The Serpent’s Egg: a History of the Climate Scare


The Serpent’s Egg
Tony Thomas

… a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous.
Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene I

In June 1988, US Senators Tim Wirth and Al Gore invited a noted climate scientist to brief their committee on global warming. Dr James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the senators: “The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements … The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”[1]

It was a day of fierce summer heat in Washington. The USA in 1988 was in the grip of heat, drought and potential crop failure comparable to the 1930s “dust bowls”. Hansen gave the media a new angle on the heatwave, and they ran with it. Thus the warmist show for the masses got on the road. “The show” is correct because the hearing itself was a piece of stagecraft. Senator Wirth, with pride, told all to the PBS Frontline special in April 2007:

Timothy Wirth: We called the Weather Bureau and found out what historically was the hottest day of the summer. Well, it was June 6th or June 9th or whatever it was [actually, June 23]. So we scheduled the hearing that day, and bingo, it was the hottest day on record in Washington, or close to it.

Deborah Amos: Did you also alter the temperature in the hearing room that day?

Timothy Wirth: What we did is that we went in the night before and opened all the windows, I will admit, right, so that the air conditioning wasn’t working inside the room. And so when the hearing occurred, there was not only bliss, which is television cameras and double figures, but it was really hot … The wonderful Jim Hansen was wiping his brow at the table at the hearing, at the witness table, and giving this remarkable testimony.[2]

Hansen’s one-time NASA supervisor, the atmospheric scientist John S. Theon, wrote in 2009 that Hansen “embarrassed NASA” with his alarmism: NASA in 1988 knew little about any human-caused warming. Theon himself was responsible for all NASA weather and climate research, including Hansen’s.[3]

Hansen’s later activism included being arrested in 2009, 2010 and 2011 during his anti-coal-mining demonstrations. In 2007, in testimony to the Iowa Utilities Board, he likened coal trains to “death trains”, saying they would be “no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species”.[4] Hansen has also called for chief executives of big fossil fuel companies to be tried for “high crimes against humanity and nature”.[5]

Enough of Hansen, typically described as “one of the world’s leading climate scientists”. This article will go back further to see how the warming crisis originated, and where the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has taken this issue by 2012.

The theory that human-caused carbon dioxide warms the planet goes back to the Swedish scholar Svante Arrhenius in 1896. He thought this would be wonderful:

By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.[6]

However, he hugely underestimated how long the doubling from pre-industrial levels would take: he thought 3000 years; we now think it is likely to happen between 2050 and 2100.

The next big Swede was Bert Bolin. He should be (but isn’t) a household name as the man who galvanised the modern world about carbon dioxide. Bolin pioneered computerised weather forecasting (using the original ENIAC electronic computer) and was quick to endorse the then-sketchy hypothesis that carbon dioxide “pollution” from fossil fuels was a threat to civilisation.

The computerised climate models of those days were ineffably crude—even today, after billions in research funding, climate models are still conceded by the IPCC to have serious flaws and limitations. However, the time was ripe for this new environmental cause. The scare de jour was the Club of Rome’s “limits to growth”; but catastrophic global warming went one better on the angst scale.

Bolin led the science effort, through his chairing from 1964 of the International Council of Scientific Union’s (ICSU’s) key committee on the atmosphere. This high profile led him to chair conferences, become lead editor for reports, and chair successor bodies run jointly with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) from 1967. From there he vaulted to the inaugural IPCC chair (1988–97).

He propagated modelling results predicting that doubling carbon dioxide would boost warming not by the accepted 1 degree Celsius but by as much as 5.5 degrees through hypothesised “feedbacks”. The attention-getter was that this would occur within the time of one’s grandchildren—from around 2030.[7]

Bolin’s able supporter was Mostafa Tolba, Egypt’s head of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) from 1975 to 1992. Tolba’s landmark success was the Montreal Protocol on CFC chemicals and the ozone hole in 1987. He also took up the cudgels against acid rain, which turned out to be localised glitches.

The carbon dioxide politicisation got under way at a key conference at Villach, Austria, in 1985, run by the ICSU, the UNEP and the WMO. Even the conference’s title specified that carbon dioxide was the villain in warming, although this had yet to be demonstrated. One hundred scientists and bureaucrats attended the conference by personal invitation and in their personal capacity. They were encouraged to make their resolutions without accountability to parent bodies.[8] The ICSU had prepared a dire, model-based climate report. After a single day’s discussion, the report was officially adopted, although attendees agreed to tone down the top warming estimate from 5.5 degrees to 4.5 degrees to make it more politically saleable. They also cut the upper limit of the forecast sea-level rise from 165 centimetres to 140 centimetres, for the same reason (hence science by consensus). A fly in the ointment was that the WMO declined to affirm that carbon dioxide was causing global warming, so the report had to be equivocal on that.[9] This Villach science report became the received text for similar environmental conferences and reports that followed, such as the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future), assembled under the guidance of Bert Bolin.

