The 1970s Global Cooling Scare (and how the warming scare could not have happened without it)

This is the second post drawing on themes raised in Searching for the Catastrophe Signal.

Forty-five years ago today, two geologists penned a letter to the president of the United States warning that the rocky descent into the next ice age might have already begun.

Letter from Kukla and Matthews to the President of the United States, 3 December, 1972

A letter written by two Quaternary geologists George Kukla and Robert Matthews to Richard Nixon raised concerns that recent bad weather might indicated that the present interglacial was ending. This letter helped to set in train a series of events that raised the profile of climate anxieties in the USA and globally. Source: Reeves & Gemmill.

The year 1972 remains infamous in the annals of meteorology for extreme weather events all around the globe. Towards the end of that year, in a letter dated 3 December 1972, two geologists George Kukla and Robert Matthews warned President Nixon that…

…a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experienced by civilized mankind is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon.

When geologists say ‘very soon’ it is wise to hesitate, but Kukla and Matthews were quick to remove any suggestion that they might be talking only in terms of millennia-metered geological time. ‘The present cooling now underway in the Northern Hemisphere’, they went on to explain, ‘could be the start of this expected shift’. In other words, it looked every bit like the stable mild climate of recent millennia has already ended.

It is hard to find a single document more instrumental in the history of post-War climate anxieties than this letter. It would trigger a series of events that resulted in the first coordinated program of climate research in the United States and then at the United Nations. It also set the stage upon which the global warming scare would subsequently be launched with demands for a global response.

Today, as the 1970s global cooling scare starts to pass beyond living memory, it is widely misunderstood. This is especially in its relationship with the subsequent scare over global warming. Warming skeptics will often talk up the scare, emphasizing how meteorologists have flipped from cooling alarm to warming alarm. In fact, few meteorologists were involved in the cooling scare, while there were very few scientists of any variety who raised alarm over cooling and then switching to alarm over warming.

On the other side of the current debate, warming alarmists often play down the cooling scare as little more than a press beat up (e.g., see here). This is also wrong. In fact the cooling scare was promoted by scientists on scientific evidence. Sure, the press did their usual job of playing up fears, but there was often a measure of circumspection thrown in. From the scientific point of view, the main problem with the press coverage was that meteorological speculation on the return of the Little Ice Age was confused with geologists’ warnings about a return of the big one.

The time has come to clear up the confusion and give the cooling scare its proper place in history. The summary that follows starts with thematic introductions to the context in which the cooling scare arose. It finishes by showing how the cooling scare set the stage for an easy transition to a warming scare. For a fuller account, complete with references, see the early chapters of Searching for the Catastrophe Signal.

Meteorologists warned of a return to the Little Ice Age.

Winters Since '40 Found Colder In Studies by Weather Bureau, New York Times, 25 January 1961, Walter Sullivan

New York Times, 25 Jan 1961

By 1961 there was general agreement among historical climatologists that the 20th century warming trend across northern mid-latitudes had ended around 1940. A series of severe winters in the early 1960s raised concerns that a cooling trend was again settling in across Europe. This led some to warn that Europe may be returning to the prevailing weather patterns of the Little Ice Age, which had had a variable impact across Europe during the previous four centuries.

The weather extremes of 1972-3

In 1972 climate change broke into the public discourse as it never had before. On top of evidence for a cooling trend came not only a strong El Niño but also other weather extremes that are not directly associated with that phenomenon. The extremes were as much to do with precipitation as temperature. Some regions experiencing extraordinary flooding rains while the effects of a third year of drought south of the Sahara was soon broadcast with all its horror into living rooms across the wealthy north. There had always been talk that forest clearing and over-grazing caused or exacerbated local droughts, but, during the 1970s, droughts and all sorts of other weather extremes would be linked to the speculation about a natural global climate shift in the direction of cooling.

Little interest in the human influence

From the late 1960s, the geology-trained US climatologist Reid Bryson was warning of the cooling effect of dust continually thrown up into the troposphere by human industry, especially agriculture. This and other mechanisms of human influence on global cooling did garner some interest, but throughout the 1970s the overwhelming concern with global climatic changes remained with changes that were entirely natural.

