The 1981 TV Documentary That Warned About Global Warming
By Leo Hickman
On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1981, the UK's only commercial TV channel, ITV, broadcast an hour-long documentary, Warming Warning.
It was among the earliest occasions—possibly the earliest—anywhere in the world where a major broadcaster aired a documentary dedicated solely to the topic of human-caused climate change.
The documentary, which was made by the now-defunct Thames Television, has sat in the archives largely unseen ever since. Until now.
Carbon Brief has tracked down the copyright holder, FremantleMedia Ltd, and persuaded it to release into the public domain a selection of key clips from the documentary.
The clips provide a poignant, historical insight into what scientists knew about climate change almost four decades ago—and how the world was beginning to react in terms of the resulting geopolitical, technological and societal ramifications. Many of themes still resonate strongly today.
To put it in context, the documentary was broadcast seven years before Dr. James Hansen's famous "it is already happening now" Senate testimony in 1988, nine years before the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report was published, and 25 years before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was released. After it first aired in 1981, Warming Warning went on to be broadcast in the U.S. (in 1990 on PBS), Greece, Japan and Israel, according to FremantleMedia.
In its TV listings on the day the program aired, the Times described it as "a documentary about the serious effects our polluting of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide will have on the climate." It added: "Scientists are worried that at the present rate the Earth will be 2°C warmer by the middle of the next century with disastrous consequences for the polar regions."
On 8 Dec 1981, ITV broadcast this hour-long documentary about climate change called "Warming Warning". Can anyone r… https://t.co/DtE0aukhqq— Leo Hickman (@Leo Hickman)1490188177.0
New Scientist said at the time it was "excellently written and directed" by Richard Broad, a current affairs documentary-maker, then better known for films focused on the Middle East conflict. (The credits at the end thank, among others, the science writer Dr. John Gribbin.)
The film, narrated by the presenter Tom Vernon, opens with an introduction to the problem of burning fossil fuels. The narration begins:
"Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, man has consumed huge and increasing amounts of fossil fuel to sustain the growth of industrial societies … Meteorologists now believe that increased quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to significant warming of the planet within decades."
The film then introduces several U.S.-based experts, starting with Gus Speth, who is captioned as "an environmental adviser to President Carter," but who went on to found the World Resources Institute thinktank and advised Bill Clinton, among many other roles. He begins:
"It's hard for me to imagine a more serious environmental issue."
In quick succession, the film also introduces two more talking heads. First, David Burns, who was director of the "climate project" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Then comes Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, a well-known U.S. atmospheric scientist.
Running time of this clip in original documentary: 05:25-08.07. (This, and all clips below, are courtesy of FremantleMedia Ltd/Thames Television.)
Once the film returns from the first commercial break, it introduces two more U.S. experts. Dr. William Kellogg is captioned as a "climatologist," but he played a key role researching climate change in the 1970s, in particular, based at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. Earlier in the same year that Warming Warning aired, Kellogg also co-authored one of the earliest books on the topic, titled "Climate Change and Society: Consequences of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide."
Next comes (a very young looking) Stephen Schneider, a seminal figure for alerting the world to the potential dangers of human-caused climate change. At the time, Schneider was also based at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, but he would go on to be among the world's most prominent scientists warning about climate change (and, in the process, was the target of a campaign of abuse, intimidation and even death threats).
The documentary intersperses the interviews with lots of stock footage showing human dependence on fossil fuels—aircraft taking off, coal mining, modern agriculture, etc.
This second clip also contains the views of another seminal climate scientist, Dr. George Woodwell. He was the director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Four years later, he would go on to found the Woods Hole Research Center.
Running time: 11.09-17.44
The film is notable for being careful to explain the nuances of the latest scientific knowledge about climate change. For example, in the third clip below it says that the uptake of CO2 by the oceans is a "slow and poorly understood process."
Dr. Lester Machta, director of the Air Resources Lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), explains that "up until the 1960s the prevailing scientific view was that the oceans could soak up all of the CO2 that might come from the combustion of fossil fuels." He then explains that, from the late 1950s onwards, observatories were set up —most famously at Mauna Loa in Hawaii—to measure the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The film shows a chart plotting the "steady rise" in CO2 since 1958. The narrator pauses to remark that in 1981 the concentration stood at 338 parts per million (ppm)— "a rise of seven percent in 23 years." Today, in 2017, the concentration now stands at 407ppm.
He adds: "We believe now that there is some suggestive evidence now that the atmosphere is indeed warming due to the greenhouse effect."
