The Parrot and the Igloo Notes

The Unwarranted and Alarmist Report

134   Politics changed this: The overall contention of Nathaniel Rich’s excoriating Losing Earth is that everything might have been taken care of in the 1980s: if we’d made the start we’d have the problem now in hand. As Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer observed in that 2006 Vanity Fair piece, “We didn’t, and now the effects are here.”

Here’s the Losing Earth logline.


By 1979, we understood nearly everything we know today about climate change—including how to stop it. Over the next decade, a handful of scientists, politicians, and strategists, led by two unlikely heroes, risked their careers in a desperate, escalating campaign to convince the world to act before it was too late. Losing Earth is their story, and ours.


Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: A Recent History, Picador 2020.

A shorter version of the eventual book filled one entire summer 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine, with the subtitle “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

The Times of course—having reported the issue so closely—would have been in an ideal position to understand just how much we knew, and also how early. Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” The New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.


134   He cleaned house: Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press 2003. Chapter Seven, “Breaking Into Politics,” 142-3.


Ronald Reagan had assumed the presidency with an administration that openly scorned environmental worries, global warming included . . . The recently established National Climate Program Office found itself serving, as an observer put it, as “an outpost in enemy territory.” The new administration laid plans to slash funding for CO2 studies in particular, deeming such research unnecessary.


Keeling, who had made monitoring CO2 his career project, was not immune. “They even targeted support for monitoring the level of CO2 in the atmosphere—the indefatigable Keeling’s rigorous measurements, which now showed more than two decades of relentless rise.”


134   The chief of the climate research program: Spencer Weart, “Money For Keeling: Monitoring CO2 Levels,” The Discovery of Global Warming, American Institute of Physics, July 2008.

David Slade had become head of the government’s Office of Carbon Dioxide Research. He was, per Weart, “vigorous and strong-minded,” and had begun the ambitious program himself.


In 1981, Ronald Reagan became President, eager to suppress “alarmist” environmentalism. Reagan’s Secretary of Energy (a former governor of South Carolina, trained as a dentist) told people that there was no real global warming problem at all. The DOE’s recent attempt to take over and expand greenhouse effect studies, smacking of bureaucratic empire-building, made a juicy target for cuts. To the dismay of the Department’s own mid-level scientist-administrators, its new leadership announced plans to sharply reduce funding for climate research. In particular, they would entirely terminate DOE’s funding of CO2 monitoring. Slade, undercut by criticism of his administrative methods, was peremptorily removed from his post.

Accessed 11-6-22.


134   a clipped explanation: Charles D. Keeling, “Rewards and Penalties of Monitoring the Earth,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Volume 23, 1998.


Ronald Reagan had become President of the United States. His new administration almost immediately shook up the DOE environmental program. Dr. Frieman was replaced. Slade soon after was transferred to an inconsequential job. Slade’s replacement, Dr. Fred Koomanoff, almost surely under instructions from above in DOE, substantially reduced the overall funding for CO2 research and promptly informed me that, except for the 1982 funds already granted, I would receive no more DOE funding.


Weart, Discovery of Global Warming, 143.


135   “became politically sensitive”: Spencer Weart, “Government: The View from Washington, DC,” The Discovery of Global Warming, American Institute of Physics, August 2021.

Accessed 11-6-22.


135   “a total gutting”: Spencer Weart, “Government: The View from Washington, DC,” The Discovery of Global Warming, American Institute of Physics, August 2021.

Accessed 11-6-22.


135   “We are trying to build up America”: This was White House Science Advisor George A. Keyworth.

The New York Times, “Reagan Science Adviser Says Press Seeks To Demolish U.S.,” February 23, 1985.


Fred Jerome, editor of the organization’s newsletter, said he decided to interview Dr. Keyworth at the end of President Reagan’s first term after Dr. Keyworth asserted at a meeting of science writers at the University of Pennsylvania that most reporters who covered science and technology deliberately distorted what they reported.


135   “competent scientists”: Robert Reinhold, “Can Science And Politics Safely Mix,” The New York Times, June 13, 1982.


135   “If anything has been meetinged to death”: “William P. Elliott Papers On Carbon Dioxide And Climate Change, 1975-1996,” American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Accessed 11-5-22.

Elliot was then a geophysicist with NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratories. Quoted in Spencer Weart, “Money For Keeling: Monitoring CO2 Levels,” The Discovery of Global Warming, American Institute of Physics, July 2008.

