Contrarian Cli-Fi 0.03: Forecasts, Famine and Freezes

John Gribbin is a science writer and astrophysicist and despite his inclusion in this series, he is not to my knowledge a climate science denialist or a global warming contrarian. Indeed, he has written several books about the reality of global warming. However, science writing is just as much a victim of choosing the more interesting story as regular journalism.

Gribbin had form for alarmist elements in his 1970s science writing. His 1974 book The Jupiter Effect claimed that a planetary alignment set to occur in 1982 would lead to catastrophic effects on Earth including earthquakes. The book sold well, although years later Gribbin repudiated his involvement in it. And for those wanting to connect the dots on the virtual map of maverick scientists, Gribbin had been one of astronomer Fred Hoyle’s research students in the late 1960s.

These days climate contrarians make much of the supposed scientific consensus in the 1970s of a coming ice age. There was no such consensus but while contrarians exaggerate the scientific interest in the possibility, there was some genuine concern among a subset of climate scientists ( see for example  Rasool & Schneider (1971) and for a more detailed discussion see )

Gribbin’s 1976 Forecasts, Famines, and Freezes was an attempt to give a popular account of current developments in climate science. It covers a lot of the complexities of climate science as well as newer developments such as computer-based climate models. However, it makes two significant missteps. One is in chapter 9

“At one time, the carbon dioxide problem caused a lot of concern. If there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. more of the heat being radiated by the solid Earth and the oceans is absorbed in the atmosphere and then re-radiated. Since the re-radiated heat goes out in all directions from the middle of the atmosphere, some of it gets back to the Earth’s surface and warms it up, in a process known as the ‘greenhouse effect”. This effect is undoubtedly a real one — but how much warming is it likely to cause? According to the latest calculations, we have nothing to worry about from the greenhouse effect.”

Gribbin was echoing the opinion of some climate scientists that the impact of additional CO2 would be self-limiting but Gribbin also believed that fossil fuel reserves were rapidly running out. There was a natural limit on how much CO2 humanity could add before we ran out of oil. However, Gribbin does attempt to map out the multiple factors that led to uncertainty around the impact of CO2 emissions.

Gribbin is on surer footing when it comes to CFC’s in the same chapter:

“With that caution in mind, the effect of propellant gases on the ozone layer which protects us from the Sun does look to be a very worrying one at present, even if it is not strictly a climatological problem. These gases are used in just about all spray cans — they are the gases under pressure which push out the hairspray. deodorant, fly-killer, whipped cream or whatever the ‘useful’ contents of the can may be. These gases are being released into the atmosphere in ever-increasing numbers.”

Gribbin’s second misstep was broader. While the book covers a lot of climate science, the framing is very much in terms of the potential of a near-future ice age. Much is made on the right about supposed environmental “alarmism” but there are some genuine examples and 1970s media coverage of a potential ice age is one such example.

The relatively slow increase in air temperature over my lifetime has been barely perceptible in terms of personal experience. Abstracted as data sets, the rise becomes clearer, alarmingly so but the lived experience for many people around the globe has not been a directly perceived warming but in terms of unusual or unseasonal weather events from droughts to floods to unusually intense bush fire seasons. Aesthetically, there is something just a bit more alarming and exciting about the possibility of a sudden ice age. Deep snow, blistering cold and slowly advancing glaciers.

I suspect that is a particularly Northern European cultural perspective. Cruel winters or sudden snowstorms are a cultural touchstone in a way that heatwaves and prolonged droughts are not. Ironically, while this pop science interest in a new ice age was at its height in 1976, Britain faced an unusually hot summer.

“A period of unusually hot summer weather occurred in the British Isles during the summer of 1976. At the same time, there was a severe drought on the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.[2][3] It was one of the driest, sunniest and warmest summers (June/July/August) in the 20th century, although the summer of 1995 is now regarded as the driest. Only a few places registered more than half their average summer rainfall. In the CET record, it was the warmest summer in the series until being surpassed in the 21st century.”

