Never confuse climate with weather

The temptation is strong. I remember some amazingly fierce winters in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960s and 1970s, where we had several feet of snow on the ground, the ponds froze solid, and the Green River was a churning mass of ice chunks. At that time, there were also a few popular magazine articles that speculated about a coming ice age…which was ridiculous. February is always colder than July, but we don’t mourn on New Year’s Day that the planet is doomed by this recent cold spate called Winter, and if there’s anything we know about weather it’s that it fluctuates.

Nowadays, though, one of the techniques used to discredit concerns about global climate change is to pretend that scientists’ opinions are as flighty as the weather, and therefore just as dismissable. Suddenly we have denialists arguing that scientists were claiming that the climate was slipping toward an Ice Age in the 1970s. Nonsense. So here’s a paper by Peterson, Connolley, and Fleck in which they actually did some history and asked what the scientists were actually thinking back then.

Climate science as we know it today did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. The integrated enterprise embodied in the Nobel Prizewinning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change existed then as separate threads of research pursued by isolated groups of scientists. Atmospheric chemists and modelers grappled with the measurement of changes in carbon dioxide and atmospheric gases, and the changes in climate that might result. Meanwhile, geologists and paleoclimate researchers tried to understand when Earth slipped into and out of ice ages, and why. An enduring popular myth suggests that in the 1970s the climate science community was predicting “global cooling” and an “imminent” ice age, an observation frequently used by those who would undermine what climate scientists say today about the prospect of global warming. A review of the literature suggests that, on the contrary, greenhouse warming even then dominated scientists’ thinking as being one of the most important forces shaping Earth’s climate on human time scales. More importantly than showing the falsehood of the myth, this review describes how scientists of the time built the foundation on which the cohesive enterprise of modern climate science now rests.

So even at the time of severe winter storms, scientists were objectively looking at long term trends and determining what was going on from the data, not from looking out their window and watching snowflakes.

One way to determine what scientists think is to ask them. This was actually done in 1977 following the severe 1976/77 winter in the eastern United States. “Collectively,” the 24 eminent climatologists responding to the survey “tended to anticipate a slight global warming rather than a cooling” (National Defense University Research Directorate 1978).

They also analyze the scientific literature of the period, and nope, no “global cooling”, it was all greenhouse effect.

The denialists have resorted to faking magazine covers to spread the myth of a global cooling fad. That’s how desperate they are.

The plain lesson is to never confuse climate with weather, but also, never confuse Time magazine with the scientific literature, especially when it’s been forged.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I remember the 70’s concentrated on the particulate nature of pollution as being more reflective than absorptive of UV leading to cooling rather than warming. The warming effect was noted, the cooling effect prioritized.
    Just my faulty memory. Sorry to argue what I cannot support.

  2. JScarry says

    I stumbled across this article The Weather IS Changing in Life Magazine Aug 27, 1956. Lots of anecdotes about warmer weather. Several hypotheses were explored, including carbon dioxide buildup, so clearly it isn’t a recent invention.

  3. springa73 says

    If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say that global warming was a lot of bs because we just had a period of cold weather, I wouldn’t be rich, but I would have a few extra dollars in my pocket. I heard it most recently a few days ago when we had an unseasonably cool few days.

  4. whheydt says

    My father–born in 1910–reminisced about ice skating on the East River at mid-town in Manhattan. Just try *that* now… Of course, a big part of that particular change is probably the development of NYC as a “heat island” being much more pronounced than it used to be.

  5. Larry says

    The pinnacle of the idiocracy confusing weather with climate was when the esteemed Senator from the Great State of Oklahoma, James Inhofe, brought a snowball he’d made outside to a hearing on climate and presented it as proof that global warming couldn’t be happening because he has this snowball.

    Tells you right there, pretty much all you need to know about Inhofe, Oklahoma, the GOP, and why we are where we are today.

