In History, Climate Skepticism Begins With Climate Scientists

The world's pioneering climate scientists doubted humans were causing the changes they noticed in the Arctic, a Swedish environmental historian said in Chicago Friday—and so climate scientists themselves were among the first to resist emerging evidence of anthropogenic climate change.
Before there was global warming theory, there was the "polar warming theory," Sverker Sörlin, a professor of environmental history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, told about 25 people gathered at Chicago's Wilder House, headquarters of the Chicago Center for Contempory Theory (3CT).
"I think the narrative is extremely important here," Sörlin said, "And the kind of narrative that was provided by the polar warming theory didn't involve anthropogenic causes. And that is very much the spirit of the first 30 or 40 years of the previous century."
English steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar linked rising carbon dioxide levels to rising global temperatures as early as 1938, but Scandinavian scientists taking empirical measurements of already-shrinking glaciers in the Arctic discounted human involvement.
"This line of empirical observation was deeply affiliated with what turned out to be the wrong theory," Sörlin said. "It served as a barrier to new ideas."
Sörlin cited four sources of resistance to a theory of human-caused climate change:
The prevailing narrative in science, in this case the "polar warming theory" speculated that something—it hardly mattered what—was happening in the tropics to cause warming at the poles.
Scientists doing field work trusted the prevailing narrative, which seemed to link that older, erroneous theory to empirical truth,
"Disciplinary inertia" slowed acceptance in academic culture: "In epistemic culture, there is this resistance to it [an idea] if it doesn't go along—sit right—with your previous beliefs."
The public was not yet receptive:
"It's not just a matter of building the science and the evidence, it's also a matter of having the general social atmosphere ready to absorb it."
The notion of anthropogenic climate change began to take hold in the 1960s, Sörlin said, when the public "was much more welcoming to ideas of humans causing climate change."
Later he called his own statement "an oversimplification," because public acceptance in the 1960s was part of a deeper history of humans coming to accept their actions were affecting the environment.
In the 1950s, for example, Swedish newspapers trumpeted anthropogenic climate change as a positive effect, with headlines like, "Factories Give Milder Climate," and "Smoke Gasses Put A Nightcap On The Entire World."
But conventional science resisted the emerging notion that humans were the cause, Sörlin said, citing Nobel prize winning physicist Robert Andrews Millikan, who contended, in Sörlin's words, that "Humans cannot make any harm to anything as big as the earth."
Of course, some parts of the world still doubt human activity is the cause, Sörlin acknowledged.
"The politics of energy and fossil fuels in certain parts of the world—for example in Australia, and in certain parts of the United States—are such that it doesn't work very well than in Germany, for example, or Scandinavia."

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