Population explosion, resource depletion and the US energy crisis

From the late 1960s, concerns about the post-War population explosion involved concerns about the ability to produce enough food to feed everyone. The associated exponential increases in demand for non-renewable natural resources led to concerns about the absolute depletion of these resources, especially energy resources. In 1973, the Arab oil embargo targeted the USA and some of its allies, triggering the US ‘energy crisis’, which continued through to the end of the 1970s as a mostly socially constructed phenomenon, but real all the same. Meanwhile, a series of extreme winters in North America saw concerns over climatic change reinforce energy supply anxieties, especially when heating oil was in short supply. All these factors contributed to a prevailing public anxiety over food and energy security that was seen to be exacerbated by a cooling trend in the climate.

We should note here that the US energy crisis peaked in 1979 before a subsequent crash. This is important because it coincided with a transition from cooling to warming alarm. The year 1979 brought the Iranian Revolution, which caused the oil price to quadruple again. It also brought the Three Mile Island nuclear accident which presented a turning point for the nuclear power industry. It is true that the 1960s expansion of nuclear electricity production had already started to falter around the time of the oil embargo due to cost blowouts and construction delays. However,  an overwhelming response to the 1979 reactor emergency in Pennsylvania brought public safety concerns to such heights that the anti-nukes movement started to look like it was winning. And still in 1979 we find climatologists continued to report a cooling trend evident in the record. But then it was all over. Energy-climate anxiety rapidly dissipated after Jimmy Carter failed to win a second term, after the oil prices fell and after the climate started to show signs that four decades of cooling might be over.

A revolution in Quaternary Geology

The one great scientific advance that contributed to the 1970s cooling scare was a revolution in Quaternary geology. Until the late 1960s, it was generally agreed that there had been four recent glaciations, however their timing was largely unknown due to inadequate dating techniques. As the new dating technology was brought into play, it revealed that since the last geomagnetic reversal, around 700,000 years ago, there had been no less than 8 cool/warm cycles. It also showed that cool was the norm. Indeed, the whole Quaternary period (i.e., the last 2.5 million years) is best described as an ice age punctuated by brief ‘interglacial’ warm ‘epochs’. These interglacials appeared like clockwork on a 100,000 cycle, and the record clearly showed that this cycle was about to switch phases. That is to say, the current epoch—the ‘Holocene’, the 10,000 years of warm stable climatic upon which agriculture-based civilization had been built—was about to end.

Quaternary Geologists promote a cooling scare

The realization that we are at the end of a warm period was not itself alarming, as rapid climate change on a geological scale might be 1o C per millennium. Such a gradual trend would hardly be recognizable with all the local and global fluctuations known to occur across centuries and decades. If the decline out of past warm periods were associated with wider fluctuations on these time scales then this would remain unknown because the proxies indicators for temperature did not have the necessary resolution to pick them up. However, soon some geologists were claiming resolution down to a century or two which revealed evidence of climatic instability as previous interglacial epochs ‘broke down’. According to the Danish geologist, Willi Dansgaard, if the deep past is anything to go by, then ‘the conditions for a catastrophic event are present today’. This quote comes from the conclusion of a paper presented to a conference at Brown University early in 1972 that was called in light of the new evidence to answer a question of singular pertinence:

The present interglacial, how and when will it end?

After the conference, its 46 attending and non-attending participants agreed on a statement that included a warning about an imminent energy/food/climate crisis:

In man’s quest to utilize global resources, and to produce an adequate supply of food, global climatic change constitutes a first order environmental hazard which must be thoroughly understood well in advance of the first global indications of deteriorating climate.

Later in the year this statement was published in Science, and then the organizers of the conference Kukla and Matthews sent their letter to the White House.

Leverage the cooling scare for climate research funding: A United States Climate Program

During the 1960s, in the USA and internationally, atmospheric scientists had been lobbying for funding for coordinated climatic research. In the late 1960s the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) was established to coordinate atmospheric research using new technologies especially satellites. While its mandate included climatic research, in fact the emphasis was placed much more on understanding and predicting weather, and so science administrators continued to lobby for a research program specifically targeting climate. One of these was the founding director of NOAA Robert White, who chaired the panel on ‘The Present Interglacial’ that was established ad hoc in response to the geologists’ letter to the president.

