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The 1970s Global Cooling Scare (and how the warming scare could not have happened without it)

Screencap from TV documentary “In Search of:” narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Season 2, Episode 23 originally aired in May 1978. Full video here

Guest essay by Bernie Lewin

This is the second post drawing on themes raised in the book Searching for the Catastrophe Signal. See a previous post on WUWT here.

Forty-five years ago today, two geologists penned a letter to the president of the United States warning that the rocky decent into the next ice age might have already begun.

Letter from Kukla and Matthews to the President of the United States, 3 December, 1972

A letter written by two Quaternary geologists George Kukla and Robert Matthews to Richard Nixon raised concerns that recent bad weather might indicated that the present interglacial was ending. This letter helped to set in train a series of events that raised the profile of climate anxieties in the USA and globally. Source: Reeves & Gemmill.

The year 1972 remains infamous in the annals of meteorology for extreme weather events all around the globe. Towards the end of that year, in a letter dated 3 December 1972, two geologists George Kukla and Robert Matthews warned President Nixon that…

…a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experienced by civilized mankind is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon.

When geologists say ‘very soon’ it is wise to hesitate, but Kukla and Matthews were quick to remove any suggestion that they might be talking only in terms of millennia-metered geological time. ‘The present cooling now underway in the Northern Hemisphere’, they went on to explain, ‘could be the start of this expected shift’. In other words, it looked every bit like the stable mild climate of recent millennia has already ended.

It is hard to find a single document more instrumental in the history of post-War climate anxieties than this letter. It would trigger a series of events that resulted in the first coordinated program of climate research in the United States and then at the United Nations. It also set the stage upon which the global warming scare would subsequently be launched with demands for a global response.

Today, as the 1970s global cooling scare starts to pass beyond living memory, it is widely misunderstood. This is especially in its relationship with the subsequent scare over global warming. Warming skeptics will often talk up the scare, emphasizing how meteorologists have flipped from cooling alarm to warming alarm. In fact, few meteorologists were involved in the cooling scare, while there were very few scientists of any variety who raised alarm over cooling and then switching to alarm over warming.

On the other side of the current debate, warming alarmists often play down the cooling scare as little more than a press beat up (e.g., see here). This is also wrong. In fact the cooling scare was promoted by scientists on scientific evidence. Sure, the press did their usual job of playing up fears, but there was often a measure of circumspection thrown in. From the scientific point of view, the main problem with the press coverage was that meteorological speculation on the return of the Little Ice Age was confused with geologists’ warnings about a return of the bigone.