Whether it’s about galloping glaciers leading us to the next Ice Age or hyperventilating polar bears drowning in rising tides of fossil-fueled despair, two facts are inescapable. As global temperatures blow hot and cold, chilling overreactions and overheated speculations occur either way.
There’s no reason to waste a perfectly good crisis, even if you have to invent one to make a strong argument for it. As Al Gore told Grist Magazine in May 2006, “Nobody is interested in solutions if they don’t think there is a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening an audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.”
Perhaps an even better starting point before over-representing any climate crisis and spending many billions of dollars more to solve it will be to decide which of two opposite “factual presentations” deemed to be most dangerous should be exaggerated. Let’s begin this starting point about a century ago, when the sweaty saga was much like today.
According to a November 2, 1922, Associated Press report published in The Washington Post, “The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer, and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot. Reports from fishermen, seal hunters, and explorers all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone.
“Exploration expeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes. Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.”
This warming apparently began before the Industrial Revolution. A March 27, 1933, headline in The New York Times proclaimed, “America in Longest Warm Spell since 1776; Temperature Tine Records a 25-Year Rise.” Five years later the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society thought that this was a good thing. They noted that heating the planet with carbon dioxide “is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power.”
Those previously beneficial rising temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels during the 1930s were followed by about three decades of cooling which began in the 1940s. As CO2 levels continued to rise, that cooling, a new crisis, was attributed to humans also.
Deforestation was allegedly increasing Earth’s surface reflectivity, causing sunlight to bounce back into space without heating the surface — and smokestack particulate emissions were blocking out light before it got here.
A 1970 Life Magazine article predicted that, “(B)y 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by one-half.” The situation was dire. As Science Digest reported in 1973, “At this point we do not have the comfortable distance of tens of thousands of years to prepare for the next Ice Age, and that how carefully we monitor our atmospheric pollution will have direct bearing on the arrival and nature of the weather crisis.” Consequently, the scientists warned “Once the freeze starts, it will be too late.”
A 1974 Time Magazine article, asked (and answered) its big jackpot title question “Another Ice Age?” It concluded, “When meteorologists take an average of temperatures around the globe they find the atmosphere has been gradually colder for the past three decades . . . and the winter aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another Ice Age.”
More dramatically, the March 1975 cover of Science News depicted Manhattan being swallowed by an approaching glacier with a bold headline announcing, “The Ice Age Cometh.” The article said that “the transition would include only a small change in global temperature — two or three degrees — but the impact on civilization would be catastrophic.” A National Academy of Sciences report that year confirmed a “finite possibility that a serious worldwide cooling could befall the Earth within the next 100 years.”
And all you “climate change deniers” out there who I keep hearing about but have yet to meet, please note that three-decade-long man-made cooling crisis flipped again about a decade later when a June 30, 1989, Associated Press article headlined “UN Official Predicts Disaster : Says Greenhouse Effect Could Wipe Some Nations Off Map.” The director of the UN Environment Programme’s New York office warned that “coastal flooding and crop failures” would “create an exodus of ‘eco-refuges,’ threatening political chaos” if global warming wasn’t reversed by the year 2000.
Just for the record, apart from major 1998 and 2024-16 ocean El Niño events, satellite instruments, the best measurements available, show no statistically significant mean global warming now for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, let’s remember that while climate really does change, yet also not forget that it’s something next year’s college sophomores will have never experienced during their lifetimes — much less anything we should get hot and bothered about.