Water shortages and uncomfortable weather were seen more as an annoyance than a warning even though the additional heat led to increased hospital admissions and deaths. Warm weather meant more trips to the beach and long days in the parks and countryside. If Britain had had a historically cold winter or excess snowfall (in England any snowfall is ‘excess’ and likely to cause substantial disruption) the framing of the weather event would have been more in terms of the Blitz-spirit than the “Whew, What a Scorcher!” tabloid headlines[1].

Struggling through the snow or surviving in an Arctic-like environment is one of those ideas attractive to fiction. Prior to the 70s, it is a topic that had appealed to science fiction writers in examples such as Robert Silverberg’s The Time of the Great Freeze. Gribbin’s non-fiction account of how modern climate science might be suggesting that a new (and sudden) ice age was imminent appealed to the imagination in a way that the idea of global warming simply doesn’t.

We’ll get to Gribbin’s own attempt to examine the idea in fiction in the next chapter but by the time The Sixth Winter was published in 1979 climate scientists were very clearly warning governments that warming was an imminent danger, not spurious ice ages. The National Academy of Sciences, Climate Research Board published Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment to help inform US policy. It stated:

“The conclusions of this brief but intense investigation may be comforting to scientists but disturbing to policymakers. If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.”

National Academy of Sciences, Climate Research Board. (1979) Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A
Scientific Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences

Next time: The Sixth Winter

  • [1] “WHEW! What a scorcher!” I don’t know if that headline was actual used in 1976 and I can only find images of The Sun just using “WHEW” by itself as a headline (and not “PHEW”)

31 responses to “Contrarian Cli-Fi 0.03: Forecasts, Famine and Freezes”

  1. I suspect that the summer of ’76 had an outsized impact on a certain cohort of English white men of my age (these are the guys in their 50s who were brought up on war comics and seem to have evolved a weird belief that their parents fought in the Second World War.) That summer sticks out in the memory in ways that are hard to pin down but have resonance with the three-day-weeks and the Winter of Discontent which bracket it), and I think that this probably colours their perceptions of the whole issue of ‘climate change’ – and, yes, associated it with ‘blitz spirit’ nonsense.
    And, of course, they are now the Gen Xers who are running the think tanks with the budgets that this century have enabled everything from Brexit to the culture wars.

    (I remember all those things too as shapers of childhood, but I had the good(?) fortune to also see Star Wars in early 78 and that’s the thing that probably properly triggered my inner nerd, which subsequently saved me from going down that path.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, I’m an English white man in my 50s (just. For another few weeks), and my dad was called up when he turned 18. Conscripted “for the duration of the present emergency”, none of your National Service malarkey.

      Admittedly, he turned 18 in 1946, so his contribution to the war effort was… extremely limited. But still.

      (I remember the summer of ’76 as being bloomin’ ‘orrible.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • And I’m an American white guy in my 50s and my dad was a WWII veteran as well (a couple years older than yours, so a little more time in service during the war, too.).

        Liked by 2 people

      • I turned three in 1976 and have few memories of that summer, though I have photos of there being snow on the ground on my third birthday (April 18, 1976) and shivering in my party clothes in the snow, while posing with my bundled up cousins. Make of that what you will.

        My parents were born in 1938 and 1942 respectively and obviously did not fight in WWII, though my grandfathers and one uncle (turned sixteen in February 1945) did. The uncle was lucky and ended up with a commander who marched his troop of teenaged soldiers wherever the fighting was not. By the end of the war, they were close to the Danish border and my uncle and a few friends had to walk back to Bremen on foot. The bggest issue was crossing the rivers Weser and Elbe, since all bridges had been destroyed.


  2. Are you aware of the new Christopher Priest novel, Expect Me Tomorrow? Without getting too deep into spoilers, that has two main plot strands, one in the Victorian era with a climatologist investigating a new ice age, sunspots, etc, and one around 2050 with the impact of global warming, and how they may interrelate.

