climate change

Apr 12, 2012

Global warming projections from 1981 prove tellingly accurate

A seminal article by climate scientists back in 1981 has proved eerily accurate at predicting global temperature rises over the last three decades, with its lead author James Hansen telling Crikey that his early research on global warming "seems to hold up remarkably well".

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

A seminal article by climate scientists in 1981 has proved eerily accurate at predicting global temperature rises over the past three decades, with its lead author James Hansen telling Crikey that his early research on global warming “seems to hold up remarkably well”.

Hansen, now one of the world’s leading experts on climate science and the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was one of seven scientists who wrote the 10-page report in Science in 1981 that examined the impact of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The New York Times ran a front-page story on it at the time, noting that “the seven atmospheric scientists predict a global warming of ‘almost unprecedented magnitude’ in the next century.”

Dutch scientists Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and Rein Haarsma recently dug up the old report and compared Hansen et al’s projections of global mean temperatures to the actual temperatures of the past three decades and found the 1981 projections to be surprisingly close.

Here’s the original graph from Science, which projects global mean temperatures until 2100. It also takes in to account the phasing out of coal at different times, since coal is a cheap and plentiful resource and the scientists were aware that use of synthetic fuels or renewable energies would take a while.

Here is Oldenborgh and Haarsma’s graph, which has overlaid Hansen et al’s graph with the data from the past 31 years.

“Given the many uncertainties at the time, notably the role of aerosols, the agreement is very good indeed,” write Oldenborgh and Haarsma at Real Climate. “They only underestimated the observed trend by about 30%, similar or better in magnitude than the CMIP5 models over the same period (although these tend to overestimate the trend, still mainly due to problems related to aerosols).”

Why was it slightly underestimated? “Assumed climate sensitivity to doubled CO2, for our primary simulation then, was 2.8C. We now suggest 3C, so it may have been slightly low,” explained Hansen. “Overall it should be quite accurate, if observed climate forcings are used.”

Hansen told Crikey that he’d made mention of the Science article in his recent TED talk — titled “Why I must speak out about climate change” and he assumes that’s why Oldenborgh and Haarsma investigated it.

Not that the 1981 report was Hansen’s first look at climate models. “I became involved in climate calculations for Earth in the middle 1970s, publishing a paper on the effect of Mount Agung on global temperature in 1978, I believe, and a paper on the effect of several trace gases in 1976, and working on a 3-D climate model, providing results to the famous Charney study in 1979,” he said.

Climate science has developed significantly since 1981, says Australian palo-climate scientist Andrew Glikson from the Australian National University. These include a clearer understand of the role of the oceans and the magnitude of their feedbacks, the role of aerosols, projecting tipping points, the connection between climate change and extreme weather events, the study of ice cores and the development of paleoclimate science.

“An awful lot has been learnt since then but the principles and projections of the system have been determined quite accurately by Hansen and his group,” Glikson told Crikey.

Hansen has been an outspoken member of the climate science community for many years, and has even been arrested several times for his involvement in environmental protests. His activist attitudes have come under attack from his own NASA colleagues in recent days. A letter released overnight, signed by 49 former NASA scientists and astronauts, criticises NASA’s public crusading on climate change. The letter was sent late last month to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. It reads in part:

“We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated, especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data. With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts, coming particularly from the GISS leadership, it is clear that the science is NOT settled.

“The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.”

But Glikson said he did not recognise any of the 49 names from the list as climate scientists and instead said most appeared to be astronauts, engineers and various technical specialists, and therefore from a scientific point of view their arguments were not based in peer review-based science.

He did note however that astronauts are powerful public figures and he expected that media outlets would pick up the story.

The final lines from Hansen et al’s 1981 research seem particularly prophetic:

“Political and economic forces affecting energy use and fuel choice make it unlikely that the CO2 issue will have a major impact on energy policies until convincing observations of the global warming are in hand. In light of historical evidence that it takes several decades to complete a major change in fuel use, this makes large climate change almost inevitable. However, the degree of warming will depend strongly on the energy growth rate and choice of fuels for the next century. Thus, CO2 effects on climate may make full exploitation of coal resources undesirable. An appropriate strategy may be to encourage energy conservation and develop alternative energy sources, while using fossil fuels as necessary during the next few decades.