Accessed 11-5-22.


135   “beyond human experience”: Edward Roby, “Global Warming Trend ‘Beyond Human Experience,’” United Press International, February 22, 1981. This turned out, of course, to be entirely accurate.


Future coal use by the United States, China and the Soviet Union will play an important role in a potentially perilous global warming trend caused by carbon dioxide buildups, says an Energy Department study.

But the study said the so-called greenhouse warming effect — the result of man-made buildups in atmospheric carbon dioxide — would be felt by all countries. The impact, it said, will be ‘‘beyond human experience.’’


Roger Revelle, Stephen H. Schneider, Lester Lave, et al, Environmental and Societal Consequences of a Possible CO2-Induced Climate Change: A Research Agenda, Vol. 1, A Project Conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/EV/10019-91, December 1980.

It’s introduced by David Slade, “Director, Carbon Dioxide and Climate Division,” among his final, pre-Reagan acts in that role.

As the report states, in underlined paragraph heads: “The Problem is Global . . . The Probable Outcome is Beyond Human Experience . . . The Problem is Long-Range . . .”


Baruch Fischoff, “Making Behavioral Science Integral to Climate Science and Action,” Behavioral Public Policy, Vol. 5 No. 4. October 2021 (Published online August 14, 2020). Fischoff, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of Medicine worked on the 1980 report. “Even then,” Dr. Fischoff writes, “it was clear that ‘the probable outcome is beyond human experience.’”

And then Fischoff notes what many have: “The grand plans of the DOE-AAAS initiative ended with the 1980 Presidential election.” Then, “as we did little, greenhouse gases continued to accumulate in the atmosphere, where they will take generations to dissipate.”


135   scratch out the entire department: Howell Raines, “Reagan Adopts Plan To End Energy Dept. And Shift Its Duties,” The New York Times, December 17, 1981.


135      tanks-and-espionage résumé: This is former director CIA, SecDef James R. Schlesinger.


135      as a dentist: This is Dr. James B. Edwards. His specialization was oral surgery.


135      “my job is to abolish the department”: Congressional Hearing Transcripts, “Reorganization of the Department of Energy,” June 21, 1994.

He never pulled it off. (Streaming fans know because, improbably enough, the eighties-era Department of Energy is the Darth Vader agency behind all the nefarious doings on Netflix’s Stranger Things.)

Editorial, “Farewell Dr. Edwards,” The Washington Post, November 1, 1982.


Dr. James B. Edwards, the departing secretary of energy, bade farewell to Washington last week. He will be remembered here for a degree of cheery incompetence that, with the best will in the world, no successor is likely to equal. The White House has seemed to like incompetence in that job. It has not yet announced the appointment of a replacement . . .

Dr. Edwards did not manage to abolish the Department of Energy, as he had hoped. But he did succeed in encouraging most of its ablest people to find employment elsewhere.


136      The EPA report: Stephen Seidel, E.P.A, Dale Keyes, Can We Delay A Greenhouse Warming: The Effectiveness and Feasibility of Options, Strategic Studies Staff, Office of Policy Analysis, Environmental Protection Agency, September 1983.

This is from the Executive Summary—the front section of any government report; the one editors figure reporters and politicians will find the time to read.


Temperature increases are likely to be accompanied by dramatic changes in precipitation and storm patterns and a rise in global average sea level. As a result, agricultural conditions will be significantly altered, environmental and agricultural systems potentially disrupted, and political institutions stressed.


136      “bombshell”: Walter Sullivan, “Greenhouse Effect Heats Only Debate,” The New York Times, October 23, 1983. Sullivan—on the climate beat for more than a decade—offered the simple, excellent-advice summary. “Preventive action, the report said, should be taken now.”


136      “a threat whose first effects”: Philip Shabecoff, “E.P.A. Report Says Earth Will Heat Up Beginning In 1990’s,”The New York Times, October 18, 1983. Tuesday, as it happened.


136      “The EPA said today”: Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News, October 18, 1983.


136      “changes are coming sooner”: Philip Shabecoff, “E.P.A. Report Says Earth Will Heat Up Beginning In 1990’s,” The New York Times, October 18, 1983.


136      “too conservative”: Philip Shabecoff, “E.P.A. Report Says Earth Will Heat Up Beginning In 1990’s,”The New York Times, October 18, 1983.


136      The second report: National Academy of Sciences, William Nierenberger et al, Changing Climate: Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences 1983.