Running time: 18:58-21:32
The viewer is then shown a scientific paper published that year in the journal Science, titled "Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide," which attributed the warming to rising CO2 concentrations. The lead author was Dr. James Hansen, who has since become one of the world's most prominent and outspoken climate scientists.
Dr. Woodall remarks: "There is a reasonable consensus among meteorologists that the warming will continue and will be significant and easily measurable roughly by the end of this century."
The narrator adds that most scientists agree that the temperature will rise by "some two degrees in the next century … but the warming will be much more dramatic in some areas than in others."
Dr. William Kellogg then returns to explain that "by the middle of next century, when we might have twice as much carbon dioxide than in 1900, it may rise by an average of 2-3°C, but in the polar regions 5 or 10°C, which becomes a very large change and would change the whole character of the polar regions."
The metric used to estimate the warming caused by a doubling in concentration of atmospheric CO2 is known as "equilibrium climate sensitivity" (ECS). The most recent IPCC report, published in 2013, gave an ECS range of 1.5-4.5°C, with the majority of climate scientists still believing that 2-3°C of warming is most likely from a doubling of CO2 concentration.
Running time: 23:16-25:25
The narrator explains that there is already "some tentative evidence" that the poles have already begun to warm. But the film concentrates on the risk of the "inherently unstable" Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf melting.
Schneider provides a succinct summary of what might happen if one of these "kilometer thick floating blocks of ice," which are "pinned" on islands, were to disintegrate due to global warming. Because they act like "buttresses of a medieval building," they are holding back the ice on the land, he says: "If the climate warms up by a few degrees, there are a number of glaciologists who believe these shelves could break up."
This could then lead to a "surge" of land ice entering the ocean which could cause sea-level rise of up to 5-8 meters (16-26 feet). The narrator stresses that glaciologists "disagree" whether this is likely to occur within "decades or centuries," adding:
"However, a rise of up to 20 feet would make the new Thames barrier, designed to meet surge tides of 11 feet, redundant."
It imagines a scenario—illustrated with aerial shots of 1981 central London—where "Buckingham Palace would be under seven feet of water."
Running time: 25:26-27:47
How do scientists know how CO2 will likely impact the climate in the future? The film moves on to discuss the use of computer models by climate scientists.
"The simplest way to figure out how a CO2 increase will change the climate is no theory at all. Just go ahead and find some Twin Earth and pollute it and see what happens. But we don't have a Twin Earth, so we have to build one … The only thing you can do is build a mathematical model to try to simulate the way the earth's climate behaves."
The narrator says that the "latest generation of computers," which "make 80 million calculations a second," are being used at research centers around the world, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The narrator adds:
"The computer is fed with equations that relate to the behavior of clouds … to that of sea … to the role of sunlight … and to the effect of the poles. The model's subtlety can be tested and refined by observing how well it imitates the real climate, responds to seasonal differences and regional change. Though crude compared to the real thing, it is a useful tool."
Dr. Kellogg remarks that they "look as if they match our real system rather well."
Then you take the model, Schneider said, and you "literally pollute it" by going to the computer and "typing in a couple of cards." That's where the climate predictions come from, he said.
Running time: 33:23-37:15
Beyond the clips highlighted above, the film also discusses the best choice of power generation, carbon pollution caused by transport, how to feed a growing population and the impact of land-use change through deforestation and agriculture. Still today, all very familiar topics of debate and research.
But the most remarkable section of the documentary is, perhaps, its conclusion. The narration is both poignant and prescient:
"Uncertainty will permeate energy policy, if only because such a policy needs to be introduced before the irrefutable evidence that it is needed. They'll be difficulties, too. The call for restraint in a society built on the exploitation of energy may meet irresistible forces. There is, for example, the vested interests that many of the world's great corporations have in fossil fuels and the power they could wield on their behalf. International agreement will be needed to control the use of fossil fuels, but with the third world likely to benefit from climatic changes [one part of the film explores the idea of warming helping to grow crops in some famine-hit regions], and while China and Russia have vast reserves of coal, that seems unlikely.
"Alternatives to fossil fuels, such as nuclear power, have their own dangers. Or, in the case of solar energy, present technical problems. Yet a serious policy of fuel conservation, which makes good sense for many other reasons, becomes imperative as a result of the CO2 problem."
Gus Speth then reappears for a final comment: "Long before we could ever use all the coal on this planet, we will have greatly exceeded tolerable levels of CO2 concentration. We ought to face the fact that we can't use all that coal … The CO2 issue is not being seriously considered. And it is high time that it should be."
