Happy 35th birthday, global warming!

Global warming is turning 35! Not only has the current spate of global warming been going on for about 35 years now, but also the term “global warming” will have its 35th anniversary next week. On 8 August 1975, Wally Broecker published his paper “Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” in the journal Science. That appears to be the first use of the term “global warming” in the scientific literature (at least it’s the first of over 10,000 papers for this search term according to the ISI database of journal articles).

In this paper, Broecker correctly predicted “that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide”, and that “by early in the next century [carbon dioxide] will have driven the mean planetary temperature beyond the limits experienced during the last 1000 years”. He predicted an overall 20th Century global warming of 0.8ºC due to CO2 and worried about the consequences for agriculture and sea level.

Global temperature up to June 2010 according to the NASA GISS data. Grey line is the 12-month running average, red dots are annual-mean values. The thick red line is a non-linear trend line. Broecker of course did not have these data available, not even up to 1975, since this global compilation was only put together in the late 1970s (Hansen et al. 1981). He had to rely on more limited meteorological data.

To those who even today claim that global warming is not predictable, the anniversary of Broecker’s paper is a reminder that global warming was actually predicted before it became evident in the global temperature records over a decade later (when Jim Hansen in 1988 famously stated that “global warming is here”).

Broecker is one of the great climatologists of the 20th Century: few would match his record of 400 scientific papers, a full sixty of which have over 100 citations each! Interestingly, his “global warming” paper is not amongst those highly-cited ones, with “only” 79 citations to date. Broecker is most famous for his extensive work on paleoclimate and ocean geochemistry.

It is very instructive to see how Broecker arrived at his predictions back in 1975 – not least because even today, many lay people incorrectly assume that we attribute global warming to CO2 basically because temperature and CO2 levels have both gone up and thus correlate. Broecker came to his prediction at a time when CO2 had been going up but temperatures had been going down for decades – but Broecker (like most other climate scientists at the time, and today) understood the basic physics of the issue.

Basically his prediction involved just three simple steps that in essence are still used today.

Step 1: Predict future emissions

Broecker simply assumed a growth in fossil fuel CO2 emissions of 3% per year from 1975 onwards. With that, he arrived at cumulative fossil CO2 emissions of 1.67 trillion tons by the year 2010 (see his Table 1). Not bad: the actual emissions turned out to be about 1.3 trillion tons (Canadell et al, PNAS 2007 – estimate extended to 2010 by me).

A shortcoming, from the modern point of view, is that Broecker did not include other anthropogenic greenhouse gases or aerosol particles in his calculations. He does however discuss aerosols, which he calls “dust”. In fact, the first sentence of the abstract (quoted above) in full starts with an if-statement:

If man-made dust is unimportant as a major cause of climate change, then a strong case can be made that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide.

That is a nod to the discussion about aerosol-induced cooling in the early 1970s. Broecker rightly writes:

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