    I was reminded in some ways of his 9/11 conspiracy novel, in that it was ambiguous – to me at least – as to whether he was taking a genuinely contrarian personal line about these issues, or whether he was just trying to tell an entertaining yarn.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “in England any snowfall is ‘excess’ and likely to cause substantial disruption” Try living in Northwest Florida. The mere possibility of ice on the roads keeps everyone indoors if possible. I have friends in Tucson who say they react the same way to rain.
    I remember the Jupiter Effect stuff. There’s always a market for that kind of quasi-scientific Warning! book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rain in Sydney can be like that. It rains regularly but people react weirdly to it. The worst aspect (at least pre-pandemic) is more people decide to drive to work on rainy days, putting extra cars on the road in bad weather conditions.

      If it snowed in Sydney I think we’d have a psychotic crisis like the people in Nightfall seeing the stars for the first time

      Liked by 1 person

    • I tried reading “The Jupiter Effect” and I recall it was boring and nonsensical. Sure, Jupiter is big, but the sun is much bigger, the Moon is much closer (and causes tides twice a day), and space is infinite. It took decades for tiny bits of the best tech we had at the time to get out of the solar system.

      I remember the summer of ’76 as being warm too, more than the immediately subsequent ones. We were outside all the time in shorts and tanks, past dark. Which was nice with all the many activities laid on for the Bicentennial.


    • We had a bit of snow on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, when we lived there when I was five. It was very little snow, just a light dusting. Used to German winters, my Dad got into his car and drove to work, a little surprised that the roads were so empty. When he finally reached his workplace (and he had a commute of approx one hour at the time), the manager was shocked that he had come in, because “OMG, snow!” And my Dad replied, “That little bit of snow? That’s not even a centimetre.”


  4. “I suspect that is a particularly Northern European cultural perspective. Cruel winters or sudden snowstorms are a cultural touchstone in a way that heatwaves and prolonged droughts.”

    Should there be an “are not” at the end of this sentence?


  5. Another questionable Gribbin work is The Monkey Puzzle (coauthored with Jeremy Cherfas), in which he argues for chimpanzees and gorillas being descended from gracile and robust australopiths respectively. Even in 1982 this was probably stretching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In 1982 that was definitely stretching; I took physical anthropology that year, and they were already of the opinion apes is apes and australopiths don’t enter into it. In a suburban junior college, even.


      • In the old days human exceptionalism led people to estimate that the ancestors of humans and (other) apes parted ways tens of millions of years ago. When the first molecular data came out these estimates were found to be much to generous. Estimates have drifted back in time a little with more molecular data. With the shortest estimates the timing wasn’t completely impossible. But australopiths share a number of derived traits with Homo, so Gribbin and Cherfas were postulating a number of paralle evolutionary reversals.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Ah, the Jupiter Effect. I read the Readers Digest version of that as a gullible pre-teen. Good (terrifying) times.

    “Gribbin had form for alarmist elements in…” – something is off about this sentence beginning. Also at least one of the Gribbins is “Gribben”

    I remember the spring and summer of 1976 – over 100 degree (F) for three days on the east coast of the US (melted candy!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the Jupiter Effect hype vividly— and I was a pretty gullible kid too (having been raised on the “People’s Almanac” books, where ESP legends, Bigfoot, lurid untruths about historical figures, etc. were presented as just a few of the many cool things to learn about the world) but I still thought that one sounded pretty unlikely.

      However, I didn’t know till I just checked Wikipedia just now that Gribben hilariously published a follow-up book, “The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered”, one month after the disaster date had come and gone. Apparently when he reconsidered it, he determined that it had actually already happened a couple years earlier but just wasn’t recognized as such. I’m not sure who should have been more embarrassed, him or his publisher.

      Liked by 2 people

      • As I recall the thesis of the Jupiter Effect relied on a causal chain each step of which wasn’t absolutely implausible, but few to none were particularly convincing. And there was also the reductio that past planetary conjunctions haven’t left behind traces of comparable events to those predicted.