“The climate change induced by anthropogenic release of CO2 is likely to be the most fascinating global geophysical experiment that man will ever conduct. The scientific task is to help determine the nature of future climatic effects as early as possible. The required efforts in global observations and climate analysis are challenging, but the benefits from improved understanding of climate will surely warrant the work invested.”

Crikey asked Hansen how he felt that despite all the “convincing observations of the global warming” from scientists in the last 30 years, there has been little impact on major global energy policies.

“We assumed that governments would act in the best interests of the public. So far they have acted in the best interests of the fossil fuel industry,” he replied. “Money talks in Washington and other capitals, and, unfortunately, the people profiting from business-as-usual have the money.”

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32 thoughts on “Global warming projections from 1981 prove tellingly accurate

  1. Fran Barlow

    Ebanks Sen


    Let’s see if there’s a single sentence without an error or meaningless claim above:

    [While the Nostradami are being typically self congratulatory for spraying wild predictions around, ignoring the 99% that crashed and burned …]

    No wild predictions are cited. That’s just as well because then we could discuss whether they are in fact “wild”. The then (unspecified) “wild predictions are compared with an equally unspecified “99%” that “crashed and burned”. With no specification for either data pool, the calim is meaningless and it would be right to ignore them. For all we know, Ebanks Sen is talking about people betting on horses or declaring the end of the world or predicting that global warming will turn out to be a scam.

    [and claiming Messianic status for those that survived reality tests]

    Predictions can’t be “messiahs” or annointed by god. This is just a lead into denier projection. Deniers are largely religious and are offended by truth claims based on science. Since they are religious they iterate scientific truth claims as an alternative religion and thus blasphemy — but because that would give the game away amongst secfular fiolk they accuse it of being a religion or flath. Classic and hypocritical projection!

    [remind you that the NASA Prophet of doom Hansen was proselytizing for grant money in the ’70′s for the onrushing anthropogenic global ICE AGE!]

    This is another old troll as even a cursory reading of the link will reveal. Hansen said nothing there that wasn’t defensible. had aersols continued to rise at the rate he hypothesised it might well have been the case that cooling would have continued. It didn’t of course and by the late 1970s better measures of Charney sensitivity were available to Hansen changing his views. Did this mean that reserarch into the impact of aerosols on climate was unwarranted? Not at all. On the contrary, if there was a plausible possibility of any disruption to basic ecosystem services on a large scale then grant money would have been called for. It’s absolutely risible for deniers to claim that “the science isn’t settled” and to scream that “science should question assumptions” and then claim that research should not be undertaken to prove or disprove a hypothesis merely on the basis of what one thinks one might find. Actually, it’s not merely risible, but damning of them — for it shows that they don’t even think through the consequences of their talking points but merely grasp at anything that some barely literate dimwit might think casts science they don’t like in a poor light.

    [I don’t actually expect any of the self-anointed (sic) … to read anything that contradicts their articles of faith.]

    Ah the projection again … As noted though, the link doesn’t contradict anything of interest to science. I did read it and it revelaed the poster to be a dimwit. One needs no more than basic literacy to see that. Faith is optional.

    [What I do expect is the same sort of ad hominem attacks]

    The deniers discovered a while back that using Latin-style phrases sounds impressive — at least to them. Sciencey people love latin precisely because your average illiterate — their main audience — doesn’t understand it and is copwed. A bit of post coc ergo propter hoc and ex nihilo nil fit or mutatis mutandum and people reckon you must be an intellect. Ad hominem here is merely being used as a synonym for abuse of vituperation. That’s quite wrong. Argumenta ad hominem are objections based on the character or standing of the person to make a claim. A judge who has a conflict of interest in ruling a case may be objected to, and thatb would be ad hominem but legitimate. Ebanks sen tried it himself when claiming that Hansen’s speculation on a potential ice age driven by aerosols such as SO2 precluded him from later claiming CO2-driven warming. Presumably, (s)he thought this argumentum ad hominem was legitimate. That it was absurd on the face of it was neither here nor there.

