceBookDiscussion on Bishop Hill


Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.

— Horace

Even during his life, the research findings and opinions of Hubert Lamb had a strangely distorted and selective influence on the climate change debate. Previously we saw how his reconstructions of regional climate variation across the last millennium have been misused in official reports as though they might indicate the global temperature anomaly. This began in 1975 when a derivative chart of winter severity for the region of Moscow served this purpose in an influential US report. This graph was subsequently re-used many times through the 1980s to indicate the global trend. Then, in 1990, the IPCC used a very different looking graph—Lamb’s extension of Gordon Manley’s central England temperature chart—which became an idol for skeptics.

In the next two posts we stay with Lamb and consider something that has remained obscure since he died in 1997, namely, his skepticism of man-made climate change. To accompany these essays, a new page is being developed as a SourceBook of Lamb’s skepticism. There you will find for the first time on the internet extensive quotation from Lamb on this topic. Our second post also contains lots of new material where it touches on  aspects of Lamb’s professional biography that are not widely known, including his struggle to fund historical research into natural climatic change before the warming scare began. But firstly, below, we begin by exploring why the views of Lamb provided here might appear surprising and in contradiction to other internet sources. What becomes evident is that Lamb’s protestations against the greenhouse warming scare present difficulties for those promoting climate alarm, especially at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), which he founded in 1972.

Part 1: Cleansing the Collective Memory

The Wikipedia enter for Hubert Lamb tells of how he was once known as ‘the ice man.’ This claim appeared in a curious addition to the first small ‘stub’ entry on the founder of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. We are told that our ‘ice man’ gained his epithet because he predicted global cooling and the return of the ice age. But the main point of the inserted sentence is his redemption from this view.

He was originally known as the ‘ice man’ for his prediction of global cooling and a coming ice age but, following the UK’s exceptionally hot summer of 1976, he switched to predicting a more imminent global warming.
[wiki history]

Now, given that by 1976 the scientific controversy remained wallowing in equivocation about whether the human influence was warming or cooling [see Matthews Nov76, Peterson Sept08], and given that greenhouse warming alarm only got traction in the late 1980s, this ice-man-redemption passage in the Wikipedia entry suggests that Lamb was a harbinger of warming alarm. He was nothing of the sort.

Our ice-man-redemption story arrived on Wikipedia in December 2009, just after Climategate broke, and it remains in a modified form to this day. Indeed, it stayed uncontested for a year, until someone commented:

He doesn’t sound like much of a climatologist, if all it took to change his mind on this matter was one hot summer. Is there nothing more to climatology than standing outside and saying, “Mm, feels to me like an ice age (or a global warming event) is coming”?
[Nigelj (talk) Sept10]

Not only does the ice-man-redemption claim make Lamb look silly, but the statement itself looks silly to anyone familiar with the history. An eventual return to an ice age is hardly something unique to Lamb when he discussed it in the 1970s. It had been well known for half a century that the temperature peak of the current interglacial warm period, the so-called ‘Holocene climate optimum,’ passed long ago, at the dawn of civilization. What was news in the 1970s was that ice core temperature data was confirming predictions according to Milanković Cycles that we are at the tail-end of this warm period, and that within the next few millennia we should fall off into another ice age. So, Lamb may well have carried this epithet, but this hardly says anything special about him as a scientist. Nor is any ‘switch’ necessary when predicting man-made global warming. Those scientists predicting more imminent man-made warming have never needed to renounce the consensus on natural geological-scale cycles in and out of ice ages. The contradiction is, as Lamb repeatedly explained, only in a confusion of scales:

There is no necessary contradiction between forecast expectations of
(a) some renewed (or continuation of) slight cooling of world climate for a few decades to come, e.g., from volcanic or solar variation;
(b) an abrupt warming due to the effect of increasing carbon dioxide, lasting some centuries until fossil fuels are exhausted and a while thereafter; and this followed in turn by
(c) a glaciation lasting (like the previous one) for many thousands of years.
[1985, xxxii. See also: 1982 p362; 1984 J of Met vol9 #92 Oct 1984, p241; 1988, p351]

If anyone needed to ‘switch,’ it was those spreading alarm in the 1970s about imminent pollution-accelerated cooling. Some of these never switched from cooling alarm (e.g., Bryson and Calder). It is Stephen Schneider who famously flipped from the cooling to the warming scare. But Lamb did neither. Yes, Lamb did often express concern about the impact of proposition “(a)” in his list: he always saw it as a real possibility that, within the life time of his readers, solar or volcanic forces could return European climate to the conditions prevailing during Charles Dickens’ ‘white Christmas’ childhood. And in the mid 1970s, his early understanding of (what is now known as) the North Atlantic Oscillation, caused him to predicted that the recent easing of winter severity would likely continue in Britain for some years. But he always maintained a skepticism of the human influence on global climate.

Reid Bryson, Climate of Hunger book cover

Reid Bryson was the founder in 1948 of the US Center for Climatic Research, upon which CRU was modeled. He was early in raising concerns about the impacts of climate cooling exacerbated by pollution, long before Climates of Hunger was published in 1977. But he never switched to warming alarm and remained skeptical until he died in 2008.

The comment on Wikipedia that brought into question the ice-man-redemption claim was posted on the article discussion page (see under the ‘talk’ tab) on the second day of a minor editorial dispute sparked by the first suggestion of skepticism to appear in the Lamb entry. The authority there cited was the veteran science writer, Fred Pearce. Pearce had just published a book about Climategate, The Climate Files, in which he quotes a 1984 speech where Lamb expressed skepticism of the forecasts of catastrophic greenhouse warming. Moreover, while giving the background to the current controversy, Pearce paints a picture of how, after Lamb’s retirement in 1977, and much to Lamb’s disappointment, a new generation of scientists at CRU (and elsewhere) sought to demolish Lamb’s views on the topic, and, with a fervour, they succeeded in overturning his work, or at least in confining his findings ‘to the deep freezer.’ [p28-32]

The theme of Pearce’s backgrounding chapter, ‘Into the Freezer,’ is the ice age scare that preceded the warming scare, and here Pearce does hold to the first part of the ice-man-redemption story by lumping Lamb in with the ice age alarmists of the 1970s. A single sound bite places him with Schneider, Calder, Bryson, George Kulka and others actively promoting alarm about imminent catastrophic cooling. Whether or not he belongs in this group, Pearce is right when he tells how, unlike Schneider, Lamb was never redeemed. The lecture from which Pearce derives his skeptical quotations was given in 1984, which is long after when Wikipedia claims that Lamb was supposed to have come on board with warming alarm. The only trouble is that Pearce neglects to cite either of its two published versions of this lecture [1]. Perhaps this omission was behind the rapid removal of the reference to Lamb’s skepticism by the controversial Wikipedia editor William Connolley. Various other attempts to use Pearce as an authority for Lamb’s skepticism were also quickly removed. At one point, while removing yet another variation, Connolley would expressed his annoyance in the edit description:

Oh good grief – can we please stop coatracking stuff from Pearce?

In Wikipedia lingo ‘coat-racking’ is where an editor uses a ‘hook’ in the article to ‘hang’ irrelevant and biased material, thereby obscuring the proper subject of the article. It seems that the claims of Lamb’s skepticism were cloaking the ice-man-redemption story. They certainly stood in contradiction. But since then, a remarkable editorial effort has removed the contradiction.

At the time of posting this blog, the Hubert Lamb article in Wikipedia does contain some suggestion of greenhouse warming skepticism. But this is not from 1984 (as per the Pearce reference), but from a book published in 1977—the year Lamb retired and around about when he was about to make the switched from cooling alarm. There is still a reference to Lamb in 1984, to a new preface to the same book, and this is to support a very different story [1985]. Had Lamb then changed his position and made special mention of it with the republication of the book? So it seems. In Wikipedia, under the heading Abrupt Climate Change and Global Warming, a summary of this preface has been cleverly devised to suggest that by 1984 Lamb supported both forecasts, as he could because (as quoted above) they are working on different time scales. In this way the ice-man-redemption story is saved. The hint of warming skepticism can remain as an old view from his ice-man days. And, in the switch, it wasn’t that he renounced his ice-man views but only his ice-man ways—viz., by give more attention in his gloomy forecasts to what might take place—if the past is anything to go by—‘surprisingly quickly.’ Thus so, Wikipedia can still tell of how, around the time of his retirement, and long before Jame Hansen started to beat the drum, our one-time ‘ice-man’ became a harbinger of warming alarm:

…but over a period including the UK’s exceptional drought and heat wave of 1975–76 he changed to predicting that global warming could have serious effects within a century. His warnings of damage to agriculture, ice caps melting, and cities being flooded caught widespread attention and helped to shape public opinion.

