As is well known by now, a passel of climatologists in the 1970s, including such personalities as Stephen “It’s OK to Exaggerate To Get People To Believe” Schneider, tried to get the world excited about the possibility, and the dire consequences, of global cooling.
From the 1940s to near the end of the 1970s, the global mean temperature did indeed trend downwards. Using this data as a start, and from the argument that any change in climate is bad, and anything that is bad must be somebody’s fault, Schneider and others began to warn that an ice age was imminent, and that it was mainly our fault.
The causes of this global cooling were said to be due to two main things: orbital forcing and an increase in particulate matter—aerosols—in the atmosphere. The orbital forcing—a fancy term meaning changes in the earth’s distance and orientation to the sun, and the consequent alterations in the amount of solar energy we get as a result of these changes—was, as I hope is plain, nobody’s fault, and because of that, it excited very little interest.
But the second cause had some meat behind it; because, do you see, aerosols can be made by people. Drive your car, manufacture oil, smelt some iron, even breath and you are adding aerosols to the atmosphere. Some of these particles, if they diffuse to the right part of the atmosphere, will reflect direct sunshine back into space, depriving us of its beneficial warming effects. Other aerosols will gather water around them and form clouds, which both reflect direct radiation and capture outgoing radiation—clouds both cool and warm, and the overall effect was largely unknown. Aerosols don’t hang around in the air forever. Since they are heavy, over time they will fall or wash out. It’s also hard to do too much to reduce the man-made aerosol burden of the atmosphere; except the obvious and easy things, like install cleaner smoke stacks.
Pause during the 1980s when nothing much happened to the climate.