    [claims that we know so *very* much more now than we did then]

    That’s not an argumentum ad hominem. That’s a statement of observable reality. If this chap weren’t a buffoon, he’d realise he needed to refute it to begin to make his ad hominem claim against Hansen.

    [Science is *never* “settled.” ]

    No, but the reverse {science is impossible} doesn’t follow. Insight is provisional and with careful corroboration or refinement we can derive useful information about the world. We know as the saying goes that all models are wrong (or at least ought be deemed so) — but some are useful. Hansen’s model above turned out to be inaccurate, but it was also very useful because it showed that his methodology was sound as it closely represented observed reality in advance.

    Taken to its logical extreme, in the mouths of deniers, the mantra “the science is never settled” is an argument for intellectual nihilism and as the Latin goes ex nihilo nil fit — nothing can come from nothing. If they really believe that, they ought to remain silent because they can make no claims at all. There could be no “real science”. Every sceintist climbs onto the shoulders of those who have gone before, flawed as they were and strengthens science in the process.

    So as it turns out there was no line in ebanks sen that was not incorrect and as a corpus, it was also internally incoherent.

    Nice …

  2. Ebanks Sen

    While the Nostradami are being typically self congratulatory for spraying wild predictions around, ignoring the 99% that crashed and burned, and claiming Messianic status for the couple that survived reality tests, may I remind you that the NASA Prophet of doom Hansen was proselytizing for grant money in the ’70’s for the onrushing anthropogenic global ICE AGE!

    Of course, I don’t actually expect any of the self-anointed to read anything that contradicts their articles of faith. What I do expect is the same sort of ad hominem attacks, claims that we know so *very* much more now than we did then and the standard appeal, “Everyone else is doing it!”

    Science is *never* “settled.” Real science is *always skeptical of its own results, always challenging it’s own assumptions. Only religion takes the personal pronouncements of fallible humans and claims they are direct statements of Truth, correct and invariate.

  3. Fran Barlow

    Socrates said:

    [Like the Montreal protocol on CFCs we should have just banned new large CO2 emitters and had a phase out period for new ones.]

    In principle, this sounds good, but in practice, as there were (with the arguable exception of nuclear power which became politically problematic following TMI and especially Chernobyl) few industrial scale alternatives. CFCs proved technically easy to replace and unsurprisingly by the late 1980s DuPont was keen for the replacement it had developed to be ubiquitous, which is why they dumped the latter day AGW denier and earlioer anti-smoking regulation activist Singer and opposition to CFC protocols.

    Pricing CO2e explicitly is probably the technically least difficult approach to such a phase out, anyway, because it is outcomes-based — one doesn’t need to regulate every enterprise to capture the goal we want to achieve. It’s technologically neutral and nobody has to bet the house on any particular mix of responses. Instead, effort can go into measurement of output in life-cycle terms and pricing the full value of the externality.

  4. Fran Barlow

    In any event kd, these have occurred, so the premise is wrong.

  5. kd

    [ Potential effects on climate in the 21st century ]


    Wait, the 21st century ended? Ouch I have a 78 year blackout. Deary me. Or is that yet another denier logcal fallacy?

  6. green-orange

    From the “remarkably accurate report” :

    by the end of the
    century, and there is a high probability of warming in the 1980’s. Potential effects on
    climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North
    America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climatic zones, erosion of the West
    Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the
    fabled Northwest Passage”



  7. Rohan

    Great first post Micro-Solar Australia.

    How are you going to top that?

  8. Micro-Solar Australia

    What we need is global pest eradication due to a dangerous population spiraling out of control and its insatiable consumption of limited resources. Sensibly we should firstly sacrifice the population that is causing the most global damage and then the next and so on, to achieve a sustainable future for all living organisms. Oh dear, Australians really have got to go first. We consume the most, waste the most, profit from it the most, our population is growing the fastest and we are unwilling to do anything about it or even believe we are the problem. What a stupid, greedy, careless, self gratifying, bunch of idiots. Americans go next.

