Beware of Climate Predictions

In 1976 Lowell Ponte published The Cooling, a book with a dire environmental prediction of a coming ice age. “Most experts” agreed about the prediction based upon extensive data “carefully measured by scattered monitoring stations throughout the world.” (p.3) Climatologist Reid A. Bryson wrote that there was “surprising little argument” among scientists about the accuracy of this prediction.

Ponte was preceded by the National Academy of Sciences and many others in predicting global cooling, a trend that (supposedly) characterized the preceding three decades. For example, in a 1971 Science magazine article, S. Ichtiaque Rasool and Stephen Henry Schneider actually argued that carbon dioxide (combined with chlorofluorocarbons) were contributing to cooling the planet, and could trigger an ice age by the year 2021. Later we decided that chlorofluorocarbons were harming the ozone layer and some decided that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas contributing to warming the planet.

In retrospect, it is easy to make light of false predictions and questionable science — but our current predictions and (politicized) science is fair game for skepticism now and will continue to be fair game in future decades. It is important to note that Ponte’s work was loaded with footnotes and data supporting his case, and a lengthy bibliography (pp. 269–96) reflecting a great deal of research. Prentice-Hall published the book. It was hardly the product of a “fringe eccentric.”

Ponte and apparently a great many others believed that volcanic dust and human-made air pollution (mimicking the effects of volcanic dust) were two causes behind this global cooling. The Dust Bowl, still easily within living memory back then, was but an extreme example of a third cause, namely soil erosion and resultant dust. That may sound laughable now, but so too does linking recent wildfires to climate change while ignoring decades of fuel accumulation in forests that aborigines used to burn annually.

Ponte cited a number of then-recent extreme global weather events (floods, droughts, storms) as supporting his thesis, as well as human “over-population,” the latter perhaps the doomsday cause du jour of the 1970s following Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Ponte wrote that northern hemisphere glaciers had been growing since 1950 and that ice conditions in Alaska were the most severe since 1898.

Most dire of all, Ponte warned of the danger of a “snowblitz” that would result from a vicious cycle leading to a sudden ice age: global cooling would result from diminishing sunlight which would increase snow and ice coverage of the planet that would result in further cooling until a “snowblitz” would be upon us. According to Ponte, because of the scientific snowblitz theory, “ice ages can appear almost overnight.” (p.16)

If you are tempted to laugh at this, just substitute “global warming” for “global cooling” and ask yourself how familiar it all sounds. Since the late 1970s we have made the same mistake of confusing extreme weather events with long term climate trends, as well as conflating weather and climate in general. Both of these mistakes are a common feature in mainstream media these days. There is the same use of partial data, because even now we are missing far more climate data that we actually have — and what little we have even now is highly irregular and often imprecise. There is also the same nonexistent “consensus” among scientists; scientists sometimes mostly agree about the general contours of a certain scientific paradigm, but they did not arrive at that understanding through consensus. Besides, as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated so evocatively, scientific paradigms are notoriously prone to shifting, or even being overturned altogether.

In the “global cooling” scare, there is also the same emergency call to action, for according to Ponte global cooling had “only begun” in 1976 (p.17). Unfortunately, policy advocacy almost invariably compromises both the scientific method and its results. In other words, when scientists already think they know conclusions, it is all too easy to cherry-pick data to fit those results. Ponte warned that we were “entering a period of climatic instability” (p.237). I hate to state the obvious, but when has the climate (or weather) ever been stable? The answer: never. To claim otherwise reflects an urge to find environmental sanctuary — an urge that is alive and well today, as if we had lost our collective minds in appreciating that climate has changed . . . well, since there has been a climate. Just watch the average meteorologist (i.e., weather person) tell us that our temperatures or rain totals or snow packs are above or below “normal.” There is no normal — only averages, and averages are only based on a short historical data set ever-evolving with ongoing data.

Thus, what “normal” translates into here is the wishful thinking of the weather and climate conditions we humans would prefer. Of course. Who could blame us? But emotional or even logical desires does not science make.

When did we get the idea that we were entitled to a stable climate that suited us? Most of the earth’s geological history has featured a climate (and habitats) that would not have supported mammalian life at all. We also know, from geology and astrophysics, that some day in the (distant) future the planet will no longer continue to support life as we know it. If nothing else, the sun will burn out.

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, in Ponte’s book we have the same hazards of prediction that we cling to today, even if more recent climate predictions are generally in the opposite direction. That alone should be a cautionary note regarding predictions — any predictions, not just those of science (and especially regarding science compromised for policy purposes). If science could predict the future, we’d all get rich on the stock market. The planet’s climate is probably far more complex than the stock market, and thus even less likely to be predicted. In fact, in any meaningful detail, the global climate is impossible to predict.

Copyright © Will Sarvis, 2020; re-posted, March 2022. All rights reserved.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

I have a chapter about climate science in my 2019 book, Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism, with enough footnotes to put you to sleep. In that chapter I also cover a great deal of false prediction-making, citing the observations and logic of people like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Sources mentioned above or of possible further interest:

Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (NY: Ballantine Books, 1968).
William Kininmonth, Climate Change: a Natural Hazard (Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science Pub. Co., 2004).
Thomas S. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (1962; Chicago: University of Chicago Pr., 1970).
Marcel Leroux, Global Warming: Myth or Reality: the Erring Ways of Climatology (Berlin; New York: Springer; 2005).
Robert L. Park, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (NY: Oxford University Pr., 2000).
Lowell Ponte, The Cooling (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976).
S. I. Rasool and S. H. Schneider, “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate,” Science, new series vol. 173, no. 3992 (Jul. 9, 1971), 138–141.

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Will Sarvis

Will Sarvis

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Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.