Global Warming: changing climate of opinion

In the 1960s, scientists anticipated a `New Ice Age`. Later, they warned of humans triggering a ‘Nuclear Winter’. Now, it’s ‘Global Warming’. Why this change in emphasis? And why did it take 100 years for the theory behind ‘Global Warming’ to take hold?

New research by scientists from the University of Gloucestershire indicates that a remarkable combination of circumstances sparked widespread scientific interest in ‘Global Warming’ in the later decades of the 20th Century.

Prof. Frank Chambers and Sally Brain, whose findings are published in The Holocene this month, have used Keyword searches in a scientific publications database to identify a remarkably rapid shift in the focus of climate change research.

Prof. Chambers says: “Looking back, it almost seems that ideas about future climate were changing faster than climate itself! However, the idea of ‘Global Warming’ was not new: it had its roots in scientific ideas of over 100 years ago. We think we now know why the theory came of age in the late 20th Century.”

Their research indicates that scientific findings in the 1970s and early 1980s were a trigger to the very rapid development of wider scientific interest in climate change.

They suggest concern about ‘Global Warming’ was fuelled by a remarkable combination of new scientific evidence, increased computer power, a widespread acceptance of human responsibility for other environmental problems (such as ozone depletion and acid rain), a concurrent rise in global average temperatures and a changing science research agenda, driven by political and funding considerations.

As a result, computer simulations now dominate scenarios of future climate and are used to inform public policy. The apocalyptic scenarios produced in the 1980s were embraced as a belief by some scientists, hyped in the media, and caught the imagination of environmental pressure groups and the general public.

Resulting pressures on politicians, policy makers and research councils arguably channelled an increasing proportion of funds towards climate-modelling.

“To be credible, computer models have to be capable of representing the full range of natural climate variation. There is increasing evidence that the scale and rate of natural climate change may have been underestimated in the current generation of climate models. It is important, therefore, that sufficient money goes to researchers investigating past climates, so that their data can inform climate modellers”, said Prof Chambers.

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