Is this the Earliest Full Climate Documentary?

May 3, 2017

Hard to watch, but essential to understand. What we knew and when we knew it.

Leo Hickman in Carbon Brief:

On the evening of Tuesday, 8 December, 1981, the UK’s only commercial TV channel, ITV, broadcast an hour-long documentary called “Warming Warning”.

It was among the earliest occasions – possibly the earliest – anywhere in the world where a major broadcaster aired a documentary dedicated solely to the topic of human-caused climate change.

The documentary, which was made by the now-defunct Thames Television, has sat in the archives largely unseen ever since. Until now.


Young Stephen Schneider in 1981

Carbon Brief has tracked down the copyright holder, FremantleMedia Ltd, and persuaded it to release into the public domain a selection of key clips from the documentary.

The clips provide a poignant, historical insight into what scientists knew about climate change almost four decades ago – and how the world was beginning to react in terms of the resulting geopolitical, technological and societal ramifications. Many of themes still resonate strongly today.

To put it in context, the documentary was broadcast seven years before Dr James Hansen’s famous “it is already happening now” Senate testimony in 1988, nine years before the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report was published, and 25 years before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released. After it first aired in 1981, Warming Warning went on to be broadcast in the US (in 1990 on PBS), Greece, Japan and Israel, according to FremantleMedia.

I got an inquiry today about whether this was the earliest major documentary on climate science.  In my archive I have a mention of the problem towards the end of an NBC Network News broadcast on the original Earth Day in 1970.

Here’s another clip from the 1981 piece. Note the appearance of a young Stephen Schneider.

One obvious connection to make is the science that was being done at companies like Exxon in the late 70s, early 80s, that matched the conclusions being reached at NASA, NOAA, and major research institutions.

I interviewed climate scientists Mike MacCracken in 2012, about his work at the same time, as leader of a task force for the Department of Energy on climate change and the CO2 problem.  Mike was doing some research in collaboration with Exxon scientists at the time, and was on the same page.

I’ve been collecting archival footage documenting early climate communication. That was the basis for this recent video, comparing early 1980s projections of climate change, with current observations.

Here, a vinyl recording from General Electric in 1956 is a discussion of climate science in very early days.

and of course, beloved and avuncular “Dr. Frank Baxter” delivered the message in a 1958 “Bell Telephone Science Hour”, a segment directed by Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”).


14 Responses to “Is this the Earliest Full Climate Documentary?”

  1. vierotchka Says:

    Wow! What a collection of finds!

  2. Tom Bates Says:

    If you want to calculate the estimated increase in temperatures use this

    keep the IRout the same as you vary CO2 by adjusting the temperature up or down. doubling the CO2 raises the temperature by about 1.8F.

    • Sir Charles Says:

      Sorry, Tom, but you’re talking rubbish again. The page you are referring to gives us a graph of actual forcing. No mentioning of climate feedback whatsoever. For climate response you’d have to look at other studies. The IPCC gives a rough figure of 1.5-4.5° Celsius for doubling CO2. But you also have to add for Methane and other greenhouse gases which have risen sharply over the last decades.

    • Sir Charles Says:

      Just wanna add the actual global temps which show clearly that climate response is significantly higher than the greenhouse gas forcing due to many positive feedbacks (water vapour, albedo loss etc.):

      Global temps currently 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. Not much time left to stay below 2°C (leave alone 1,5°C) as 197 countries agreed in Paris, and equilibrium is still decades ahead.

    • schwadevivre Says:

      Master Bates As usual in your pre-school ignorance you fail to spot the minor problem in your stupid misinterpretation of real modeling. The 1.8 (approx 1°K) figure you so proudly come up with is for the whole troposphere and the upper levels of the ocean,

      The mass of the air in the Troposphere is approx 3.86 x 10^15 tonnes.

      The mass of those upper layers of the ocean say 50 m is (being generous to you) 2.55 x 10^14 tonnes

      Now go home and apply that juvenile mind of yours to the increased heat stores and available for work

    • ubrew12 Says:

      Tom Bates: “doubling the CO2 raises the temperature by about 1.8F” So, doubling CO2 has a direct effect of 1C (=1.8F). But this warmed atmosphere can now hold more water vapor, which is itself a powerful greenhouse gas. The water vapor feedback adds another 2C. There are other feedbacks (clouds) but they mostly add to uncertainty, not to the average rise of 3C. IPCC currently gives 3C of rise, on average. As others have pointed out, including the uncertainty, the range is 1.5C to 4.5C.

