“Whether it’s man-made or not, I know that when I was in college I was being taught that if we didn’t act very quickly, that we were going to be entering a global freezing. And, you know, go back and look at the covers of Time and Newsweek from the early ’70s. And we were told that if we didn’t do something by 1980, we’d be popsicles. Now we’re told that we’re all burning up. Science is not as settled on that as it is on some things.”
— Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” June 21, 2015
A reader asked about these remarks by the GOP presidential hopeful, who graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in 1975, believing that Huckabee had overstated the extent of the belief in “global freezing” at the time, as well as the news reporting on the issue.
So let’s take a trip back in time and explore what was reported. Does this demonstrate the science “is not as settled” on the impact of man’s behavior on climate change?
First, let’s provide some context. In 1895, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius first predicted in a scientific paper that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could alter surface temperatures.
A few years later, Arrhenius expanded on his research with a nontechnical book in which he described the “hot-house theory” of the atmosphere. While he observed that the burning of fossil fuels might contribute to this effect, he actually thought that might be beneficial because it would stimulate plant growth and thus provide more food.
In other words, for more than 100 years, scientists have found a link between burning fossil fuels and rising surface temperatures.
Separately, in the mid-1970s, scientists confirmed a theory offered in the 1930s by a Serbian scientist, Milutin Milankovic, that ice age cycles were related to changes of orientation of the Earth relative to the sun. (The cycles occurred at the intervals of 23,000, 42,000 and 100,000 years.) Other scientists using deep-sea sediment cores confirmed that the peak of the last “interglacial” (the last time that the world was like it is now) was 120,000 years ago and the warmest part lasted about 10,000 years before getting cooler.
Thus, since it had been 10,000 years since the last ice age ended, some scientists began to speculate that another ice age could be coming — sometime in the next thousand years. (Note that Huckabee colorfully suggested that “if we didn’t do something by 1980, we’d be popsicles.”)
So now the stage was set for some speculative journalism. There had been a period of cold winters in the early 1970s, and so some reporters put two and two together — and came up with five.
Time magazine in 1974 titled an article “Another Ice Age?” and said “climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age.”
Newsweek, in 1975, ran an article titled “The Cooling World,” which said: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend…. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.” Newsweek suggested that one solution was “melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot.”
(The Washington Post scooped them both with a 1970 article titled, “Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age.”)
Despite Huckabee’s claim that these were “cover stories,” neither Time nor Newsweek put the “ice age” article on the cover. The Newsweek article, for instance, was tucked in the back, on page 64.
(There is a fake Time Magazine cover floating around the Internet, which purports to be a 1977 cover displaying a lone penguin underneath this headline: “How to Survive the Coming Ice Age: 51 things you can do to make a difference.” But this is actually a photoshopped version of a Time cover from 2007, titled “The Global Warming Survival Guide.” Nevertheless, in 2013 the Daily Mail newspaper reprinted the fake cover as evidence of a “global green con.”)
In any case, the science was still unsettled at the time, which allowed reporters to pick and choose the angle to emphasize. Walter Sullivan, the legendary science reporter of the New York Times, published two contradictory articles within a three-month period in 1975. First: “Scientists ask why world climate is changing; major cooling may be ahead.” Second: “Warming trend seen in climate; two articles counter view that cold period is due.”
In 2008, several scientists decided to go back and review the peer-reviewed literature at the time. Despite the media coverage highlighted by Huckabee, it turns out that peer-reviewed articles on global cooling were in a distinct minority compared to those concerned with global warming. “The survey identified only seven articles indicating cooling compared to 42 indicating warming. Those seven cooling articles garnered just 12% of the citations,” the researchers reported.
Here’s a chart from their report showing the findings:
This explains why the “new ice age” boomlet petered out fairly quickly. “Science represents an accumulation of knowledge, so incorrect hypotheses become exposed,” especially over a 40-year period, said Reed Scherer, associate director of the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy at Northern Illinois University. “The current consensus regarding global warming builds on all scientific studies to date.”
In fact, the review of actual scientific articles demonstrates that, as usual, many reporters were late to the story. By 1975, there were five times more peer-reviewed articles on global warming than global cooling.
In fact, in 2006, Newsweek admitted it had been “spectacularly wrong” in publishing the article. “Even by the time it appeared, a decades-long trend toward slightly cooler temperatures in the Northern hemisphere had already begun to reverse itself — although that wouldn’t be apparent in the data for a few years yet — leading to today’s widespread consensus among scientists that the real threat is actually human-caused global warming,” the magazine reported.
(Bloomberg News recently produced a nifty graphic that demonstrates the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures.)
Huckabee’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Huckabee is grasping at incorrect media reporting in order to make a ridiculous point. The main scientific consensus at the time of the Time and Newsweek articles was that the world was entering a period of global warming, as a result of man-made effects, that would overcome any possible cyclical cooling. Indeed, the science of that issue is even more settled now, which is why Newsweek 30 years later conceded it had been wrong.
Rather than cite discredited media reports, Huckabee had a responsibility to find out what actual scientific papers had determined at the time. Huckabee earns Four Pinocchios.
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