  9. Socrates

    Sorry, phase out period for old emitters.

  10. Socrates

    I will ignore the desperate attempts to misdirect debate on this topic 🙂

    Hansen’s work is not the only early forecast that has proven accurate. I recall reading the proceedings of a CSIRO conference on atmospheric modeling in 1988 IIRC and it was remarkably accurate. By then they were identifying where in Australia climate would change fastest, and drying trends. All sadly true.

    It seems the real arguments started not over science but economics. Once people started suggesting price mechanisms to combat climate change large emitters started inventing faults in the science. I now think the pricing strategy was a mistake. Like the Montreal protocol on CFCs we should have just banned new large CO2 emitters and had a phase out period for new ones. Kyoto hasn’t gotten us anywhere in fifteen years.

  11. linda domaschenz

    MWH & Steve777 good posts.

    And Frank- Easter bunny, Santa, and God are all real.

  12. kd

    [ entirely inconsequential quotes ]

    That’ll be “entirely inconsequential misquotes”.

  13. Rich Uncle Skeleton

    I notice Frank doesn’t disagree with any of the science actually published in this article.

    Instead he’d prefer Crikey to take an ideological perspective and spend its time repeating entirely inconsequential quotes from non-climate scientist Tim Flannery. Quotes made at speeches years ago, published in minor articles, quotes which have then been removed of their context and repeated disingenuously for years by alarmist News Ltd shills who pretend that the entire case for AGW rests on these out-of-context statements.

    This is how Frank would prefer that Crikey report science.

    Just think about that for a second.

    No scientific arguments.

    Just waffle.

    This is Frank Campbell. Today.

  14. JamesH

    Bobalot – are you perhaps confusing me with Frank Campbell, whose post I was responding to?

    Frank: First, the rebuttal. From an ABC column on Bob Brown today: “In 2010 Senator Brown led the Greens to a historic result which saw the party win more than 1.6 million votes and have nine senators elected. The Greens now holds the balance of power in the Senate and were instrumental in sealing a deal with Julia Gillard allowing her to form Government.” – Since the Greens have campaigned heavily on Climate Change, how can this issue be a vote-loser for the green politics you always claim to support?

    Next, it’s perfectly clear why Labour is in the short-term pits: Rudd’s poor internal management alienated his colleagues, so his government depended on his personal poll rating. When this plummeted, chiefly as the result of his failing to introduce a Carbon Price and making a hash of his attempt to tap our rent-seeker sector (some people on an Indonesian boat were also involved), the ALP numbers men decided to “unleash the real Julia” instead. I’m sure we all remember how that turned out.

  15. Frank Campbell

    Mike F: Scientific neandathalls do not deserve the public space to propagate their ignorances and biases.”

    Beautifully put.

    The word you’re groping for is “Neanderthal”…( and it’s “ignorance”, not “ignorances”)

    The Neanderthals are still unfairly put down as grunting yobbos who got what they deserved from elegant, intelligent Sapiens…fact is they seem to have been absorbed into Sapiens.

  16. Mike Flanagan

    Frank Cambell;
    While I may consider attending a Typing Tutorial of yours, and I emphasise the ‘may’, I certainly would not attend any of your science tutorials.
    I note with interest in some of your past posts your career as a science tutor is in the past tense and one can well understand why.
    Scientific neandathalls do not deserve the public space to propagate their ignorances and biases.

  17. Steve777

    “We assumed that governments would act in the best interests of the public…” a very optimistic assumption. It looks as though no effective action on climate change will be possible until it starts to affect the bottom lines of major corporations, at which point said corporations will demand that Governments do something about it and someone other than themselves pays for it. Let’s hope that’s no too late.

    The problem is that Governments operate mainly on a 3-5 year time horizon (the electoral cycle); businesses also work on similar sorts of time frames (the length of the contract of a CEO/Senior executive perhaps). But action on climate change is a decades long commitment with no prospect of short term rewards for anyone and no guarantee of success. An ETS is an attempt to create an artificial market to reconcile these timescales, but with vested interests doing all they can to torpedo such schemes, I don’t see much chance of success.

