Who linked climate change and catastrophe first?

Ed Hawkins asked the other day, and I paraphrase, when anthropogenic climate change became catastrophic, or rather

and after some initial answers

Let us first consider, what the RationalWiki has to say about CAGW:

CAGW, for “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming,” is a snarl word […]. A Google Scholar search indicates that the term is never used in the scientific literature on climate.

It’s not clear just when or how [people] adopted CAGW over from the acronym AGW […]. The term was used in blog comments at the New York Times and ScienceBlogs as early as 2008, and is likely to have been used earlier. By around 2011 CAGW had become commonplace […]. Despite the qualifier, […] the term [is used] indiscriminately to anything approximating the mainstream scientific view on climate, regardless of whether or not “catastrophic” outcomes are implied.


Note, RationalWiki is quite lose in using snarl words itself.

But back to catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, catastrophic climate change or a catastrophic greenhouse effect. The following is incomplete and mainly refers to sources available via Google-Scholar.

Reiner Grundmann pointed to an article in the New York Times from 1947 about work of the Swedish geographer and glaciologist Hans Ahlmann. In that article and apparently a number of different articles, e.g. here, on the same topic, a potential catastrophic sea level rise is noted as a possibility if Greenland continues to melt at the rate observed then due to a “mysterious warming of the climate”. As Ed Hawkins noted, this is not a direct linkage, but rather the notion of a possibility. Nevertheless, this possibly is the earliest occurrence. At least Google-Scholar is no help for searches up to 1947.

The uncertainty about the origin in the RationalWiki suggests to try to find the original link between catastrophe and anthropogenic climate change going backwards in time. Interestingly Google Trends is not too helpful.

In 2008 Richard Lindzen put a paper (pdf) on Arxiv asking “Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?”, which includes the exact phrase:

“This time, real scientists who were also environmental activists, were recruited to ‘discredit’ any science or scientist that questioned catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.”

Possibly in February 2007 CAGW turns up in a comment on a blog post on an interview of Michael Crichton.

Possibly in 2005, Alan Moran puts the headline “Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming: Myth or Reality” in his submission (pdf) to the New South Wales Government.

Jeff Masters review of Crichton’s “State of Fear” includes the phrase “catastrophic Global Warming”, it is, however, apparently undated but may be from late 2004 or early 2005.

Could it be that the derogatory implications of CAGW originate from the time around the original release of “State of Fear”?

Next we jump backwards in time, because these more recent examples are, from my point of view, not really on topic.

Let us travel to the year 1990, when Wirth and Lashof publish “Beyond Vienna and Montreal – Multilateral Agreements on Greenhouse Gases” in Ambio. They write:

the greenhouse effect and stratospheric ozone depletion are both consequences of current patterns of industrialization. Both threaten long- term, potentially catastrophic harm, whose precise delineation is complicated by a range of uncertainty,


a stringent but achievable target that lowers the risk of catastrophic climate change is the following: limitation of global emissions to assure that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 never exceed 400 ppm, with concentrations of CO2 firmly established on a declining trajectory by the year 2030.

A short pause to reflect on the latter quote.

Wirth and Lashof clearly link anthropogenic global warming with a risk of catastrophe.

We should definitely include the Spiegel-Cover “Klima-Katastrophe” from 1986 here (as pointed out by Reiner Grundmann) and the cover-story. Indeed Hannicke and Müller published a book with this title three years later. Der Spiegel referred to a statment by the DPG (German Physical Society), that according to the German Wikipedia got toned down “some months later” in cooperation with the German Meteorological Society.

The wikipedia article gives a valuable link, Weingart, Engels and Pansegraus paper on “Risks of communication: discourses on climate change in science, politics, and the mass media” from 2000 in Public Understanding of Science. They note that in the German discourse climate change was tightly connected to catastrophe after the DPG press release. Their article focusses on the period after 1975 and they quote some headlines:

‘“Tod im Treibhaus” (“Death in the Greenhouse”) (Der Spiegel 9/1979); “In 50 Jahren vorbei” (“All Over In 50 Years”) (Der Spiegel 11/1980); “Auf dem Weg in die Katastrophe” (“Heading For the Catastrophe”) (Der Spiegel 21/1981); “Die Dürre wird kommen” (“The drought will come”) (Der Spiegel 10/1983)’.

See also here and links from there. The article further quotes a Der Spiegel from 1977:

“Climatologists and chemical engineers…predicted ‘unimaginable effects on climate and the economy,’ when the greenhouse effect, caused by the CO2, would make ‘the Arctic Ocean devoid of ice by the middle of the next century´ …’ (Der Spiegel 35/1977, 141).

Weingart et al. mention Hermann Flohn, whom Der Spiegel calls “the Nestor [the doyen] of German Climatologists”. They quote him as having written in 1981:

“In any case, the problem must be taken seriously: it threatens the earth’s population as a whole, and in the course of the coming century it will threaten the generation of our children and grandchildren…”.

Indeed the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) published, in 1980, a report by Flohn on “Possible Climatic Consequences of a Man-Made Global Warming” which was sponsored by UNEP and IIASA.

Wolf Häfele writes in his preface to Flohn’s report:

There is increasing concern about man’s impact on climate. Studying this problem one comes to realize that this influence is not so much felt as a variation of the average values of global climate, such as temperature and pressure. Of concern is instead a change in the climatological patterns, with the average values changing very little.