He adds: "Is the world ours to experiment with? I think not. I think we owe future generations, other life on the planet, a profound duty of restraint and, right now, we don't seem to be exercising it."
The narrator then ends the film with a concluding monologue:
"But to stop the easy flow of energy is difficult. We all enjoy it far too much … It is our wealth that has manufactured CO2. But, having created the problem, can we reasonably ask countries that have never enjoyed all this to exercise restraint?
"When economists argue that our industrial difficulties can only be relieved by promoting industry and creating growth, CO2 seems a remote problem. Yet more jobs mean more power and increased CO2 … Government today is not designed to deal with a problem of this dimension at such a timescale, a problem challenging the belief that more means better …
"The prospect of a warmer world may seem superficially attractive. Electorates are unlikely to be seduced by policies of restraint, constraint and self-denial … To apply the brake now, to introduce policies and avert the possibility of a crisis ahead, demands a vision across decades among politicians who rarely hold office for more than a few years. Economic imperatives, political realities and the very way our society is organized dictate that the power continue to flow. But now we know what this implies …
"Yet we're mortgaging the world against the future to be paid by our descendants, our children. The carbon dioxide problem is a warning …
"Man has demonstrated he has the capacity to change one of the great natural systems of the world. The sheer weight of our presence is altering the planet. Our industry has now become part of the climate, a new intruder disturbing an old system. Most of the small group of scientists who really understand the interactions of the climate have now warned us in measured language of the prospects that we face."
Running time: 46:20-53:43
Finally, for further context, Carbon Brief has produced this chart showing global CO2 emissions since 1959. It allows you to quickly see the continued increase in emissions since the documentary was broadcast in 1981. Or, to put it another way, just over a trillion tons of CO2 have entered the atmosphere since the film was first shown.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
Offshore oil and gas drillers have discarded and abandoned more than 18,000 miles of pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1960s, a report from the Government Accountability Office says.
The industry has essentially recovered none of the pipelines laid in the Gulf in the last six decades; the abandoned infrastructure accounts for more than 97% of all of the decommissioned pipelines in the Gulf.
The pipelines pose a threat to the habitat around them, as maritime commerce and hurricanes and erosion can move sections of pipeline.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not conduct undersea inspections even though surface monitoring is "not always reliable for detecting ruptures," according to the GAO.
For a deeper dive:
The survey compared six environmental concerns: drinking water pollution; pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs; tropical rainforest loss; climate change; air pollution; and plant and animal species extinction. While most Americans showed concern for all of these threats, the majority were most worried about polluted drinking water (56 percent), followed by polluted rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53 percent), Gallup reported.
"When it comes to environmental problems, Americans remain most concerned about two that have immediate and personal potential effects," Gallup noted. "For the past 20 years, worries about water pollution – both drinking water and bodies of water — have ranked at the top of the list. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, laid bare the dangers of contaminated drinking water and no doubt sticks in the public's minds."
According to a new study, 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2018, Asher Rosinger, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology and demography at Penn State, wrote in The Conversation.
"It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history," Rosinger explained.
Meanwhile, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveys found that almost 50 percent of rivers and streams and more than one-third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported. Without action, concerns over water quality will become increasingly relevant as the demand for fresh water is expected to be one-third greater by 2050 than it is today.
Gallup researchers have tracked environmental concerns among Americans since 2000, and water quality worries have consistently ranked high, Gallup noted.
The survey also revealed an environmental partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. For example, 68 percent of Democrats were highly concerned about global warming compared to 14 percent of Republicans.
Another recent Gallup survey found that 82 percent of Democrats believed that global warming effects had already started compared to 29 percent of Republicans. "That's a gap of 53 points; for comparison, in 2001, the gap was a mere 13 points," Grist reported.
Similarly, a 2020 Pew Research Center report revealed the widest partisan gap to date concerning whether or not climate change should be a top policy priority. Protecting air and water quality ranked as the second most divisive issue among Republicans and Democrats, The New York Times reported.
"Intense partisan polarization over these two issues in particular" has been growing for decades, Riley Dunlap, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University, told The New York Times last February. "Voters take cues on their policy preferences and overall positions," he added. "President Trump has, in the past, called climate change a hoax and all that. You get a similar message from many members of Congress on the Republican side. And most importantly, it's the message you get from the conservative media."
Gallup's latest figures also showed that concern about environmental threats either increased or remained the same between 2019 and 2020.