    Don’t these guys have grandchildren?

  18. Bobalot

    JamesH makes a post which literally has nothing to do with the actual article.

    I wonder if he actually read the post. I suspect he saw “global warming” in the title and rushed in here to post the generic anti-Labor post he always does.

  19. Rohan

    [email protected]

    Most of the Crikey regulars have grown to love Frank.

    You can’t not be impressed by his unparalleled capacity for treading in absurdity so complex it borders on impenetrable.

    Every time I read one of his signature clusterf*cks of fact, fiction and fantasy I’m guaranteed a good chuckle.

  20. Grant Kelly

    JamesH? I feel like printing your comment on a t-shirt for commuters to read on a bus ride. Great stuff !

  21. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)


    I expect that no matter how bad global warming becomes, some humans will be able to survive. So the human race is not under threat.

    What is under threat is the quality of life, and the lives, of the billions of humans alive now and who will be born in the next 100 years.

  22. Frank Campbell

    No wonder progressive politics is dwindling to a bewildered rump…just read the comments. Blaming everyone but themselves…

    And JamesH – your list of ALP woes conveniently ignores Labour’s landslide victory in 2007. Why do you think a battered, tired, motley crew of Howard survivors led by an unattractive failed Jesuit managed to reduce the government to its present state?

    The carbon tax is the culmination of a mess of mismanaged, often idiotic “climate” schemes (now dumped)… “carbon tax” is now shorthand for rejection of all the abuse, insult, patronising dismissiveness, tendentiousness, hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, intellectual dishonesty, scientific naivete and punitive zealotry we’ve all had to endure these past few years…

    The final irony is that climate hysteria has consumed itself- and empowered Reaction is all its forms, not least environmental. Thank you so much. Why don’t you form an entirely new Wilderness Society? Because that’s where we’re headed…

  23. Andybob

    Tipping points exist in many complex systems with multiple buffers. It would be madness to presume they don’t exist in climates, the geological record has many long periods of relative stasis followed by a shorter periods of relatively rapid change.

  24. Dave Sag

    What is notable about Hansen’s original paper compared to the actual recorded facts over the last 30 years is that reality has tracked slightly worse than expected by the worst-case expectations. This is also consistent with the 5th IPCC report coming soon which has found most metrics tracking at worse than worst case scenarios. We are fast entering the part of the curve where it gets steeper. It’s worth wondering just how much warming can we sustain anyway before we reap such terrible changes upon the world that render it incompatible with human life.

  25. Recalcitrant.Rick

    Frank, Frank, Frank, Why do you even bother reading? Not just crikey, any sort of informative article, from any source. You clearly know best, so why bother the rest of us with your petty meanderings.

  26. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)


    You hit the nail on the head with saying that the tipping points all have lots of uncertainty involved. That is why they have not been included in the IPCC reports.

    The problem is that just because they are uncertain does not mean that they will not happen. And if one or more do happen then things are likely to be much worse than the IPCC predict.

    Now if I were to make you wear earplugs and a blindfold, and take you to a busy road, and ask you to cross it, what happens next is clearly very uncertain. There is a chance that you will get across the road with no injury. Does this mean that you think it is safe to cross a road this way? Ignoring the dangers of tipping points due to uncertainty is as silly as ignoring the very real risks involved in crossing a road without vision and hearing.

    Both you and Frank also ignore my main point that by the time the evidence is good enough to convince you both that it will be far too late to prevent significant warming.

    If you ask a creationist what scientific evidence is needed to convince them that evolution is true you will find, that even though they have been discussing how science proves that evolution is false, when it comes down to it they will admit that nothing will convince them that their interpretation of the bible is wrong.

    Similarly the reason that I feel justified to call those on Crikey who post against climate change ‘deniers’ is that if climate change were true, nothing would convince them of this until it was far too late.

    We are already at the stage where major action is needed now. So what further science could reasonable be available now to convince the deniers?

