Thursday, 18 September 2008


From the Sunday Times

By Naomi Oreskes and Jonathan Renouf

Today the scientific argument about the broad principles of what we
are doing to the Earth's climate is over. By releasing huge quantities
of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the
atmosphere we are warming the world.

Since the early 1990s there has been a furious debate about global
warming. So-called climate change "sceptics" have spent years
disputing almost every aspect of the scientific consensus on the
subject. Their arguments have successfully delayed significant
political action to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. Recent
research reveals how the roots of this argument stretch back to two
hugely influential reports written almost 30 years ago.

These reports involve a secret organisation of American scientists
reporting to the US Department of Defense. At the highest levels of
the American government, officials pondered whether global warming was
a significant new threat to civilisation. They turned for advice to
the elite special forces of the scientific world -- a shadowy
organisation known as Jason. Even today few people have heard of
Jason. It was established in 1960 at the height of the cold war when a
group of physicists who had helped to develop the atomic bomb proposed
a new organisation that would -- to quote one of its founders --
"inject new ideas into national defence".

So the Jasons (as they style themselves) were born; a self-selected
group of brilliant minds free to think the unthinkable in the
knowledge that their work was classified. Membership was by invitation
only and they are indeed the cream. Of the roughly 100 Jasons over the
years, 11 have won Nobel prizes and 43 have been elected to the US
National Academy of Sciences.

For years, being a Jason was just about the best job going in American
science. Every summer the Jasons all moved to San Diego in California
to devote six weeks to working together. They were paid well and
rented houses by the beach. The kids surfed while their dads saved the
world. Less James Bond, more Club Med.

Today the Jasons still meet in San Diego in a quaint postwar
construction with more than a hint of Thunderbirds about it. In 1977
they got to work on global warming. There was one potential problem.
Only a few of them knew anything about climatology. To get a better
understanding they relocated for a few days to Boulder, Colorado, the
base for NCAR -- the National Center for Atmospheric Research -- where
they heard the latest information on climate change. Then, being
physicists, they went back to first principles and decided to build a
model of the climate system. Officially it was called Features of
Energy-Budget Climate Models: An Example of Weather-Driven Climate
Stability, but it was dubbed the Jason Model of the World.

In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The
Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with
the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.

Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide
levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels
by about 2035. Today it's expected this will happen by about 2050.
They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an
average warming across the planet of 2-3C [3.6 to 5.4 degrees
Fahrenheit]. Again, that's smack in the middle of today's predictions.
They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the
average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C [18 to 21.6 degrees
Fahrenheit]. That prediction is already coming true -- last year the
Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set
another record.

Nor were the Jasons frightened of drawing the obvious conclusions for
civilisation: the cause for concern was clear when one noted "the
fragility of the world's crop-producing capacity, particularly in
those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and
precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity".

Scientific research has since added detail to the predictions but has
not changed the basic forecast. The Jason report was never officially
released but was read at the highest levels of the US government. At
the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Frank Press,
science adviser to President Jimmy Carter, asked the National Academy
of Sciences for a second opinion. This time from climate scientists.

The academy committee, headed by Jule Charney, a meteorologist from
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), backed up the Jason
conclusions. The Charney report said climate change was on the way and
was likely to have big impacts. So by the late 1970s scientists were
already confident that they knew what rising carbon dioxide levels
would mean for the future. Then politics got in the way. And with it
came the birth of climate change scepticism.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president. He was pro-business and
pro-America. He knew the country was already in the environmental dog
house because of acid rain. If global warming turned into a big issue,
there was only going to be one bad guy. The US was by far the biggest
producer of greenhouse gases in the world. If the president wasn't
careful, global warming could become a stick to beat America with.

So Reagan commissioned a third report about global warming from Bill
Nierenberg, who had made his name working on the Manhattan Project
developing America's atom bomb. He went on to run the Scripps
Institution of Oceanography where he had built up the Climate Research
Division. And he was a Jason. Nierenberg's report was unusual in that
individual chapters were written by different authors. Many of these
chapters recorded mainstream scientific thinking similar to the
Charney and Jason reports. But the key chapter was Nierenberg's
synthesis -- which chose largely to ignore the scientific consensus.

His basic message was "calm down, everybody". He argued that while
climate change would undoubtedly pose challenges for society, this was
nothing new. He highlighted the adaptability that had made humans so
successful through the centuries. He argued that it would be many
years before climate change became a significant problem. And he
emphasised that with so much time at our disposal, there was a good
chance that technological solutions would be found. "[The] knowledge
we can gain in coming years should be more beneficial than a lack of
action will be damaging; a programme of action without a programme for
learning could be costly and ineffective. [So] our recommendations
call for 'research, monitoring, vigilance and an open mind'."

Overall, the synopsis emphasised the positive effects of climate
change over the negative, the uncertainty surrounding predictions of
future change rather than the emerging consensus and the low end of
harmful impact estimates rather than the high end. Faced with this
rather benign scenario, adaptation was the key.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Similar arguments have been
used by global warming sceptics ever since Nierenberg first formulated
them in 1983. Global warming was duly kicked into the political long
grass -- a distant problem for another day. At a political level,
Nierenberg had won.

But this was only the beginning of his involvement in what eventually
became a movement of global warming sceptics. A year after his report
came out he became a co-founder of the George C. Marshall Institute,
one of the leading think tanks that would go on to challenge almost
every aspect of the scientific consensus on climate change. Nierenberg
hardened his position. He began to argue not just that global warming
wasn't a problem, but also that it wasn't happening at all. There was
no systematic warming trend, the climate was simply going through its
normal, natural fluctuations.

The creed that Nierenberg originated all those years ago still has its
dwindling band of followers. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-
presidential candidate, recently responded to a question about global
warming by saying: "I'm not one who would attribute it to being man-


Professor Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science, researching the
history of climate change. Dr Jonathan Renouf is producer of Earth:
The Climate Wars, 9pm tonight on BBC2

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