Newsweek Rewind: Debunking Global Cooling

climate
Newsweek

Here’s a fun fact: In 1975, some people were worried about global cooling. Not only that, there was concern that not enough was being done about it.  

“Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change,” science journalist Peter Gwynne reported. Statements like that are uttered all the time these days, but for the exact opposite reason. One outlandish suggestion for the perceived crisis involved “melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot.”

These quant tidbits come from a short article penned by Gwynne and printed on Page 64 of Newsweek’s April 28, 1975, issue. Titled “The Cooling World,” it argued that global temperatures were falling—and terrible consequences for food production were on the horizon. Meteorologists “are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century,” Gwynne wrote. “The resulting famines could be catastrophic.”

The story, and others like it, has been cited by people who like to challenge current climate science and global warming. In 2009, for example, George Will referenced it in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, incorrectly describing it as a cover story, and using global cooling as an example of a global disaster that didn’t happen (and implying that global warming is also on that list).

Nearly 40 years later, that brief article is in the news again. In fact, Gwynne has just written a do-over of sorts, correcting the record in an article on Inside Science addressing his 1975 story. The purpose? So that “deniers of human-caused global warming” can’t use his story “as ammunition against the consensus of today’s climate scientists.”

In response to climate change skeptics who point to the article and say, “See, scientists were dead wrong in 1975, couldn’t they be wrong now too?,” Gwynne makes the point that science is always advancing and is clearly better now than it was 40 years ago. “While the hypotheses described in that original story seemed right at the time, climate scientists now know that they were seriously incomplete,” he writes. “Our climate is warming—not cooling, as the original story suggested.”

Gwynne concedes that he got a little “over-enthusiastic” in the original article and highlights some of the failings of science journalism in general—science writers should “seek out what the science doesn’t imply as well as what it does,” he suggests.

But his broader point—that “the vast majority of climatologists now assure us that Earth’s atmosphere is not cooling. Rather it’s warming up”—is a welcome one. It comes on the heels of a disconcerting announcement about six melting glaciers in the Antarctic; nearly two decades of satellite data helped produce the report. Its author said the melting had “passed the point of no return” and also noted that “we do think this is related to climate warming.”

Then there’s the National Climate Assessment, released recently by the White House. It bluntly states: “Many independent lines of evidence demonstrate that the world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.” It warns that “extreme heat events are increasing.” As for the Arctic ice, which, back in 1975, some evidently thought should be melted on purpose? Well, we did that. “The sharp decline in summer Arctic sea ice has continued, is unprecedented, and is consistent with human-induced climate change,” the report says. The year 2012 saw a “new record for minimum area” of the ice there.

“This is not some distant problem of the future,” President Barack Obama told NBC. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

This isn’t the first time Newsweek has brought up that dusty old 1975 article. An August 2007 cover story on global warming took readers “inside the denial machine,” exploring the ways the petroleum, steel, auto and utilities industries (and others) conspired to help sow doubt about the science behind global warming.

“Since the 1980s,” Sharon Begley writes, “this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change.”

Former Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham wrote a note in the beginning of the magazine that week that began by referencing Gwynne’s story from 1975. He called it “probably the most-cited single-page story in our history.”

A lot of articles get published in a weekly magazine, and science reporting, like science, is subject to revision. In the same 1975 issue, a three-page spread hawks a state-of-the-art IBM dictation machine that used cartridges containing little circular discs. Each disc could hold a whopping six minutes of audio. Technology has made some leaps since then, and so has the study of the Earth’s climate.

The difference between a science story on global cooling in 1975 and global warming today is this: Gwynne says that when he wrote his story, “several atmospheric scientists did indeed believe in global cooling.” A journalist covering global warming today would have an army of climate scientists to call, and 97 percent of them would concur that “climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

Newsweek’s “Global Cooling” Article From April 28, 1975