  7. My family was friendly with a Pentecostal family on our block. I played with their son and we’d have meals together. The area I lived in was very Catholic, but it has now since turn Evangelical. Anyway, I once with the Pentecostal family to their church because a “rock” band David and the Giants was going to play. They did play, and when they stopped, they turned off all the lights in the church and then someone intoned an outline of Gribbin’s Jupiter Effect and that you had to get right with God. I was terrified. I did finally have the pleasure of pointing out that when the day it was supposed to happen in 1983(?) nothing happened. Of course, they always had an another end of the world scenario.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

    — Robert Frost

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Part of the reason scientists initially underestimated the effect of CO₂ was that it’s so small compared to the effect of H₂O. Only 5% of the greenhouse effect on Earth is directly due to carbon dioxide, with most of the rest due to various forms of water. Showing that CO₂ actually drives the whole system is not easy, but it’s so extreme that if there were no CO₂ at all, the world would eventually freeze solid. The key thing is that CO₂ never freezes, but H₂O does.

    Since it took a while to figure this out, I think a science writer can be forgiven for getting it wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To simplify, in current conditions, water vapour is a feedback, CO2 is a forcing. (Absent anthropogenic emissions, CO2 is a feedback, and orbit-controlled insolation variations is the forcing; but note that the timescale of changes to orbital forcings is order of magnitudes larger.

      Also, the terminology is a bit awkward, but freeze is not the ideal word. It doesn’t matter whether water vapour is removed from the atmosphere as rain or snow (or as dew or hoar frost), but I expect that condensation (with or without subsequent freezing) is more import that deposition/desublimation. As CO2 doesn’t have a liquid phase at atmospheric pressure, freezing is not technically the correct term. There isn’t an obvious word to use for contrasting the two gases, unless you go with precipitate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The forcing effect of CO2 on the Earth’s temperature has been well understood for over 100 years. The brilliant Swedish polymath Svante Arrhenius, best known (and deservedly so) for his many contributions to chemistry, constructed the first-ever whole-Earth climate model (using pencil and paper! It took him two years) in 1896. He concluded that doubling of the (then-current) quantity of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere would cause a rise in global mean temperature of between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius. One hundred and twenty years of improved data and vastly increased computational ability has changed that range to 2.5 to 4 degrees Celsius.

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      • I guess the question is, did he get it right or did he just get lucky? If he thought CO₂ directly drove the greenhouse effect, then he was off-base. If he actually worked out the connection between CO₂ and water, I’m very impressed, but I don’t think that’s the case.


        • If he had correctly calculated only the direct effect of CO2 he would have got a value lower than present estimates, rather than one higher. That suggests that he did include various feedbacks.

          But the relevant paper is easily found on the internet, and it can be seen that he did include ice-albedo and H2O feedbacks. He actually calls out an previous worker for not incorporating H2O feedback into his estimate. Arrhenius mentions clouds, but I haven’t read the paper closely enough to see whether he included cloud albedo and cloud greenhouse feedbacks, though my guess is that this is beyond the capability of the period – even now accounting for cloud feedbacks is difficult and the impact disputed. I would predict that he omitted ocean-CO2 and clathrate feedbacks, but I haven’t tested these predictions with a closer reading of the paper.

          Liked by 1 person

        • To incorporate the feedback effect of water vapor, which he recognized was vital, Arrhenius assumed that the relative humidity remained constant: simple, but it ensures the water vapor opacity goes up with increasing temperature and declines with decreasing temperature. So he got this major piece of the physics correct.

          He also recognized the importance of the ice-albedo feedback, but this was beyond his ability to calculate. Similarly, he also ignored the effects of clouds (and as Stewart has noted, even today there is not a consensus as to the effects of the latter).

          There is a bit of luck in how well his result agrees with the modern estimate, but he got the major physics correct. So yes, you should be very impressed. 🙂

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