The global cooling myth dies again

Climate science 1956: A Plass from the past

Yes, I know everybody used to think we were headed toward an ice age.  Well, except Dr. Frank Baxter (and Frank Capra) in 1958. And except for James Hansen for three decades, of course. And the National Research Council along with the vast majority of climate scientists from the 1970s on.

I have previously written about the work of physicist Gilbert Plass (see 1953 Popular Mechanics: Growing Blanket of Carbon Dioxide Raises Earth’s Temperature).

Our favorite climate de-crocker, Peter Sinclair has a new video with a “General Electric:  Excursions in Science” recording from 1956 on Plass’s work:

The myth never dies that “In the 1970’s all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming” (as Crichton has one of his fictional ‘environmentalists’ say in the novel State of Fear).  Any climate hawk must be able to quickly and assuredly respond to this myth because it continues to live on thanks to the deniers’ and delayers’ clever strategy of ignoring the facts.

I still recommend an excellent review article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) by Thomas Peterson, William Connolley, and John Fleck, which concluded:

There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age. Indeed, the possibility of anthropogenic warming dominated the peer-reviewed literature even then.

The BAMS piece examines the scientific origins of the myth, the popular media of the 1970s who got the story slightly wrong, the deniers/delayers who perpetuate the myth today, and, most importantly, what real scientists actually said in real peer-reviewed journals at the time. Their literature survey, the most comprehensive ever done on the subject, found:

The survey identified only 7 articles indicating cooling compared to 44 indicating warming. Those seven cooling articles garnered just 12% of the citations.

The authors put together this figure on “the number of papers classified as predicting, implying, or providing supporting evidence for future global cooling, warming, and neutral categories”:


The article ends with a powerful discussion of what the National Research Council concluded in its 1979 review of the science:

In July 1979 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Jule Charney, one of the pioneers of climate modeling, brought together a panel of experts under the U.S. National Research Council to sort out the state of the science. The panel’s work has become iconic as a foundation for the enterprise of climate change study that followed (Somerville et al. 2007). Such reports are a traditional approach within the United States for eliciting expert views on scientific questions of political and public policy importance (Weart 2003).

In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored. The potential for cooling, the threat of aerosols, or the possibility of an ice age shows up nowhere in the report. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979). Clearly, if a national report in the 1970s advocates urgent action to address global warming, then the scientific consensus of the 1970s was not global cooling.

And, to complete the circle, nearly a quarter century before then, Popular Mechanics warned us:

Actually, Time magazine reported on Plass’s work in May 1953, in an article titled “Invisible Blanket,” which ends “for centuries to come, if man’s industrial growth continues, the earth’s climate will continue to grow warmer.”

The New York Times reported on Plass’s work in 1956 with this strong headline:


As an interesting aside, the NYT warned a “rise in the average temperature of only 4 degrees C. would convert the polar regions into tropical deserts and jungles, with tigers roaming about and gaudy parrots squawking in the trees,” which is hardly the most noticeable consequence of turning polar regions into the tropics “” 80 to 280 foot sea level rise anyone?

Who is this remarkable climate scientist, Gilbert Plass? The Encyclopedia of Earth has the answer:

Gilbert N. Plass (1921-2004) was a Canadian-born physicist who made important early contributions to the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. He graduated from Harvard University in 1941, received a Ph.D in physics from Princeton University in 1947, and eventually became a professor at Texas A&M University. Between 1953 and 1959, Plass developed an early computer model of infrared radiative transfer and published a number of articles on carbon dioxide and climate. Plass used new detailed measurements of the infrared absorption bands and newly available digital computers to replace the older graphical methods.