      IPCC is using one-sigma limits in that quoted range. That means that once the atmosphere hits 560ppm (=2 *preindustrial 280ppm), which is likely by 2050, there is a one-in-six chance that by 2100 the anomaly will exceed 4.5C. Perhaps not immediately, but within a century after that I expect we’d be looking at an extinction event. Its hard to see how this would not also impact our economies. Again, the chance is low (18%). On the other hand, you don’t put your car seat-belt on based on your average expectation of an accident, but on the ‘worst case scenario’. I see no chance, now, of preventing the exposure of our grandchildren to a one-in-six, i.e. Russian Roulette’s, chance of experiencing an irreversible extinction event. You’d think we would be more careful, but on this topic, apparently, “seat-belts are for sissies”.

    • Tom, I’m glad you found that tool, there’s a lot that can be learned from it.

      So lets start with your simple experiment: tropical atmosphere. We’ll add the standard Cirrus cloud model – of course there are lots of other kinds of clouds, but it’s a start.

      So then you double CO2, and then adjust the temperature to maintain outgoing IR – that means a temperature increase of about 1C, as you point out.

      Now, that’s a bit low. We would expect to get the transient climate response (TCR), which according to climate models and other sources we would expect to be a bit higher – 1.8C is the most commonly quoted figure. So what’s missing? Well, we’ve already mentioned clouds, but there is something else obvious missing – water vapour.

      An increase of 1C at the surface should increase the water vapour by 7%. So we need to put 1.07in the water vapour box.

      But that has blocked some more IR. So we need to increase the temperature again to correct for that, to about 1.3C. Which increases the water vapour further. Iterate and you’ll end up with a temperature increase of about 1.5C and an increase in water vapour of about 10%.

      So now we’re at about 80% of the IPCC number of 1.8C. What else is missing? Well we only have one kind of cloud, and we also haven’t taken into account immediate changes in snow cover. But for a very simple model, we haven’t done badly.

  3. On the contrary, Mr. Bates, climate denier of the worst kind.

    NOAA :

    ||Scientists say that doubling pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels will likely cause global average surface temperature to rise between 1.5° and 4.5° Celsius (2.7° to 8.1° Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial temperatures. (Current concentrations are about 1.4 times pre-industrial levels.) ||

  4. Great collection.

    I often wonder where we’d be today re the climate if we had made an industrial scale effort much earlier.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      We could have avoided the entire filthy mess, that’s where we could be. Just pointing out the obvious, which needs constant repeating, for some reason.

      The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!)

      The problem we have is greenhouse gases. (!) Not too many people. Not too many people eating beef. Not too many cows belching. Not too much consumption. Not too much luxury. Not too much comfort. Not too many big houses. Not too many cars. Not too many entitled self-important people.

      Not too much centralized power production. Not too many utility monopolies. Not too much travel. Or too many airplanes. Or too much shipping.

      The problem we have is greenhouse gases. From fossil fuels being burned.

      • funslinger62 Says:

        And what the hell do you think many people eating beef (which causes a significant increase in the number of cows), too much consumption, too much luxury, too much comfort, too many big houses, too many cars, too many entitled self-important people causes? Increased burning of fossil fuels which leads to more greenhouse gasses.

        And what does too much centralized power production, too many utility monopolies, too much travel, too many airplanes, or too much shipping cause? Increased burning of fossil fuels which leads to more greenhouse gasses.

        All of these activities, that you and most other humans partake in, causes an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses. Quit burying your head in the sand. All of these things are part of the problem.

      • funslinger62 Says:

        Gingerbaker, you strike me as a person who refuses to accept that you are part of the problem. Granted, industry should move toward RE. But, if you refuse to reduce your participation in the many activities that you listed above before RE becomes the standard, YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

        It isn’t difficult at all to have a diet that is meatless one day of the week. If everyone would do so, greenhouse gasses from meat production would be reduced by 1/7th.

        By all means, wail against the fossil fuel industry. But do your part as well.

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