136      “a media brouhaha”: Frederic Golden, “Hot Times for the Old Orb,” Time Magazine, October 31, 1983.


136      “Viewed in terms of energy”: First line of the Preface: “There is a broad class of problems that have no ‘solution’ in the sense of an agreed course of action that would be expected to make the problem go away . . . Increasing atmospheric CO2 and its climatic consequences constitute such a problem.”


137      “We may get into trouble”: National Academy of Sciences, William Nierenberger et al, Changing Climate: Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences 1983.

The Times published an excellent digest, that October 21, 1983 Friday. The New York Times, “Excerpts From The Climate Report,” October 21, 1983.


137      the White House applauded: Steve Olson, “Before the Flood,” Washingtonian, November 2007.


Jim Titus, manager of the Environmental Protection Agency’s sea-level-rise program [and] and his EPA colleagues included similarly dramatic scenarios in a 1983 report on climate change, which called on the government to take steps to combat global warming.

The political fallout was fierce. George Keyworth, science adviser to President Reagan, called the EPA report “unwarranted and unnecessarily alarmist.” Keyworth instead endorsed a new National Academy of Sciences report on climate change. The irony, Titus says, is that the NAS report said pretty much the same thing.


137      “unwarranted and unnecessarily alarmist”: Philip Shabecoff, “Haste On Global Warming Trend Opposed,” The New York Times, October 21, 1983.


137      “with Bill Nierenberg chairing it”: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado, “Policy, Politics and Science in the White House,” George Keyworth II, January 31, 2006.

Accessed 11-7-22.

And what word does the former White House science advisor apply to the state of twenty-first century climate science? Nierenberg’s word of 1983. (Nierenberg is here transcribed as “Nuernberg.”) “I still think there are huge uncertainties in the science,” Keyworth tells his audience.

Thirteen months later, of course, in early 2007, the IPCC would call the connection between human activity and climate warming “unequivocal.” That was, even the tiny uncertainties in the science had been addressed.

A half-decade earlier, at the request of the Bush White House, the National Academy of Sciences had written—first sentence of a state-of-the-science update—“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as the result of human activities.” It went on, “Causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising.” Keyworth was making his speech five years later.

National Academy of Sciences, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. National Research Council, The National Academies Press, 2001.

I suppose George Keyworth was still trying to build America up, still demonstrating his thorough understanding of what former President Reagan felt to be the role of government.


137      on the Reagan transition team: Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury 2010. Chapter Two, “Strategic Defense, Phony Facts, and the Creation of the George C. Marshall Institute,” 56. William Nierenberg is among their book’s prime merchants.


137      Nierenberg handled: Rich, Losing Earth. Chapter Ten, “Caution Not Panic: 1983-1984,” 93.

“Nierenberg’s press release for Changing Climate, being one-hundredth the length of the actual assessment, received one hundred times the press coverage.”


137      in charge of interpretation: Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, Matthew Shindell, “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 38, Number 1, February 2008.

Accessed 11-8-22.

It’s a brilliant piece. Oreskes et al on the basic Nierenberg position: “Nierenberg’s synthesis,” they write, “did not disagree with the scientific facts as laid out by [Jules] Charney, the JASONs, and all the other physical scientists who had looked at the question in his own report. Instead, it rejected the interpretation of those facts as a problem.” Their italics.

“In short, Nierenberg reframed the issue as just one of the many different changes and challenges facing human society. And since humans had adapted to change throughout history, it stood to reason that it could do so again.”

It’s right at the top in the piece’s abstract. “Nierenberg reframed the question not as a matter of climate change per se, but as a matter of the human capacity to adapt to change when it came, a capacity, his report asserted, that was very great,” the three write.

“Thus, while accepting the scientific conclusion that warming would occur, Nierenberg rejected the interpretation that it would be a problem,” they continue. “In later years, he would play a major role in political challenges to the scientific conclusions themselves.”

With the kicker: “Reframing was Nierenberg’s first step on the road to the deconstruction of scientific knowledge of climate change.”


137      “uncertainty” sixty-five times: If you include “uncertain,” you get an even 70. So, once every 1.1 pages.

This is in the report’s Synthesis and Executive Summary—that one part guaranteed to receive a look from journalists and lawmakers, which Nierenberg composed.

The below comes from the Biographical Memoir of Nierenberg, published by the National Academy of Sciences.


The New York Times covered the report [Changing Climate] on its front page, and Bill was proud that the newspaper published verbatim the report’s executive summary, every word of which he worried over.