Plass developed his approach with a thorough set of one-dimensional computations, taking into account the structure of the absorption bands at all layers of the atmosphere. His final figures showed convincingly that adding or subtracting CO2 could seriously affect the radiation balance layer by layer through the atmosphere, altering the temperature by a degree or more down to ground level. In a seminal article in 1956, Plass calculated a 3.6 °C surface temperature increase for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, Plass argued that the effect of water vapor absorption did not mask the carbon dioxide effect. Plass also postulated that the oceans would be able to sequester only a small amount of the anthropogenic carbon, resulting in an increase in atmospheric CO2. He calculated that consumption of all of the Earth’s fossil fuel resources over the next millenium would increase surface temperature by 7 °C. Plass’ work was pivotal in the establishment of the central role of carbon dioxide in climate change, and in the danger that anthropogenic carbon emissions posed to the Earth’s climate system.

Pretty darn accurate for 50-year-old analysis on the most primitive computers (see Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 5-7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path and “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” warns “Without significant mitigation, the report says global mean warming could reach as high as 7 degrees Celsius by 2100”).


19 Responses to The global cooling myth dies again

  1. Michael T. says:

    Joe this is a great post, but “scientifists” should read “scientists”. That speech dictation software again. :)

  2. John Mason says:

    Peter comes up with yet another excellent short piece. He really has this down to a fine art! I would hope that he is or becomes involved with the recently-announced AGU initiative.

    Cheers – John

  3. Prokaryotes says:

    I thought the buzz about the 70th ice age originated from one overblown times article.

  4. Prokaryotes says:

    He predicted that a doubling of CO2 would warm the planet by 3.6ºC, that CO2 levels in 2000 would be 30% higher than in 1900 and that the planet would be about 1ºC warmer in 2000 than in 1900. In 2007 the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report estimated a climate sensitivity of 2 to 4.5ºC for CO2 doubling, a CO2 rise of 37% since pre-industrial times and a 1900-2000 warm-up of around 0.7ºC.

    The carbon dioxide theory of Gilbert Plass

  5. Prokaryotes says:

    Interesting Isaac Asimov and Gilbert Plass both born in 1920.

    Isaac Asimov writes in Our Angry Earth about a scenario of runaway carbon dioxide production until all of the oxygen had combined with all of the oxygen in a process that fed on itself, much like the out-of-control forest burnings

  6. Just a little more history for us: (gosh I love Wikipedia)

    The big event of the last 50 years is the triumph of public relations and corporate malfeasance on a colossal level. This is the era of Edward Bernays – the double nephew to Sigmund Freud and the father of Public Relations.

    Climate change was just a business challenge to be eliminated. Much like the trolley cars in over 300 cities that were converted to buses by 1970.
    “controversial new testimony was presented to a United States Senate inquiry into the causes of the decline of transit car systems in the USA. This alleged that there was a wider conspiracy, by General Motors in particular, to destroy effective public transport systems in order to increase sales of automobiles and that this was implemented with great effect to the detriment of many cities.
    Today it is agreed that General Motors and others were indeed heavily involved in an ambitious but secretive program to buy up many streetcar systems and convert them to use buses, which they often supplied.”

    It’s just business. Ooops.. there goes our survivable environment!

  7. MapleLeaf says:

    As always, quite brilliant Peter.

    The “skeptics” and contarians are simply rehashing/recycling myths that were debunked many decades ago. So much for the “skeptics” being “open minded”, at the fore-front of science, being inquiring minds or mavericks (well that is how they like to portray themselves)– anything but, they are simply ideologues stuck in the past. Consequently, they have nothing of substance to back up their assertions or to support heir dogma, so they just keep recycling myths. John Cook’s site addresses and refutes most of the long debunked myths that are still doing the rounds today.

    To be fair, some of the warming in the early 20th century was because of a slight increase in solar irradiance at the time. But, it is telling that scientists back in the fifties could already detect a human fingerprint or discernible human influence on global temperatures because of higher GHG levels from anthropogenic activities.
    And also telling that, despite a slight decrease in solar irradiance since the seventies, global temperatures have continued to climb at a rate of 1.5-2.0 C per century.

    Right now we are experiencing one of the strongest La Nina’s in recent decades, yet lower tropospheric temperatures are still at or near record highs. This is causing “skeptics” like Roy Spencer much anguish. To be honest, I am quite surprised myself.