"The fluctuations in worry levels since 2019 are largely driven by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, who became more worried, on average, about the six environmental problems in 2020 during the presidential campaign and are now less worried with Joe Biden as president," Gallup reported.
While surveys like these are "not a full-blown diagnostic rundown of the nation's psyche," they are informative tools for understanding how and what Americans are feeling and thinking, Grist reported.
Climate Change Threatens Coffee – But We’ve Found a Wild Species That Could Help Save Your Morning Brew
By Aaron P Davis
The world loves coffee. More precisely, it loves arabica coffee. From the smell of its freshly ground beans through to the very last sip, arabica is a sensory delight.
Robusta, the other mainstream coffee crop species, is almost as widely traded as arabica, but it falls short on flavor. Robusta is mainly used for instant coffee and blends, while arabica is the preserve of discerning baristas and expensive espressos.
Consumers may be happy, but climate change is making coffee farmers bitter. Diseases and pests are becoming more common and severe as temperatures rise. The fungal infection known as coffee leaf rust has devastated plantations in Central and South America. And while robusta crops tend to be more resistant, they need plenty of rain – a tall order as droughts proliferate.
The future for coffee farming looks difficult, if not bleak. But one of the more promising solutions involves developing new, more resilient coffee crops. Not only will these new coffees have to tolerate higher temperatures and less predictable rainfall, they'll also have to continue satisfying consumer expectations for taste and smell.
Finding this perfect combination of traits in a new species seemed remote. But in newly published research, my colleagues and I have revealed a little-known wild coffee species that could be the best candidate yet.
Coffee Farming in a Warming World
Coffea stenophylla was first described as a new species from Sierra Leone in 1834. It was farmed across the wetter parts of upper west Africa until the early 20th century, when it was replaced by the newly discovered and more productive robusta, and largely forgotten by the coffee industry. It continued to grow wild in the humid forests of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, where it became threatened by deforestation.
At the end of 2018, we found stenophylla in Sierra Leone after searching for several years, but failed to find any trees in fruit until mid-2020, when a 10g sample was recovered for tasting.
Field botanists of the 19th century had long proclaimed the superior taste of stenophylla coffee, and also recorded its resistance to coffee leaf rust and drought. Those early tasters were often inexperienced though, and our expectations were low before the first tasting in the summer of 2020. That all changed once I'd sampled the first cup on a panel with five other coffee experts. Those first sips were revelatory: it was like expecting vinegar and getting champagne.
This initial tasting in London was followed by a thorough evaluation of the coffee's flavour in southern France, led by my research colleague Delpine Mieulet. Mieulet assembled 18 coffee connoisseurs for a blind taste test and they reported a complex profile for stenophylla coffee, with natural sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness, and good body, as one would expect from high-quality arabica.
C. stenophylla growing in the wild, Ivory Coast. E. Couturon / IRD, Author provided
In fact, the coffee seemed very similar to arabica. At the London tasting, the Sierra Leone sample was compared to arabica from Rwanda. In the blind French tasting, most of the judges (81%) said stenophylla tasted like arabica, compared to 98% and 44% for the two arabica control samples, and 7% for a robusta sample.
The coffee tasting experts picked up on notes of peach, blackcurrant, mandarin, honey, light black tea, jasmine, chocolate, caramel and elderflower syrup. In essence, stenophylla coffee is delicious. And despite scoring highly for its similarity to arabica, the stenophylla coffee sample was identified as something entirely unique by 47% of the judges. That means there may be a new market niche for this rediscovered coffee to fill.
The taste testers approved of stenophylla's sweet and fruity flavour. CIRAD, Author provided
Breaking New Grounds
Until now, no other wild coffee species has come close to arabica for its superior taste. Scientifically, the results are compelling because we would simply not expect stenophylla to taste like arabica. These two species are not closely related, they originated on opposite sides of the African continent and the climates in which they grow are very different. They also look nothing alike: stenophylla has black fruit and more complex flowers while arabica cherries are red.
It was always assumed that high-quality coffee was the preserve of arabica – originally from the forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan – and particularly when grown at elevations above 1,500 metres, where the climate is cooler and the light is better.
Stenophylla coffee breaks these rules. Endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, stenophylla grows in hot conditions at low elevations. Specifically it grows at a mean annual temperature of 24.9°C – 1.9°C higher than robusta, and up to 6.8°C higher than arabica. Stenophylla also appears more tolerant of droughts, potentially capable of growing with less rainfall than arabica.