This panel’s report was released in 1974 as no less than a proposal for a National Climate Program. From this time we can see a general push for general geo-physical research (atmospheric and oceanic) leveraging the concerns abroad about the food/energy/climate future. By 1979 this push had achieve significant success after a National Climate Act passed late in 1978. Although the funding remained modest, important bureaucratic infrastructure was put in place, including a National Climate Program Office (under NOAA) and an inter-agency National Climate Program Policy Board. Not long after it was established, the prevailing concern at the Policy Board switched from cooling to warming. It was at this Board in 1986 that another fateful letter, this time from the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, would be addressed. Mustafa Tolba’s letter (to Secretary of State Schultz) was attached to the report of the 1985 Villach Carbon Dioxide Conference, which had achieved a ‘scientific consensus’ declaring that it was time to move towards developing a policy response to the warming threat. Following debate at this climate policy board (and elsewhere in the US government) it was eventually decided that a further assessment was required by an intergovernmental panel, that is, by what would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Leverage the cooling scare for climate research funding: A United Nations Climate Program

At the same time that steps were taken to implement their own national climatic program, the US also lobbied the United Nations and its World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for a world climate program. The formal origins of this lobbying can be found in a speech by Henry Kissinger to the UN General Assembly in April 1974.

In that speech, Kissinger called on the world community to come together to solve common problems. He specifically mentioned that science should be used to solve problems that science helped to create. To his list of examples he added one threat that was not cause by science but that was entirely ‘natural’. This was the threat of climatic changes and it had implications for global food and population policy. Through Kissinger’s speech, the USA proposed that the WMO (and the ICSU) ‘urgently investigate this problem and offer guidelines for immediate international action’.

In the 1970s Robert White was also the head of the US delegation to the WMO. This meant that during 1974 not only was he coordinating efforts to get going a National Climate Program in the USA, but at the same time he was following up on Kissinger’s request at the WMO in Geneva.

When White formally approached the WMO with the US proposal, the WMO was all but ignoring the global cooling scare. However, in response to the USA request it acted quickly to establish an Expert Panel on Climatic Change. Thus began a series of events that led to the WMO headlining the climate issue. What follows is a brief outline.

From cool to warming at the WMO

In 1976 the WMO Expert Panel on Climatic Change released an ‘authoritative statement’ that downplayed concerns about a long-term trend towards cooling to instead emphasize short term fluctuations, including those that might be due to manmade effects. This panel then set about organizing the first World Climate Conference to launch the World Climate Program. At the 1979 World Climate Conference, much concern was raised about the carbon dioxide warming threat and the conference statement included an appeal to all nations that they ‘foresee and prevent’ manmade climate change. However, those in charge of the research component of the World Climate Program refused to address directly the carbon dioxide issue. The WMO Executive Council supported this position each time it was brought to their attention. The WMO’s reluctance to directly address the issue led Tolba at UN Environment Programme to take matters into his own hands. In 1983 he commissioned the first international study specifically addressing the issue (SCOPE 29). At its completion he called the famous meeting at Villach in 1985, where the climate treaty push began. The promotion of the ‘scientific consensus’ achieved at Villach, by Tolba and others, generated much discussion internationally. Importantly, it was taken seriously by the US Climate Policy Board and the US Department of State, where there was much debate about how to respond. When the matter was raised at the 1987 World Meteorological Congress, the US position was to call for another assessment of the problem by an intergovernmental panel. There was broad agreement with this view and so the IPCC was born.

Thus it can be seen that the cooling scare—linked as it was with the food and energy crisis—provided the impetus behind the launch of the warming scare, and it also provided the institutional platforms upon which the launch of that scare would take place.


UPDATE: There may be discussion of interest under this post re-blogged at Watts Up With That.


12 thoughts on “The 1970s Global Cooling Scare (and how the warming scare could not have happened without it)

  1. It’s not clear from your article whether you understand what is sort of the central reality, that both anthropogenic aerosol cooling and greenhouse warming are real, and that the shift to a human-dominated climate is extremely significant (with impacts such as those we are seeing today, mass die-off events to coral reef globally – do you describe this as an invented “coral reef scare”? )

    Can you clarify whether you understand and acknowledge this central point, that both anthropogenic cooling and warming effects are real, large, and appear to dwarf natural influences? Here is the IPCC forcing chart, for context:

  2. Geoff, this is a history of science blog. Debates about the science can be found elsewhere. However, the premise of my investigations (see ‘About’) would suggest that I don’t ‘understand’ the ‘extreme’ significance that you point to. If you are interested in the history, but the history as seen from premises similar to your own, then there is no need to venture into this backwater. For a start, try Spencer Weart’s ‘Discovery of Global Warming’, or the many publications by Naomi Oreskes. Otherwise, despite our different views (and as our Twitter discussion began to show), there are many points of history that we could happily discuss and debate.