  6. says

    Pedantry alert: Technically we’re in an ice age now, but we’re in an interglacial period within said ice age. Calling the last glacial period the “ice age” is colloquial. The entire pleistocene epoch is an ice age, which is now 2.6 million years old. In other epochs in the earth’s past, there were no permanent ice sheets, even at high latitudes, but there are now — at least for a while longer.

  7. numerobis says

    JScarry: 1956, this article came out which basically is the modern understanding of the effect of carbon dioxide on climate. Everything since is just refining the details, discovering that all the big climate shifts come down to CO2 changes, and updating the data based on what our policies have done. Even back then, Plass was pointing out the next glaciation had been canceled alread.

    (There are free versions to be found in the googles)

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Suddenly we have denialists arguing that scientists were claiming that the climate was slipping toward an Ice Age in the 1970s.

    Huh? Climate change liars and fools have trotted that one out over and over for decades.

  9. says

    …James Inhofe, brought a snowball he’d made outside to a hearing on climate and presented it as proof that global warming couldn’t be happening because he has this snowball.

    It’s a good example, but I think Inhofe understands more than he lets on. Here’s a quote of his from when he went on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2012:

    “I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”

    I have no doubt that he understands very little about climate science, but this is more than simple ignorance – there’s malice there too. He deliberately chose to misinform, and to oppose action, despite knowing better.

  10. jrkrideau says

    To be fair I think there were a few articles considering the possibility of global cooling. I remember reading a popular account in New Scientist in the early 1970’s (back when New Scientist articles were written by “real” scientists) discussing the possibility but I doubt it was any more than one or two dissenters discussing alternative interpretations of some data.

    This may have been the same issue that suggested damning the Amazon River and flooding the Amazon basin.

    There was a bit of a different mindset in those days.

  11. Ed Seedhouse says

    It goes back at least as far as Arrhenius who predicted CO2 caused global warming back in 1896. He also has a lunar crater named after him. I believe his basic equation, based on the laws of physics and chemistry already known back then, fits modern data rather closely except he thought that pumping this much CO2 into the atmosphere would take millennia, not decades.

  12. wzrd1 says

    One area where the public entirely fails to comprehend is weather effects over large areas.
    Such as one major winter storm system that froze much of North America this past winter. A fair reason was far warmer temperatures over a sizable part of the Arctic, complete with it reaching 0C at the north pole. That, in turn, pushed the polar vortex father south, where cold air from that vortex met the jet stream and made life rather miserable for millions.

    And the shit heels then said, “Global warming, my ass”, entirely failing to comprehend the difference between weather and climate.
    Of course, for those folks, regional and planetary means their back yard and long term means tomorrow at the latest.

  13. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    And the shit heels then said, “Global warming, my ass”, entirely failing to comprehend the difference between weather and climate.

    Yep, I’ve noticed the later first fall frost (mid October to late November), and the earlier last spring frost (Memorial Day to early May, the 8th of May this year, and tomatoes put out on the 9th) since I was cognizant of what was going on.

  14. says

    Even if scientists thought there might be global cooling back in the 1970s, what exactly would that mean? That climate forcings are different now than they were then? Or that scientists change their minds when more evidence becomes available? Does it somehow become not possible that the globe is warming and that we can detect it and model it? It would be a stupid argument even if the premise weren’t false.

    The idea that science being wrong in the past means it can’t be trusted in the present is self-refuting. The only way to know that science has made mistakes is to accept that the present state of knowledge is superior to the past. Otherwise, it’s basically nihilism.

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Area Man #14, what folks misremember is that that Carl Sagan in 1983 wrote a book on what would happen if nuclear war actually happened, which would be a due to particulates/aerosols released into the atmosphere due the explosions. Some volcanic activity did also cool the weather for for a year or so in those years.
    Other than those scenarios, I can’t recall of any serious scientist showing anything other than the carbon dioxide was increasing, and temperatures were going up on the climate (>30 year) scales.

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