The biographical memoir continues, “For the remainder of his life, Bill actively battled what he felt was exaggerated concern over the role of CO2 in climate change.” And I have resisted this sort of thing all book. But perhaps it’s O.K. here among the endnotes. So here goes: Thank you, Dr. Nierenberg, for that twilight struggle against concern for climate change.

The memoir adds, needlessly, “Given those priorities, he was often allied with conservatives.”

Charles F. Fennel, Richard S. Lindzen, Walter Munk, “William Aaron Nierenberg: February 13, 1919–September 10, 2000, Biographical Memoirs: Volume 85, The National Academy of Sciences, National Academies Press 2004.


137      of keeping “an open mind”: For example: “It’s important to recognize the distribution of incentives for, and effect of, human-induced climatic changes. The marginal effects of climatic change on the distribution of wealth,” Nierenberg writes, could be “quite positive.”

And there’s the close of Nierenberg’s synopsis. Oreskes, Conway, and Shindell offer it with the prose equivalent of a scoff.


Overall, the synopsis emphasized the positive over the negative, the unknowns over the knowns, and the low-end of harmful impact rather than the high-end . . .

The body of the report contained many challenges to this optimistic angle, noting at various junctures the severity of potential impacts, many of which “could well be a divisive rather than unifying factor in world affairs.” [Yet] the conclusion of the Nierenberg report was almost Panglossian—that increased CO2 might well be a good thing. It had already proven to be beneficial to science, and might well prove broadly beneficial to society as well. The final paragraph of the synopsis concluded:


The CO2 issue has proven to be a stimulus to communication across academic disciplines and to cooperation among scientists of many nations. While it may be a worrisome issue for mankind, it is in some respects a healthy issue for scientists and people. It is conceivable that CO2 could serve as a stimulus not only for the integration of the sciences but for increasingly effective cooperation on world issues.


“Evidently,” they add, “CO2 could lead to world peace.”

Oreskes, Conway, and Shindell, “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 2008.


137      “For the individual”: Nierenberg, National Academy of Sciences, Changing Climate, 1983.


137      “The best single investment strategy”: Ibid.


137      there are no actions recommended”: Philip Shabecoff, “Haste On Global Warming Trend Opposed,” The New York Times, October 21, 1983.

In Losing Earth, Nathaniel Rich notes these remarks were “heavily workshopped by White House senior staff.”

Keyworth, the Science Advisor, “used Nierenberg’s optimism as reason to discount the EPA’s ‘unwarranted’ report and warned against taking any ‘near-term corrective action.’”

Rich, Losing Earth, 93–4.


137      other than continued research”: Oreskes, Conway, Merchants of Doubt, Chapter Six, “The Denial of Global Warming,” 183. “Nierenberg gave the administration everything it wanted: a report that presented a united front rather than the real differences of opinion[,] insisted that no action was needed now, and concluded that technology would solve any problems that did, in the future, emerge. The government did not need to do anything—except fund research.”


138      “The issue” . . . . “is full of uncertainties”: Frederic Golden, “Hot Times for the Old Orb,” Time Magazine, October 31, 1983.


138      “far less urgent”: Walter Sullivan, “Greenhouse Effect Heats Only Debate,” The New York Times, October 23, 1983


138      “You can cope”: Arlen J. Large, “Warming Of Earth Is Met With A Degree Of Reassurance: Academy of Sciences Notes Human Skills at Coping With Changes in Climate,” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 1983. They went out with the money quote: “It is extraordinary how adaptable people can be.”


138      the stories drained out of the papers: Nathaniel Rich notes a similar effect. “In the following weeks, press coverage withered and the industry tuned out. The American Petroleum Institute disbanded its CO2 task force; Exxon ended its carbon dioxide program. In a presentation at an industry conference, Henry Shaw cited Changing Climate as evidence that ‘the general consensus is that society has sufficient time to technologically adapt to a CO2 greenhouse effect.’ If the Academy had concluded that emissions regulations were not a serious option, why should Exxon make a fuss?”

Rich, Losing Earth, 94.


138      the warmest decade: While the EPA and the National Academy were fighting it out, and the White House Science Advisor was shining the sun of presidential approval on William Nierenberg’s recommendation.

Jonathan Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth, Bantam 1990. Chapter Five, “A Slow Eureka,” 74–5.