  3. Science debate actually appears the central question, per your About: “The first premise of this forum is that there is insufficient evidence to make the claim that CO2 emissions are causing catastrophic global warming”.

    The premise prevents a shared framework for discussing history. It is like an analysis of ‘where biology went wrong’ by a critic of evolutionary theory. I’m sure many such analyses/blogs exists, but they will be looking for different things in history (and probably finding them) than others would be looking for. And they will miss the places where theory and interest advanced because of *confirmation*, looking instead for the foundational errors they assume must exist on an a priori basis.

    As an example, you can’t explain why the currently observed patterns of growing mass mortality in global coral reefs do not meet some reasonable criteria for “catastrophic” (i.e. worthy of prevention), and so the problem with the premise of the inquiry (into the “scare” that got out of hand) really seems pretty central.

    The “warming scare” did not emerge out of the “cooling scare”. It’s an incorrect idea, even if you do not mean it as explicitly as your headline implies. You appear aware of the long history of scientific interest in the greenhouse effect, the framing of AGW as early as 1897, and you’re probably well aware that NASA’s interest and papers like Hansen 1981 emerged out of geophysical investigations not “we must have a scare”.

    You notably omit the balanced NAS report on climate change in 1975, NAS being the scientific organization actually tasked with advising the nation and policy-makers on matters of cross-discipline analysis, evidence and consensus. The NAS report emphasizes the important and defensible point, that significant anthropogenic climate influences both warm and cool were starting to be recognized, and there is a danger to human civilization changing climate before understanding it.

    Click to access understandingcli00unit.pdf

    This was the core impetus for research programs and global discussion – the realization of the importance of climate to the well-being of a multiplying global population. That could have been unnecessarily precautionary, but has only been rather dramatically affirmed by developments since. Your disagreement on that point naturally inverts your opinion on how reasonable the global programs were.

    I think the discussion here can be considered as some interesting anecdotes regarding the meandering path of different but interrelated disciplines through various points of reference on climate, eventually toward acceptance of the driving role of energy budget in climate / AGW…

  4. Geoff, you are right that my premise could limit our discussion, but let’s try anyway. What you call the NAS report, I call the “US GARP report”, and recognizing it as such places it in its proper historical context. The so-called ‘second objective’ of GARP (Climate) had been neglected. This report was part of an initiative (that got into full swing in 1974) to get a climate research program off the ground. As I note under my ‘Timeline’ tab, the program for action in the title “was a program for climate research”. I also add, “Manmade influences are discussed but not given prominence. ” Do you disagree? I ask because I am not sure from your comment whether you agree when you shift from “anthropogenic climate influences” to “changing climate” generally before saying that “this was the core impetus for research programs and global discussion”. If you are talking about climate change generally as the core impetus then we have no debate. One has to be very careful not to fall into the trap that an interest in climate change in 1975 was an interest in manmade climate change (and a more subtle trap is where manmade is presumed to be inadvertent because up to then most of the talk about the human influence remained about efforts to deliberately modify the weather and climate). It is a classic error of memory (and an crafty move of the propagandist) to imagine that there was a natural progression from the historical former to the historical latter. One primary task of the historian is to step behind such errors of hindsight.

  5. Thanks David. I had already reference this article above, but you wouldn’t know, as I did not use a permanent link. I have now replaced the link with the one you provide.

  6. The 1975 paper clearly raises concerns about both. Literally the first sentence in the preface seems representative:

    “The increasing realization that man’s activities may be changing the
    climate, and mounting evidence that the earth’s climates have undergone
    a long series of complex natural changes in the past, have brought new
    interest and concern to the problem of climatic variation.”

    The first two sentences of the Introduction:

    “Climatic change has been a subject of intellectual interest for many
    years. However, there are now more compelling reasons for its study:
    the growing awareness that our economic and social stability is pro- foundly influenced by climate and that man’s activities themselves may
    be capable of influencing the climate in possibly undesirable ways.”

    It’s not a promising seed for a “cooling scare begat warming hysteria” thesis.