Of Prophets and Priests

At this point the reader might want to flip to the SourceBook of Lamb’s Skepticism and find out exactly what is being ‘coat-racked’ here. Extracts from the two print versions of the (skeptical) 1984 lecture are here and (the one Pearce seems to be quoting) here. As for the new preface, also dated 1984, it is hardly recognizable in the Wikipedia summary so evidently hung to obscure Lamb’s late skepticism. In fact, for Lamb this preface served the opposite purpose. In it Lamb expresses his increasing concerns about the alarm that has so ‘gripped the scientific community‘ since first publishing the book in 1977. Indeed, this short piece is remarkable for providing an early skeptical analysis of the global warming scare: how it has been fed by the increasing concern about massive climate-related  emergencies; how this concern has driven massive increases in research funding upon the proposal that we may be responsible; how this funding-driver has created distortions and; how these distortions included the neglect of research into natural climate changes in the past, some of which appear similarly abrupt. Lamb’s ultimate concern is with the increasing detachment of the research from reality as funding is poured into mathematical modelling of, alone, the supposed future effect of greenhouse emissions. Thus, what we actually find in 1984, in this preface, as with the lecture, is a elder and pioneer forewarning of the rising monster, even before it got to its feet:

Since this work was published in 1977, the vulnerability of our increasingly populated world to climatic shifts and extremes has repeatedly claimed international attention…Concern has also gripped the scientific community over the possibility that Man’s pollution of the atmosphere, especially by the increase of carbon dioxide and the nitrogen oxides produced by fertilizers, could soon have big effects on world climate—supposedly a drastic warming overall and a poleward shift of the rainbelts and desert zones, undermining established patterns of crop production and thereby the world economy.

All this has led to a tremendous increase of effort in climatic research at a time of funding cutbacks in many other branches of science. International agreement was achieved in 1979 for a world Climate Programme, to extend over many years under the guidance of the WMO and the UNEP. Within its framework various countries, and the European Community, have inaugurated their own climatic research programmes.

The large share of the funds has gone to support the theoretical modelling of all aspects of the carbon dioxide problem and other human disturbances of the environment…

Authentication of the results of modelling theoretical circumstances remains very difficult, as it is bound to be. If we are to give a basis of reality to our thinking, it is essential to reconstruct, in the fullest possible detail world-wide, the past record of climate’s actual behaviour and the various regimes that have occurred. Particular attention should be focused, and happily is beginning to be focussed, on the evidence that some major climatic changes took place surprisingly quickly. Unhappily, however, research in some fields that bring to light the facts of the past is still being starved of funds in some countries. [xxxi-xxxii]

These are themes that Lamb would repeat over and over. His vocal and persistent skepticism of science of global warming, and of the funding mechanisms serving to support it, this was all too apparent to those who knew him, heard him, or who even now care to read the books he published before and after retirement. Pearce has been around long enough to have some inkling of this, if not the full story. In The Climate Files, Pearce describes the skeptical conclusion of Lamb’s 1984 speech, complete with a ‘paternal warning’ to the new generation, as though it were something special, the former master’s ‘last hurrah.’ But at other times Lamb was even more explicit in his warning. And more specific—explicitly targeting the new generation at CRU.

On so many other points of controversy Lamb was the model of a gentleman scientist, but the new directions that climatology was taking seemed to really get his goat. ‘New Directions’ is the title of the final short chapter of Lamb’s memoir and he opens this with a lament of the wayward child to which he gave birth in 1972:

Since my retirement from the directorship of the Climatic Research Unit there have been changes there… My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climate being changed as a result of human activities,…After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which had first made the Unit well known, was abandoned. There was an exception in the case of tree-ring studies. [p1997 p249]

It was not that Lamb was disapproving of the dendroclimatology of Briffa and others at CRU, but only that he thought that tree-rings should be consulted in concert with other proxy and documentary sources. And this was not happening.

Applying the Gloss

After Lamb’s death in 1997, CRU has been careful to gloss over its founder’s skepticism, to avoid his concerns about CRU staff inflaming the warming scare and to also avoid his concerns generally about the direction climatology has taken since the warming scare began. Their attempts to sanitize his legacy are of course entirely understandable.

On the one hand, Lamb’s reputation as one of those who established the entire field of historical climatology lends great kudos to their institution. In establishing CRU, Lamb became the first scientist in the UK employed full-time in the study of recent climatic changes (see about his less remember predecessors here). This field of research has since flourished so much that Lamb achieved a mention in a listing of the ‘top 100 world-changing discoveries, innovations and research projects to come out of the UK universities.’ He was cited for ‘establishing the study of climate change as a serious research subject.’ (As elsewhere, here again we have a favorable ambiguity: most readers of this citation would never question that ‘climate change’ might here refer to natural change.) Lamb’s pioneering work is something about which a provincial university can be very proud, and in 2006 the University of East Anglia even renamed the purpose-built CRU headquarters after him. This institutional exultation makes the source of the ice-man-redemption story all the more curious.

The ‘ice-man’ passage in Wikipedia is derived from what was only a passing mention of CRU in an authorized history of University of East Anglia published in 2002. Although the author, Michael Sanderson, was wrong about when the climatologists at Norwich jumped on the warming bandwagon (it was only after Lamb had departed), he is surprisingly frank about the relative advantage of generating concern about a more imminent climate catastrophe:

Professor Lamb came to Norwich as ‘the ice man’, attracting much attention for his prophecy of world cooling and a future ice age within 10,000 years. Within a few years, in which the heat wave of 1975-76 had intervened, he had switched to warning of global warming with dire predictions of forest and crop belts being shifted, melting ice caps and drowned cities. A holocaust within a century was an even more exciting prospect than an ice age in ten millennia and it all helped to shape contemporary attitudes to global warming. It also drew attention to UEA…

The prospect of a holocaust generates excitement. Excitement attracts attention…and with attention comes funding. Here in a nutshell, our official UEA historian all but provides the familiar ‘scary scenarios’ account of the positive feedback mechanism that was the concern of many skeptics around the time of publication, but also for Lamb so much earlier.

'Climate Indications of new pattern, The Times, Saturday, Aug 09, 1975; pg. 14

Sanderson’s claim of Lamb’s ‘switch’ to predicting warming in the mid-1970s might be a distortion of a new position that Lamb did take on the climate trend at this time. Lamb was early to identify natural cyclic changes in weather patterns now associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the mid-1970s the detection of a change in these patterns were used by him, and others, to account for recent mild winters—and also to tentatively predict their continuance. (The Times, Aug 09, 1975; pg. 14. See also Dickson et al, ‘Climatic reversal in the north North Atlantic.’ Nature 256, 497-481)

The trouble for UEA and CRU is that, despite what they might have told Sanderson, Lamb never did take up the global warming scare, but yet the institution, and the field, is now flourishing principally due to its successful propagation. Not only does the grounds of their success conflict with Lamb’s skepticism, but their success was facilitated through the neglect of the research began by Lamb which revealed the complexes and vagaries of natural climatic change around the globe, and especially across the northern hemisphere during the last millennium.

With the employ of hundreds of scientists secured upon the perception of a global warming emergency, and, moreover, with the concerns about immanent warming placing CRU at the centre of all the massively funded spin-off research into impacts and mitigation, there is clearly a lot at stake for those whose job it is to create an historical narrative so as to advance the interests not only of CRU, but also of Hadley, Tyndall…and the rest. Thus, we should not be surprised that official biographies of Lamb are sometimes more than economical with the truth.

In the biography posted on the CRU website we find this carefully arranged jumble of selected facts:

Hubert…did more than any other scientist of his generation to make the academic community aware of climate change. However, in the years after his retirement the emphasis of research shifted towards evaluating the role played by human activities. He was well acquainted with the pioneering works of Svante Arrhenius in Sweden, and G S Callendar in England, and wrote in 1997 that, ‘it is now widely thought that the undoubted warming of the world climate in the twentieth century is attributable to the increased concentration in the atmosphere of so-called greenhouse gases’. However, he always referred back to the instrumental record, and his attitude to greenhouse warming remained guarded.

Indeed, each statement here has a semblance of truth, but on the whole this passage is grossly misleading. Widespread interest among climatologists in the role played by human activities dates back long before Lamb’s retirement, as does Lamb’s expressed scepticism of any significant global impact—which dates back even before his founding of CRU. The direct quotation of Lamb—where he acknowledges the popularity of the human attribution of 20th century warming—suggests that it took until the final year of his life to come to admit the trend towards this view. It even implies that this marks Lamb’s own final, if guarded, assent. In fact, the passage from Lamb’s memoir appears directly below the lament over the new direction that CRU had taken after his retirement (p249 & as quoted above). And there Lamb only raises the warming attribution claim in order to record his dissent! Finally, the claim that Lamb always referred back to ‘the instrument record’ is strained to say the least. He was certainly dubious of attempts to use the instrumental record to give a regional or global temperature anomaly calibrated in hundredths of a degree Celsius [1995]. What he did often refer back to was the empirical record. He was adamant that climatology as a natural science should find its ground in the record of our experience of nature. For him the empirical record includes what was the bulk of his contribution, where he used historical documents and proxy data to extend the short instrumental record. He saw this as more solid science than the projections of mathematical modelling – about which he was highly dubious. On this later, the obituary in Nature is more explicit:

During his later years, Lamb was skeptical of certain claims regarding the dangers posed by global warming. An empiricist at heart, and well aware of the complexities of the climate system, he felt that climate models were limited in their ability to provide accurate forecasts. As he observed in 1994, “there has been too much theory and not enough fact in predicting the future.
[Nature, vol388 p836]