Actually this could be a change in rainfall patterns, for example. Among other effects, increasing levels of carbon dioxide could cause a man-made global warming.

While it is impossible to determine such changes in climate patterns given the present state of the art, we consider it per­ haps useful to study the changes that occurred in the climate patterns of the past. Today’s highly sophisticated knowledge in paleometeorology allows to undertake such a venture–a research activity that may also be crucial for our understanding of the forthcoming CO 2 problem.

Professor Flohn has studied this question along these lines, making use of information available to him as of May 1978. He wrote this report under the project “Comparison of Energy Options, a Methodological Study”, sponsored jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and IIASA.

Flohn writes in his conclusions:

From a climatological point of view, the decisive thpeshold of the real CO2 level should be somewhere between 550 and 750 ppm; that of the virtual CO2 level is somewhat higher, e.g. between 800 and 1000 or 1100 ppm. Above this threshold, the probability of an evolution toward a situation as described in Chapter VI [Ice Free Arctic Versus Glaciated Antarctic?] in­ creases rapidly–a development of this kind could occur quite abruptly, i.e. in a matter of a few decades (or less), and would then be irreversible. Since this situation had been maintained, under purely natural conditions, over a period of no less than ten million years, it would also be stable, after its first reappearance. What has happened can happen again: it would, after a series of catastrophic weather extremes, lead to a nearly inconceivable displacement of climatic zones by 400-800 km (or more), definitely affecting mankind as a whole.

(Emphasise also in the original)

As a sidenote, let me mention, that Flohn’s final paragraph is:

The author firmly believes that this risk is unacceptable and must be avoided even at very high cost. It is at least as large as but probably much larger than all the risks involved in the (transitional) use of nuclear energy under special pre­ cautions. It can be avoided if decisions regarding the future energy policies and all their consequences are carefully planned and can be executed, under an international agreement, without undue delay.

Ward Morehouse wrote in 1980 in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political on “Separate, Unequal, but More Autonomous: Technology, Equity and World Order in the Millennial Transition”. There he refers to E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” and notes:

In fact, increasingly omnimous evidence concerning the irreversibility of, carbon dioxide buildup in the biosphere suggests that Schumacher may have understated the seriousness of the problem since this buildup introduces the prospect of dramatic, if not catastrophic, climate change.

But the last excursion moved forward in time from Der Spiegel in 1977 to Flohn and Morehouse in 1980.

Weingart and colleagues quote V. Ramanatham (1979, Science):

The significance of these results can best be evaluated by referring to the papers by Bryson and Schneider, which indicate that a surface temperature change on the order of 0.5 K may be sufficient to alter substantially some important climatic variables (rainfall and ice cover) in at least part of the globe.

One of the few mentions of catastrophic climate change in the early scientific literature appears unrelated to the topic of the paper in question. Laurmann writes in 1975 “On the Prospects of Seasonal Forecasting” and states in a footnote:

“Catastrophic Climate Change” as a topic of investigation requires a less detailed approach than the forecasting of near-normal climate, and should yield to simplified models and grosser averaging techniques.

Before we reach our start from above, i.e. 1947, I found only one (well, two identical) relevant instances for the link between catastrophe and climate change. In 1968 and 1969, J.O. Fletcher wrote two reports for the RAND corporation on Changing Climate (pdf) and Managing Climate Resources (pdf), respectively. In both he states that:

The inadvertent influences of man’s activity may lead eventually to catastrophic influences on global climate unless ways can be developed to compensate for undesired effects. Whether the time remaining for bringing this problem under control is a few decades or a century is still an open question.

I have to repeat, this collection here is certainly incomplete.

So, as Ed Hawkins asked: ‘is there clear moment when “catastrophic” used for anthropogenic global warming as a whole?’ If you forced me to conclude something, I would say, that Weingart and co-authors provide the answer to the question of the origin of the link between catastrophe and anthropogenic global warming.


6 thoughts on “Who linked climate change and catastrophe first?

  1. I have a bookmark on a SPIEGEL story dated August 1974, warning about the next iceage around the corner:

    “…Denn eines wissen die Klimatologen sicher — schon geringe und deshalb oft schwer meßbare Irritationen können das labile Weltklima ins Wanken bringen. Die Verringerung der Sonneneinstrahlung um nur ein Prozent oder eine Zunahme der durchschnittlichen Bewölkung des Planeten um nur vier Prozent würden genügen, um eine neue “große Eiszeit” auszulösen…

    Climatologist knows one thing for sure, even very little and therefore hard to detect irritations can disturbe the labile global climate. The reduction of the solar radiation by only one percent or the increase of the world population by four % ( 4 % !!) ” would be enough to trigger a new big iceage…

    Manche Klimabeobachter sehen gar eine erdumspannende Naturkatastrophe heraufziehen…

    Some climate observer expect a natural global [B]catastrophe[/B] comming up…”

    In 1974 the population on the globe was 4 billions people. Today we have 75% more.

    The SPIEGEL story:

  2. So what we have here is a collection of older references, none of which actually mention the term CAGW. The word “catastrophic” made in the context of climate isn’t the same as use of the term CAGW.

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