  7. It is of interest to note that all these arguments and the entire output of the IPCC reports and the UNFCCC agenda 21 and COP circuses are of interest only insofar as they show how scientific research became subservient to government political considerations as predicted by Eisenhower in 1953. The reality is that climate is controlled by natural cycles and that a millennial temperature cycle peaked in about 2003/4. Establishment academic and government scientists make a gross error of scientific judgement by ignoring this turning point when projecting the future. See the links to the paper and the Abstract blow.
    Dr. Norman J. Page
    DOI: 10.1177/0958305X16686488
    Energy & Environment
    0(0) 1–18
    (C )The Author(s) 2017
    Reprints and permissions:

    The coming cooling: usefully accurate climate forecasting for policy makers.
    This paper argues that the methods used by the establishment climate science community are not fit for purpose and that a new forecasting paradigm should be adopted. Earth’s climate is the result of resonances and beats between various quasi-cyclic processes of varying wavelengths. It is not possible to forecast the future unless we have a good understanding of where the earth is in time in relation to the current phases of those different interacting natural quasi periodicities. Evidence is presented specifying the timing and amplitude of the natural 60+/- year and, more importantly, 1,000 year periodicities (observed emergent behaviors) that are so obvious in the temperature record. Data related to the solar climate driver is discussed and the solar cycle 22 low in the neutron count (high solar activity) in 1991 is identified as a solar activity millennial peak and correlated with the millennial peak -inversion point – in the UAH temperature trend in about 2003. The cyclic trends are projected forward and predict a probable general temperature decline in the coming decades and centuries. Estimates of the timing and amplitude of the coming cooling are made. If the real climate outcomes follow a trend which approaches the near term forecasts of this working hypothesis, the divergence between the IPCC forecasts and those projected by this paper will be so large by 2021 as to make the current, supposedly actionable, level of confidence in the IPCC forecasts untenable.”
    Here is a link to an accessible Blog version.

  8. Berniel After rereading my comment above I feel I should note that I very much appreciate your hard work in setting out such a detailed account of the historical record.Climate science must be reclaimed from the IPCCs political scientists by adopting a new forecasting paradigm.

  9. Not sure how to comment without sounding unappreciative of your efforts Norman. Scientific hypotheses do not prevail by resting on claims of corruption or conspiracy, they prevail by testable claims. Bluntly, by that standard, and the data available, your blog’s claims don’t fare well. There’s no 1,000 year periodicity in global reconstructions of temperature / energy budget over the past 20,000 years, as a quick example. And instead of cooling as predicted, global temps have simply continued to rise consistent with plain old mainstream 20th century physics, with continual accumulation of ocean heat content and striking new surface global temperature records in 2015. I’m well aware all such data is bitterly disputed on the internet.

    But relative to that perspective, based on the data actually available, your comment does not seem to logically lend weight to the urgency and importance of documenting ‘where science went wrong’, as you suggest, instead it seems to add weight to discussion of more prosaic explanations for the extent of mainstream contrarianism (and its many and varied flavors, from hardcore conspiracy theories on one end to more subtly crafted ‘lukewarmism’ on the other). I know they may not be welcome, but it is always necessary to acknowledge conventional explanations before entertaining more elaborate ones. Meaning, the reality that there is a broad-based backlash to the science of greenhouse warming for the same variety of reasons we’ve seen historically in response to other areas of inquiry where science finds something unwelcome – e.g. to biology/evolution, understanding of lead paint or cigarette impact on health, and so on.

    A world where we didn’t have to deal with GHG pollution would be *strongly* preferable for a long list of reasons. The extent of online discussion rejecting the mainstream view (and the stunning extent of telltale black/white fallacy, cherry picking, correlation/causation confusion, false claims and experts, conspiracy ideation, and so on) as well as the existence of such an expansive number of well-intended and thoughtful articles hand-wringing and hunting for narratives regarding ‘where science and policy went wrong’, which seem foundational to sustaining alternative world views, reinforcing without relying so wincingly on more shallow popular narratives such as ‘Marxist globalist takeover’ and so on. We need stories, us human-folk.

  10. @ geoffmprice | December 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    “Climatic change has been a subject of intellectual interest for many


    “An dieser Stelle spricht Lichtenberg von dem Problem möglicher periodischer Schwankungen der Sonnenstrahlung und der Abhängigkeit von Klimaveränderungen von diesen // There, Lichtenberg speaks about the problem of possible variations of the inflow of sun rays, and about the dependence of climate variations from those.” (Blumenberg, “Wirklichkeiten in denen wir leben”, Verlag Philipp Reclam 7715, p. 159)

    [Georg Christoph Lichtenberg,1742 – 1799]

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