That really takes it out there! And yet the author Mick Kelly, who was on the staff at CRU, still manages to fold Lamb’s work on natural climatic change back into a narrative of the man-made warming scare, only this time the skepticism arrives in old age. After succeeding in overturning the old orthodoxy of climate stability, we are told that it was only in his retirement that Lamb ‘found a new orthodoxy to challenge.’ Not that this emeritus adversarial preoccupation should overshadow Lamb’s overall contribution to the great cause of the day. Writing the obituary only months before the UN FCCC achieved its emissions reduction protocol at Kyoto, Kelly explains Lamb’s contribution:

Yet Lamb, as much as any scientist, prepared the ground for the research on anthropogenic climate change, and the public political acceptance of the threat, that would, in 1992, result in the UN FCCC—the international community’s initial response to this pressing environmental problem.
[Nature, vol388 p836]

Another obituary in the Independent newspaper written by the then director of CRU, Trevor Davies, was later remastered into a Dictionary of National Biography entry and this was in turn used (selectively) as one of the sources for the Wikipedia piece. In these essays, Davies tells how Lamb convinced ‘the remaining doubters of the reality of climate variation on time-scales of decades and centuries.’ But then Davies finds an irony in Lamb’s guarded attitude to greenhouse warming:

An irony is that, now the world is acutely aware of global climate change, Lamb maintained a guarded attitude to the importance of greenhouse warming.
[The Independent 9Jul97]

Brian Tucker 1930-2010

Bryan Tucker was perhaps the most senior scientist in Australia working in the 1970s & 1980s on greenhouse hypothesis. To the surprise of many, when he retired in 1992, he joined Lamb and Bryson as a vocal skeptic. (Source)

It is not clear why Davies finds it ironic that the one who succeed in promoting the idea of short-range natural climate change should be guarded about man’s global influence. Surely, with awareness of past variability, we would expect a guarded attitude towards claims of a new and extraordinary cause?

Perhaps Davies is only expressing what is evident elsewhere, which is the disappointment that the great prophet refused to follow along the new directions of his young priests. By opening the field and institution of climatic change, Lamb prepared the ground upon which was built the church of the warming apocalypse. While enjoying the huge boost to funding, and with undoubtedly genuine gratitude and respect, the leaders of this movement regretted that the old master refused to join the party. And Lamb’s refusal was not unusual among former masters of the field. Reid Bryson, the founder of CRU’s sister organization in the USA, the Center for Climatic Research, also refused  to come in from the cold. In Australia, the head of  the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics, Brian Tucker, lead the research into greenhouse warming in the 1970s and 1980s, but then he came out skeptical upon retiring in 1992. These former leaders joined a formidable fogy chorus railing against the new guard. When each of them died, the new leadership of the CRU, the CCR and the CSIRO were all faced with the same unenviable task of smoothing and fudging the legacy of their censure into a heroic narrative that serves their own. None was so hard to assimilate as the legacy of Hubert Horace Lamb.



Go to Part II: Doing Climatology before the Warming Boom, a biographic essay.


1. The lecture ‘The Future of the Earth – Greenhouse or Refrigerator?’ was given on 11 September 1984 to a meeting of the of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Norwich. A manuscript version is listed in the catalog of the UEA H  H Lamb Archive, Box 2. A version of the paper published appears as ‘The Future of the Earth – Greenhouse or Refrigerator?’ Journal of Meteorology 9, (1984) p237-242. A ‘suitably updated’ version was published in 1988 as Chapter 18 of Weather Climate and Human Affairs, p331-54. This latter expanded version, published 4 years after the lecture, appears to be  the one used by Pearce.



2 thoughts on “The Skepticism of Hubert Horace Lamb

  1. Thanks for all your efforts on this Bernie.
    A very interesting and useful reminder of the real thoughts of Lamb, as opposed to the spin some would like to propagate.

    One section from your links sums it up for me –

    “He was adamant that climatology as a natural science should find its ground in the record of our experience of nature. For him the empirical record includes what was the bulk of his contribution, where he used historical documents and proxy data to extend the short instrumental record. He saw this as more solid science than the projections of mathematical modelling – about which he was highly dubious. On this later, the obituary in Nature is more explicit:

    During his later years, Lamb was skeptical of certain claims regarding the dangers posed by global warming. An empiricist at heart, and well aware of the complexities of the climate system, he felt that climate models were limited in their ability to provide accurate forecasts. As he observed in 1994, “there has been too much theory and not enough fact in predicting the future.
    [Nature, vol388 p836]”

Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s