In the early 1980s, researchers at the University of East Anglia, in Britain, reviewed all the temperature records they could get from around the world. The team, led by Thomas Wigley, director of the university’s Climatic Research Unit, gathered more than a century of thermometer readings that had been made over the years by weather stations on land and sea from the late nineteenth century through to the present. Wigley’s team pooled these hundreds of millions of numbers.

Analyzing the results, they saw that Earth’s temperature had now risen higher than it was in 1938. The globe was warmer than it had been in a hundred years. From 1860 to the decade of the 1980s, Earth had warmed by about half a degree C., or 1° F.

Independently, a team led by James Hansen at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York, performed the same study. (Hansen is one of the Venus veterans.) The Goddard team started more or less from scratch, collected all the global temperature data they could find, and analyzed it. They found approximately the same upward trend for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Both groups discovered that the year 1981 had been the warmest for the planet in at least one hundred years—that is, for as long as there are any reliable temperature records. The year 1983 was warmer than 1981. The year 1987 (the year after Wigley’s first study was published) turned out to be even warmer than 1983. Each of these years broke the previous record: three world records in six years.

The trend was also accelerating. The rate of warming in the 1980s was much faster than the average rate for the twentieth century. In fact, temperatures rose as much in that one decade as they had between 1860 and 1950. No one had predicted a jump like that, and no one expected the jump to last much longer. If it did, said the climate expert J. Murray Mitchell, “that would bring us to the hothouse in ten, twenty years, never mind one hundred years.”


Weiner visited the climate expert in 1987, when the trend had become clear. It’s an eerie scene: two specialists in a suburban home, glimpsing the warm outlines of the future.


Mitchell told me this news on a very muggy September afternoon in 1987, at his home outside Washington, D.C. It was the worst heat wave of that year, and the year was the hottest on record. Mitchell had spent a good part of his career as a respected advisor on climate affairs in several Washington administrations, in the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, sometimes in Congress and the Senate. His house has a 70-foot-antenna studded with weather instruments, some of them of his own design. As we sat in his study, these instruments’ printouts were clacking away on walls, shelves, and tables, rat-tat-tat, like machine gun fire, recording the temperature, speed and direction of the air above the roof—the kind of data that help to feed the giant pools of numbers in the computers in East Anglia and Manhattan. The instruments went on chattering like monkeys throughout our conversation.


Mitchell explained how British and U.S. temperature data worked. I like to imagine his next delivery as cheerfully mordant. The excitement of science, the dissatisfactions of trouble. “So it looks as though that’s really happening,” Mitchell told Weiner. “Onward and upward!”


138      then 1988 re-broke the record: The Los Angeles Times, “1988 Was Hottest Year on Record as Global Warming Trend Continues,” February 4, 1989.

Philip Shabecoff, “Global Warmth In ’88 Is Found To Set a Record,” The New York Times, February 4, 1989. “Dr. Phil Jones, a climatologist at East Anglia, said global temperatures rose on average about one degree Fahrenheit since the beginning of the century. He said the six warmest years on record were, in order, 1988, 1987, 1983, 1981, 1980 and 1986.”


138      “would be very hard to deny”: Philip Shabecoff, “Temperature For World Rises Sharply In The 1980’s,” The New York Times, March 29, 1988.


Average global temperatures in the 1980’s are the highest measured since reliable records were first kept over 130 years ago, according to reports now coming in from scientists around the world.

Temperatures have been rising more or less steadily for much of the last century. But, in the view of some scientists, a sharper rise detected in the 1980’s is the most persuasive evidence yet that carbon dioxide and other industrial gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the earth as if it were a greenhouse.


138      “It is very hard to deny now”: Weiner, Next One Hundred Years, 76. “Climate experts began to realize that the long-term trend on Planet Earth would almost certainly be upward and unpleasant.”

Always fascinating: anything, even scientific interest, turns out to be measurable.

“Scientists’ interest in the greenhouse effect began skyrocketing. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Center received 2,200 requests for information—up more than 150 percent from the year before.”

Richard Houghton, of the Woods Hole Research Center, told Jonathan Weiner, “There’s little scientific uncertainty that it’s going to happen.” He added, “The question is, how fast.”


138      a much darker National Academy panel: National Academy of Sciences, Richard B. Alley, Chair, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, National Research Council, National Academy Press 2002.


138      “then their dogs”: Richard Alley, The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future, Princeton University Press 2000. Chapter One, “Setting the Stage: Fast Forward,” 5–6.

The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky