A few days ago some of us science-y bloggers were invited on a conference call with the Obama energy and environmental transition team. It was hopeful -- and freaking weird to be taken seriously by a White House team of any kind! And yet I couldn't help but wonder if they have a firm idea of the scope of the misinformation they're up against.
Just as one small example, you can't spend much time online discussing climate change without coming across the undead talking point, "In the 70s, all the scientists were predicting a new ice age, so why should we listen to them now." To hear the usual suspects tell it today, the earth science community was in a fenzied panic, claiming the ice was about the begin another long trek south. Like most zombie lies, this one is based on a few grains of truth, and a whole lotta whoppers (.pdf):
Despite active efforts to answer these questions, the following pervasive myth arose: there was a consensus among climate scientists of the 1970s that either global cooling or a full-fledged ice age was imminent. A review of the climate science literature from 1965 to 1979 shows this myth to be false. The myth’s basis lies in a selective misreading of the texts both by some members of the media at the time and by some observers today.
Back then, the temperature record did show a decline around 1940 followed by a sideways trend through the mid 70s. That item caused a discussion to break out between two camps. Both camps suspected increased industrial activity on the heels of the Great Depression was forcing the climate askew, but in opposite directions.
When stuff burns, two primary constituents are smoke and greenhouse gases (GHGs). In terms of climate, they tend to balance each other. Particles of soot reflect sunlight and cool the surroundings. GHGs retain reflected heat and warm things up. During the 70s, climate scientists debated which trend would win out. The smart money was on the more persistent GHGs because they were forecast to hang around longer and thus accumulate more than smoke particles. But suspecting and showing in science are not the same. With factory output on the sharp rise, and limited by 1970s computing technology, it was a challenge to accurately model the fiendishly complex dynamics to make evidence based predictions on which trend would ultimately prevail.
Another ongoing debate during the 70s was over the triggers of Pleistocene Ice Ages. This one had nothing to do with anthropogenic factors: these climate shifts occurred before human civilization existed and spanned periods of time measured in many thousands of years. One leading candidate was the subtle interplay between cyclical changes in the shape of earth's orbit and periodic changes in the earth's axis. Scientists worked to determine the precise time in a meta-cycle when ice would retreat or advance.
Of course, the Me Generation had its share of climate change skeptics. Given the relative lack of data, and the absence of industry funded think-tanks and lobbyists to print astroturf, they were less visible in the public square. But, a look back at the peer reviewed research reveals very few papers predicting cooling and quite a few predicting warming. Of those that did lean cooler, some started with a hypothetical assumption such as "IF the soot was tripled, THEN ... cooling."
These discussions and others like them produced a rich source of ready made, peer reviewed quotes ripe for taking out of context. Mix all that up with a few skeptical claims and a dash of pop science, and the material to produce a sensationalist article with slick graphics hyping the onset of an ice age, is all there. That's exactly what happened. That's really all there is to it.
Today we have the enormous benefit of hindsight. And what an educational view it is! Not long after the Ice Age articles appeared in the mainstream media of the day, global temperatures began a sustained, upward trend and never looked back. Over the last decade in particular, signs of warming have accelerated and now threaten to outrace all but the more aggressive, scientific predictions. The picture is clearer and more nuanced:
- Over the last three decades, GHGs have been winning big. Short of a planet earth shrouded by a smoky veil approaching a full on nuclear winter, that trend is forecast to continue.
- The cooling during the 1950s through 1970s was restricted to the Northern Hemisphere, which is precisely where the particulates were being produced through industrial activity. This cooling impact began to disappear after the implementation of Clean Air Act[s], which limited the growth of sooty emissions in the industrial regions of the Northern Hemisphere. (And reduced acid rain).
- Classic Pleistocene ice ages are indeed affected by Milankovitch Cycles but other, more down to earth factors were almost certainly in play. The exact tipping points between advancing and retreating glaciers is still a field of active and fascinating research. But it has no direct bearing on the immediate role of human activity on climate change.
- During the Pleistocene, glaciers, and the cold that goes with them, may have tended to advance slowly and retreat quickly (This has ominous portent for the near future if correct). But there are fitful stops and starts, climate is quirky, especially on shorter time scales.
For a few years, back in the 70s, the Ice Age claims took on a life of their own and echoed around in a subset of pop culture. Eventually reality and observation caught up to and killed it. It lay mostly dormant for thirty years until, a few years ago, the old story was lovingly exhumed by industry and right-wing PR hacks, and jolted dramatically back to life. It lives today only as a zombie lie in the heads of doubters, near impossible to kill, no matter how many times it's put down.
How the Obama energy and environment transition team deals with all that and more remains to be seen. Energy, climate, water, weather, agriculture ... The challenge before them is so Herculean, maybe it's not worth worrying too much about the siren call of zombie lies and those caught helplessly under their seductive spell (Look how long it took to just gloss over this one). Maybe all the transition team has to do is what it sounds like they're planning to do: craft a reality-based message to help explain the economic and national security benefits of clean energy at every opportunity; enlist the enormous technical talent, untapped for eight long miserable Bush years, to produce better evidence and brilliant solutions; focus on voters who are reachable. And yes, please, continue the promising early efforts to reach out to new media venues that are eager and willing to help.