A high-priority government report warns of climate change that will lead to floods and starvation. ‘Leading climatologists’ speak of a ‘detrimental global climatic change’, threatening ‘the stability of most nations’. The scenario is eerily familiar although the document — never made public before — dates from 1974. But here’s the difference: it was written to respond to the threat of global cooling, not warming. And yes, it even mentions a ‘consensus’ among scientists.
‘A Study of Climatological Research as it Pertains to Intelligence Problems’, written by the CIA for ‘internal planning purposes’ in August 1974, goes a little way towards explaining why some people over a certain age experience a sense of déjà-vu when climate change is mentioned; in the mid-1970s there really was a lot of scientific discussion about global cooling. With the benefit of hindsight, reading it makes one feel wry and embarrassed. So many of the terms bandied about 35 years ago are still being employed by today’s fear-mongers, about the very opposite phenomenon.
It is as if climate scares had to follow a set pattern. Back in 1974 the usual disasters were projected: the ‘new climatic era’ was said to be bringing famine, starvation, refugee crises, floods, droughts, crop and monsoon failures, and all sorts of extreme weather phenomena. The Sahara would expand. World grain reserves, already at less than a month’s supply, would be depleted. A list of past civilisations brought down by ‘major and minor’ cooling episodes was given, which included the Indus, Hittites, Mycenaean, and the Mali empire of Africa. Any possible benefits to climate change were barely mentioned.
More parallels can be drawn. According to the CIA report, in 1974 climate science was developing ‘a successful climatic prediction model’, as indeed it still is. Government intervention had brought together eminent scientists who had previously been at odds with each other then had established a ‘scientific consensus’ on ‘global climate change’. The scientists claimed this pattern of cooling would cause ‘major economic problems around the world’. Dealing with this would, of course, require the creation of several new government agencies. The media at the time seized on all of this, just as it is doing now. Newsweek and the New York Times described the global cooling threat.
How is it that the parallels between that 1970s panic and today’s have been so little remarked upon? And it doesn’t stop there. There have even been recent attempts to label the ‘global cooling consensus’ a ‘myth’, most notably in a well-publicised article by Thomas C. Peterson, William M. Connolley, and John Fleck published by the American Meteorological Society in September 2008.
Well, plus ça change. It’s easy to miss what you do not look for. Mentions of a global cooling consensus appear as far back as 1961. I found the CIA report referred to in a 1976 newspaper article and was doubly amazed to discover it was available as a microfiche in the British Library.
So what would have prompted the CIA to compile such a dossier? The most likely explanation is what it describes as the loss of ‘a significant portion’ of the USSR’s winter wheat crop in 1972. The harvest was so poor that the CIA saw geopolitical ramifications. Its report says that ‘the politics of food’ is a complex business, which cannot be understood by ‘existing analytical tools’. So to address a political problem, they asked scientists to come up with a solution. Precisely the same thing is happening today. One might almost conclude that, in the world of climatology, theories are made to order.
Or is the problem with the general public, who cannot talk about climate except in doom-laden terms, and for whom the sky is the last animist god? This might be the most important lesson of the 1974 report on global cooling: that we need to grow up, separate climatology from fear, and recognise — much as it pains politicians and scientists — that our understanding of how climate changes remains in its infancy.
Maurizio Morabito is a banking consultant, journalist and blogger.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 5, 2009