  27. JamesH

    I always thought that the chief cause of the current collapse of progressive politics in this country was a wide ranging combination of deunionisation of the workforce and subsequent stacking and rorting of Labour’s diminished branch structure, the embrace of market-centric neoliberalism by both major political parties and its counterpart, apolitical consumerism on the part of the voters, the TINA perspective following the collapse of the Soviet Union and marketisation of China, surging xenophobia following 9/11, the Bali bombing and the Tampa, and, more recently, Labour’s habit of sticking their collective foot in their mouth and then shooting themselves in it whenever they tried to announce new policy, in particular their failure to capitalise on the GFC.
    But all along it was climate millenarianism. Gosh, don’t I feel silly!

  28. Scott

    You do realise of course that the whole concept of climate “tipping points” are pure theory. A lot of climate scientists (even those who agree with anthropological global warming) discount them due to the uncertainty of the levels at which they would result. We could of passed one ages ago and we would have no idea, such is our knowledge. In my opinion, it is best to focus on what we do know, or keep researching, rather than jumping at shadows.

    As for Hansen, it is funny that people are going back to ’81. He did update his model in 1988 after all (Hansen et al 1988) which isn’t quite as accurate.

  29. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)


    Can you please explain why the majority of scientists in related fields in EVERY country are wrong?

    Why are you right to say “We need far longer data sets” when the majority of experts in the field disagree?

    Can you provide a reference to the full text of Flannery’s “absurd” claims? I suspect that he was quoted out of context, so please feel free to prove me wrong.

    But even if Flannery was wrong, so what? His being wrong does not lead to the conclusion that the IPCC and Garnaut reports are wrong.

    Crikey has never written that the Easter Bunny is real, that the sun goes around the earth, or the things you think they should all for the same reason – if you look into the full story you find that there is no rational reason for thinking any of these things are true.

  30. Frank Campbell

    Crikey invariably privileges climate extremists like Hansen and Glikson.

    Critics are invariably described as being ignorant or in the pay of vested interests.

    Critics are invariably defined as conservative, anti-Green, right-wing etc.

    There is no admission that a Left critique of climate extremism even exists.

    Never once has Crikey published a critique of, for example, Flannery’s absurd climate predictions. Never once has the uselessness and waste of current renewable technologies been critically examined- such as geothermal, wind and solar.

    Never once has Crikey admitted that climate millenarianism is the chief cause of the current collapse of progressive politics in this country- and therefore a grave threat to hard-won gains made by environmentalists in the past forty years.

    Never once has Crikey realised that climate millenarianism is destroying any chance that intelligent climate policy might develop in the next decade- because the Right has been empowered.

    We need far longer data sets just to establish a correlation between CO2 and observed temp. increases, let alone support the tangle of speculative hypotheses bolted onto the primary hypothesis.

  31. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    I wonder what the graph will look like in 30 years time?

    Unless there is some major world wide economic collapse, the growth of China and India (which I doubt was fully factored in way back in 1981), and the way that climate change has become a political issue where rational argument makes little difference (as shown by the astronauts letter) and thus real action to prevent climate change is becoming less likely, means that the most likely scenario is now the Fast Growth scenario.

    It is also worth remembering that the 1981 paper, and the IPCC reports, all ignore possible flipping points. If we reach one of these in the next thirty years then things might be much worse than even the predictions of the Fast Growth scenario.

    As Hansen says, we are conducting an experiment on the climate. Certainly in thirty years it will be clear whether it is the deniers or acceptors of climate change that are right.

    Because the deniers do not accept the science, they are also ignoring the reality of what happens if climate change is real and the effects are as bad, or worse, than predicted. I suspect that the deniers all think that if this ends up being the case we can take some action in the future and undo the damage.

    The reality is that the carbon we emit now will be in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. If, for example, in 2030 we suddenly took action and stopped all emissions, the damage will have been done, and though this action will stop things from getting even worse, the high temperatures will be locked in.

    And if we reach a tipping point, once again when the deniers accept that something bad has happened, I don’t think that the yet realize that once one (or more) of these tipping points is reached that once again there is nothing that can be done.

    It is all very sad.

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