  8. cyclonebuster says:

    “Underwater Suspension Tunnels” create global cooling if you want them to by upwelling massive amounts of deep cold ocean water to the surface while at the same time generating electrical power.

  9. toby says:

    Glad to see someone mention Isaac Asimov.. recently, in a pile of old books I found his “Asimov’s Guide to Science” from 1986. And he got global warming pretty much right for the year he was writing!!!

    Can’t help but think there was something prophetic in his great short story “Nightfall”, where archaeologists on a remote planet discover that successive planetary civilizations have suffered disastrous collapses in the past. Can they prevent the next collape …. ??

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    Slightly OT
    toby, the similarities between Isaac and Plass are striking (Do they even wear the same glasses?)

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    And you have to read “Our Angry Earth”. There are also audiobooks around on the internet.

  12. James Newberry says:

    Now we know the reason for demise of Western Civilization: Popular Mechanics Magazine. It states in 1953:

    “By 2080, he predicts, the air’s carbon-dioxide content will double, resulting in average temperature rise of at least four percent.”

    Four percent is meaningless. Correct reporting would have stated “four Centigrade degrees,” (a heating which would submerge most of the heritage and infrastructure of civilization due to ocean rise from melting of the planet’s land-based ice caps).

  13. Aaron Lewis says:

    In 1970, AGW/CO2 concentrations was the subject of a (take home) exam question in my (freshman) chemical engineering class. The question carried enough weight that anyone missing the question would have flunked out of the program. Everyone got enough credit on the question to remain in the program (although in the following class, the professor stood on the podium and shouted at us for a full hour.)

    There was no doubt about AGW in 1970.

    Some people may not have been thinking about it, but for those who took a sliderule down to the library and thought about it, there was no doubt.

  14. Prokaryotes says:

    This also a great read

    The Discovery of Global Warming
    Laboratories began to gather good data only in the 1950s, motivated largely by military concerns.

    Plass pursued these details with a thorough set of one-dimensional computations, taking into account the structure of the absorption bands at all layers of the atmosphere. His final figures showed convincingly that adding or subtracting CO2 could seriously affect the radiation balance layer by layer through the atmosphere, altering the temperature by a degree or more down to ground level.(10a) From that point on, nobody could dismiss the theory with the simple old objections. However, Plass’s specific numerical predictions for climate change made little impression on his colleagues. For his calculation relied on unrealistic simplifications. Like Callendar, Plass had ignored a variety of important effects — above all the way a rise of global temperature might cause the atmosphere to contain more water vapor and more clouds. As one critic warned, Plass’s “chain of reasoning appears to miss so many middle terms that few meteorologists would follow him with confidence.”

    Fritz Möller attempted to follow up with a better calculation, and came up with a rise of 1.5°C (roughly 3°F) for doubled CO2. But when Möller took into account the increase of absolute humidity with temperature, by holding relative humidity constant, his calculations showed a massive feedback. A rise of temperature increased the capacity of the air to hold moisture (the “saturation vapor pressure”), and the result was an increase of absolute humidity. More water vapor in the atmosphere redoubled the greenhouse effect — which would raise the temperature still higher, and so on. Möller discovered “almost arbitrary temperature changes.”

    And the comments from the Real Climate, see link @ post 4#

  15. Gordon says:

    Joe – please take a look at Andrew Sullivan’s endorsement of Lomborg’s film, which endorses geo-engineering.

    This is dispiriting – a man with one of the best educations on the planet and he seems totally science-less.

  16. John Mason says:

    Shame we can’t post images on here – I’ll just provide a link instead – something I knocked up recently:

    Satire can really highlight the holes in some of the arguments out there :)

    Cheers – John

  17. Chris Winter says:

    Today I got an error from the UAH URL posted in #7. The URL that works for “Daily Earth Temperatures from Satellites” is:

  18. Chris Winter says:

    Dr. Plass had an interesting career ( ) including three years working on the Manhattan Project. I wonder if he knew a fellow known as Hal Lewis.

    I’d love to know what Dr. Plass wrote near the end of his life. He died in 2004.