In Case Anyone Should Ask – How do Scientists Know What They Know About Climate Change?

February 19, 2023

As the effects of global change become all the more obvious, for instance in this anomalously warm winter – I am getting asked more and more to explain how scientists know that what we are seeing is not “just a natural cycle”.
One of the first things I have pointed people to in presentations is the research done in the early 1950s by the US Military in developing the first generation of heat seeking missiles.
Obviously, they needed to determine how heat radiation was propogated thru the atmosphere – so, using for the first time the tools of high technology, they measured the radiative properties of all atmospheric gases, at all altitudes, temperatures, and weather conditions.
Those findings became the building blocks for modern climate models that emerged in the ’70s and ’80s.
We know the data is correct, because the missiles built with that knowledge built in do find their targets, and are one of the most important factors in US domination of air spaces over the last 70 years.
Not coincidentally, some of the most important, seminal papers on the prospective effects of climate change were published during that mid-1950s period, including this one by Gilbert Plass, one of the senior researchers on the Air Force’s project.

Here, some videos well-worth reviewing for anyone who might be asked to talk about climate changes in any historical context.

Below, a classic “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” video used a then-newly uncovered recording from a production by General Electric corporation, “Excursions in Science”, which were radio plays designed to inform, which really put a lot of today’s productions to shame. Episode 646 debuted on a vinyl recording in 1956.

In 2017, I produced the video below for Yale Climate Connections, which features a number of archival interviews from the early 1980s, with scientists making predictions for what first-order physics might mean for the coming decades. I paired those with contemporary interviews with current experts describing how those changes came to pass.

In a similar vein, I produced the piece below in 2012, after interviewing one of the most crucial founding figures of modern climate science, Mike MacCracken, at a conference in Ann Arbor. I paired the 2012 interview with clips from a talk he gave at Sandia Labs, New Mexico, in 1982.


4 Responses to “In Case Anyone Should Ask – How do Scientists Know What They Know About Climate Change?”

  1. disperser Says:

    Thank you. Excellent stuff.

  2. This reminds me of a presentation our Chicago Northwest Suburbs chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosted back in 2018 by Thomas Peterson. He was President of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Climatology for 8 years, and was just recently retired before his visit. The title of his presentation was ‘The Story of Climate Data’.

    That title puzzled me a bit initially, but hearing him present made me realize that just the data itself is in fact a huge story. The challenge of measuring something which be credibly claimed to represent earth’s climate, such as ‘global average temperature’ is vast. Way too few people really appreciate this. You have variability in every individual measurement, related to season, El Nino cycle, latitude, elevation, etc. You have heat islands, instrumental changes and inevitable erroneous measurements all needing to be accounted for.

    So, people really don’t appreciate I think the amount of hard work by dedicated and qualified people, just to give us the readings we have. It’s taken for granted, and is only square one for understanding climate change. But nevertheless an inspiring story. I wish people would get this – mainly some misled folks who think they can easily use whataboutism to debunk what are in fact really rigorous and robust climate results.

  3. Anthony O'Brien Says:

    Go back to 1820 when Jean Baptiste Fourier calculated what the temperature of Earth should be based on how hot the sun is and how far away we were. This calculation showed we should be significantly colder leading to the hypothesis that some aspect of the atmosphere was translucent to visible light but partially opaque to infra red.

    In about 1856 Eunice Foote discovered CO2 has a greenhouse effect. But she was a woman so that didn’t count. Come 1856 and John Tyndall discovered carbonic acid as a gas (CO2), Marsh gas (methane) and water vapour had infra red absorption properties, and since he was a man got the credit.

    1896 Svante Arrhenius first proposed anthropogenic activity could cause global warming, but did not see it as a particular problem.

    1936 and Guy Callendar showed that we were indeed warming the planet and that might be a problem.

    Gilbert Plass did provide a lot more height specific detail, but by then global warming was not a new discovery.

  4. Glen Koehler Says:

    Thanks Peter. Thought I had seen all your videos (and wish you would tag the original date when showing repeats). But the 1956 Climate Science video was one I had missed. It is the best short summary of the “discovery” of climate change I’ve seen yet. Gilbert Plass deserves more credit than he usually gets. And so do you. Your site is one of the best sources of climate info on the web. Sharon Tisher at UMaine has assembled a comprehensive timeline of climate change science history, including multimedia items. Your 1956 Climate Science video deserves being listed there.

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