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February 22nd 2015 print

Bernie Lewin

The Original Climate Sceptics

They were there at the start, when the study of climate was in its infancy, but today the names of meterologists such as Hubert Lamb are seldom mentioned by those colleagues and their heirs who very quickly grasped that sound science doesn't pay half as well as a good scare story

lambHubert Lamb (left), the father of modern historical climatology and founder of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, issued this warning to his fellow meteorologists in 1994:

‘A precarious and threatening situation has developed for climatology: a tremendous effort was made to land research funds in all countries, mostly the USA, on the basis of frightening people about the possible drastic effect of Man’s activities, and so much has been said about climate warming that there will be an awkward situation if the warming doesn’t happen or not to the extent predicted.’ (emphasis added)

Two decades later it is widely acknowledged that the slight warming trend of the 1980s slowed and then stalled not many years after Lamb published his warning. Indeed, the frightening predictions of those times have not been realised. But whether this places climatology in ‘an awkward situation’ remains moot across the sceptical divide.

Back in the 1970s Lamb was undoubtedly Britain’s most prominent climatologist. Whenever a climate-related topic required comment, journalists would call him. With radio appearances and the occasional invitation to publish his own plain-language account, this softly spoken scientist had quite the public profile.

Today, it is not widely known that our global warming consensus once faced such a prominent critic. Indeed, Lamb was one of the earliest and most vocal sceptics. Folks are often also surprised to learn that Lamb’s response to the warming scare was far from unusual. Many of the other leaders in the field during the 1970s also grew concerned about its distorting influence. Alas, the more they said so, the more they were marginalised on the wrong side of an increasingly polarised debate.

A few of these former leaders are well known in the current controversy, lampooned as deniers and merchants of doubt. But most are forgotten. Many, like Lamb, are now dead.

Consider Robert White, perhaps the most prominent figure at the World Meteorological Organisation during the 1970s. In 1979 he chaired the first World Climate Conference, which asked all nations ‘to foresee and to prevent potential man made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity’. But a decade later White became concerned that the politics was getting ahead of the science. In 1989 he warned of an ‘inverted pyramid of knowledge’ where ‘a huge and growing mass of proposals for policy action is balanced upon a handful of real facts’.

In that same year White teamed up with others of the old guard in the US raising concerns with their government. These included two former leaders of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography: William Nierenberg (director from 1965 to 1986), and Jerome Namias, the renowned climate forecaster and leader of the Climate Research Group throughout the 1970s.

The USA also had Reid Bryson, the founding director of the world’s first centre dedicated to climatic research at the University of Wisconsin. He was always, and openly, more concerned about an overall cooling trend.

Elsewhere, rumours ran rife of secret doubters unwilling to risk their funding. But still there were surprises, like Brian Tucker in Australia. From the late 1970s he had overseen the research into greenhouse warming as head of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics. Retiring in 1992, he came out guns blazing.

Others were caught out of step before they were ready to go, including some prominent figures in the European leadership. Hendrik Tennekes was the director of research at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute from 1977 until he was sacked 1990. Afterwards he claimed a link between his ousting and the recent publication of his doubts in the popular press.

Two Scandinavian meteorologists, Aksel Wiin-Nielson and Lennart Bengtsson also came out sceptical in the 1990s. This was after extraordinary careers, included leadership in the establishment of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. When Wiin-Nielson raised doubts, his motives were questioned in a public rebuke by the founding chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bert Bolin. Much later, Bengtsson offered support to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a gesture towards redeeming the science of his lifelong vocation. Overwhelmed by a wave of hostility he soon withdrew.

Over at NASA there was also John Theon with oversight of all weather and climate research during the 1980s. And Joanne Simpson, the head of a ‘severe storms’ research group from 1979; Simpson was the first woman awarded a PhD in Meteorology and the first female president of the American Meteorological Society. Both stayed quiet until only very recently. For Simpson, it was at the age of 85 that she issued a solemn declaration of scepticism under the title ‘Joanne Simpson, private citizen’. It began:

‘Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receive any funding, I can speak quite frankly…’

Perhaps the most striking exemplification of the transformation of the science came at NASA’s Institute of Space Studies. This New York branch of the Space Flight Center in Maryland was created for Robert Jastrow, its founding director. Jastrow was one of the few, like Lamb and Bryson, openly sceptical from the beginning. When Jastrow resigned in 1981, NASA attempted to absorb the branch back into Maryland, but a few staff held out. When NASA cut the funding (it would later resume) the EPA stepped in so that research continued under one James Hansen. That very summer Hansen won the first New York Times front page headline for global warming. Jastrow was out, Hansen was in, and the research quickly reoriented to serve the warming scare.

This rollcall of sceptics is impressive indeed, but Hubert Lamb remains outstanding for his persistent, acute and prescient critique. This began as early as 1972 when he raised concerns that research into natural climatic changes was falling into neglect due to a preoccupation with the man-made effect.

Lamb hoped to redress this neglect when that year he founded the Climatic Research Unit. This was not as easy as he anticipated. From 1972 until his retirement in 1978 he struggled to keep the unit alive, failing to win grants from British government funding bodies.

Yet, when Lamb retired, the fortunes of the unit suddenly turned around. His successor had tapped a new funding stream. As Lamb recounted, not without regret, in his memoirs:

‘Since my retirement from the directorship of the Climatic Research Unit there have been changes there…My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climate being changed as a result of human activities…After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which had first made the Unit well known, was abandoned.’

What Lamb doesn’t say is that when Wigley arrived in 1975, CRU was struggling with a handful of staff, but when he departed in 1993, the unit employed around 50. Indeed, research was flourishing across the science when Lamb issued his warning in 1994. The old man’s talk of fear-driven funding bringing on ‘a precarious and threatening situation’ must have struck a rather odd note, especially among all those young scientists whose careers were born into the new consensus.

Bernie Lewin’s Hubert Lamb and the Transformation of Climate Science is available online from the Global Warming Policy Foundation