Robusta coffee can grow in similar conditions to stenophylla, but the price paid to farmers is roughly half that of arabica. Stenophylla coffee makes it possible to grow a superior tasting coffee in much warmer climates. And while stenophylla trees tend to produce less fruit than arabica, they still yield enough to be commercially viable.
The stenophylla harvest on Reunion Island. IRD / CIRAD, Author provided
To breed the coffee crop plants of the future, we need species with great flavour and high heat tolerance. Crossbreeding stenophylla with arabica or robusta could make both more resilient to climate change, and even improve their taste, particularly in the latter.
With stenophylla's rediscovery, the future of coffee just got a little brighter.
Aaron P Davis: Senior Research Leader, Plant Resources, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Disclosure statement: Aaron P Davis receives funding from Darwin Initiative (UK).
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
On Thursday, April 22, the world will celebrate Earth Day, the largest non-religious holiday on the globe.
This Earth Day falls at a critical turning point. It is the second Earth Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and follows a year of devastating climate disasters, such as the wildfires that scorched California and the hurricanes that battered Central America. But the day's organizers still have hope, and they have chosen a theme to match.
"At the heart of Earth Day's 2021 theme, Restore Our Earth, is optimism, a critically needed sentiment in a world ravaged by both climate change and the pandemic," EarthDay.org president Kathleen Rogers told USA TODAY.
Last Earth Day marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated digitally to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will largely be the case this year as well.
"Most of our Earth Day events will be virtual with the exception of individual and small group cleanups through our 'Great Global Cleanup' program," EarthDay.org's Olivia Altman told USA TODAY.
Tuesday, April 20: A Global Youth Summit begins at 2:30 p.m. ET featuring young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor. This will be followed at 7 p.m. ET by "We Shall Breathe," a virtual summit organized by the Hip Hop Caucus to look at issues like the climate crisis, pollution and the pandemic through an environmental justice lens.
Wednesday, April 22: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET, Education International will lead the "Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit." Talks will be offered in multiple languages and across multiple time zones to emphasize the importance of education in fighting the climate crisis.
Thursday, April 22: On the day itself, EarthDay.org will host its second ever Earth Day Live digital event beginning at 12 p.m. ET. This event will feature discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day's theme of restoring our Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.
"EARTHDAY.ORG looks forward to contributing to the success of this historic climate summit and making active progress to Restore Our Earth," Rogers said in a press release. "We must see every country rapidly raise their ambition across all climate issues — and that must include climate education which would lead to a green jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an educated and civically engaged citizenry around the world."
EarthDay.org grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million U.S. residents to call for greater environmental protections. The movement has been credited with helping to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to pass landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts. It has since gone on to be a banner day for environmental action, such as the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. More than one billion people in more than 192 countries celebrate Earth Day each year.
This legacy continues. The organization called the scheduling of Biden's summit a "clear acknowledgement of the power of Earth Day."
"This is a critical stepping stone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. In concert with several planned parallel EARTHDAY.ORG events worldwide, Earth Day 2021 will accelerate global action on climate change," EarthDay.org wrote.
Super-emitters are individual sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills or dairy farms that produce a disproportionate amount of planet-warming emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon Mapper, the non-profit leading the effort, hopes to provide a more targeted guide to reducing emissions by launching special satellites that hunt for sources of climate pollution.
"What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, told BBC News. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck."
The new project, announced Thursday, is a partnership between multiple entities, including Carbon Mapper, the state of California, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Planet, a company that designs, builds and launches satellites, according to a press release. The project is being implemented in three stages.
The initial stage, which is already complete, involved the initial engineering development. NASA and Planet will work together in the second stage to build two satellites for a 2023 launch. The third phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.
The satellites will include an imaging spectrometer built by NASA's JPL, NASA explained in a press release. This is a device that can break down visible light into hundreds of colors, providing a unique signature for chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide. Most imaging spectrometers currently in orbit have larger pixel sizes, making it difficult to locate emission sources that are not always visible from the ground. However, Carbon Mapper spectrometers will have pixels of around 98 square feet, facilitating more detailed pin-pointing.
"This technology enables researchers to identify, study and quantify the strong gas emission sources," JPL Scientist Charles Miller said in the press release.
Once the data is collected, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors via an open data portal to help repair leaks.
"These home-grown satellites are a game-changer," California Governor Gavin Newsom said of the project. "They provide California with a powerful, state-of-the-art tool to help us slash emissions of the super-pollutant methane — within our own borders and around the world. That's exactly the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking solution we need now to address the existential crisis of climate change."