The UNEP’s style under Tolba was to go over the heads of national politicians direct to green lobbies and the media. This forced the politicians into action. Momentum came to a head at the June 1988 “Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere”, which brought together the governmental, scientific and activist communities. Incidentally, three months prior to this conference Bolin was already calling for a carbon emissions tax.[10]

Of the conference’s 341 delegates (mainly bureaucrats), fifty were green groupers from forty-six countries, and only seventy-six were physical scientists.[11] As for the media, “extra press rooms had to be added to handle the hordes of descending journalists”, according to the late Dr Stephen Schneider, the same media-savvy scientist who told Discover magazine in 1989: “To capture the public’s imagination … we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.”[12]

The thirty governments formally represented at Toronto pledged to cut their carbon dioxide emissions voluntarily by 20 per cent (from 1988 levels) by 2005, to head off warming and sea-level rises. They also set their seal on the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with Bolin as first head. The IPCC’s pre-foundation brief was to encourage and sum up the science as guidance for governmental policy decisions—no mention there of “human-caused” climate change. Technically, this was a neutral agenda.[13] In practice, as Tolba put it to the first IPCC session, the IPCC should “bravely inform the world what ought to be done”.[14] In the event, the IPCC charter in 1988 hardened up. It said the goal was to assess “the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change”.[15]

Among the embryo IPCC’s keenest backers was the think-tank TERI in New Delhi, run by the IPCC’s future chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri. TERI ran a manifesto in 1989 which for its tone shocked even IPCC chair Bert Bolin:

Global warming is the greatest crisis ever faced collectively by humankind. Unlike other earlier crises, it is global in nature, threatens the very survival of civilisation, and promises to throw up only losers over the entire international socio-economic fabric. The reason for such a potential apocalyptic scenario is simple: climate changes of geological proportions are occurring over time-spans as short as a single human lifetime.[16]

The newly formed IPCC rushed out its first report by 1990—in two years instead of the later reports’ five or six years—with the intention of making it a key document for the 1992 conference in Rio de Janeiro. This first report was based heavily on the findings of the 1985 Villach conference and on the Brundtland report. To its credit, the 1990 report was moderate in tone. Its key tract was in the Executive Summary of the human-attribution chapter: “The fact that we are unable to reliably detect the predictive [carbon dioxide] signals today does not mean that the greenhouse theory is wrong, or that it will not be a severe problem in the decades ahead.” In Bolin’s memoir he pointed out that “The IPCC conclusions were carefully worded and did not say that a human-induced climate change was under way.”[17] He complained: “It was non-government groups of environmentalists, supported by the mass media, who were the ones exaggerating the conclusions that had been carefully formulated by the IPCC.”[18]

The IPCC’s 1990 report was of course unsatisfactory to the green movement, from top level (UNEP) down. Putting the political cart before the science horse, the UN drew up its “Framework Convention on Climate Change” (UNFCCC) treaty, which asserted human causation in no uncertain terms, and foreshadowed a regime of emission controls. At the famed “Earth Summit” in Rio in 1992, 154 states signed on. In somewhat Orwellian fashion, the “Earth Summit” redefined the term “climate change” to literally mean “human-caused climate change”. Natural climate change was then re-defined as “climate variability”.[19] Additionally, according to Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC charter was modified to explicitly state that it was to support the UNFCCC.[20]

What is missing from my dry tale is the emotional punch generated during that Earth Summit. The pre-summit ceremonies included the “Declaration of the Sacred Earth Gathering”:

The responsibility of each human being today is to choose between the force of darkness and the force of light. We must therefore transform our attitudes and values, and adopt a renewed respect for the superior law of Divine Nature.

The sacred earth drummers maintained a continuous heartbeat near the conference centre, “as part of a ritual for the healing of our Earth to be felt by those who are deciding Earth’s fate”.[21]

The next IPCC report, scheduled for 1995, could hardly maintain the 1990 report’s “neutral” stance, given the Rio and UNFCCC anti-carbon-dioxide politics. In the event, the 1995 all-important summary for policy makers said: “The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” This itself was a compromise, watering down the draft’s wording of “appreciable” human influence. Bolin says he also ensured that the conclusion was qualified with a phrase, “fully recognising the uncertainty”, but media, lobbies and governments subsequently ignored it. He also complained that many other points in the summary should have been qualified for uncertainties, but were not.[22]

Given that the 1995 summary gave an elephant stamp to the carbon dioxide pollution story, what (if anything) underpinned that summary? Frederick Seitz, president emeritus of Rockefeller University and chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, Washington, claimed critical caveats in the 1995 body text were deleted to permit the activist summary. Bolin denied this and said there were merely normal reviews of drafts. The deleted passages cited by Seitz included:

No study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic causes …

None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gases …

Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced …

Seitz, a former president of the US National Academy of Sciences and of the American Physical Society, said he had never witnessed “a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events which led to this IPCC report”.[23]

Bolin himself let a cat out of the bag. He revealed that the chapter heads Ben Santer and Tom Wigley had claimed, after inspecting the reviewed draft, that new evidence had arrived in the literature justifying a stronger conclusion on human causation.[24] The chair of the science group, Sir John Houghton, thought this summary-strengthening was warranted and the bulk report was retrospectively amended. Human causation thus became scientific orthodoxy. But tangling the web that way offended some delegates, “who emphasised more the need to safeguard the credibility of the assessment process”, as Bolin put it.[25]

Houghton was highly influential in the IPCC’s first decade. He had been Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Oxford and chief executive of the UK Met Office before leading the IPCC’s hard-science Group 1 team for the 1990, 1995 and 2001 reports. A devout church-goer, he told the London Sunday Telegraph in 1995:

If we want good environmental policy in future, we’ll have to have a disaster. It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident … God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters. Human sin may be involved; the effect will be the same. [26]

He also quoted approvingly in 2002 a study estimating there would be 150 million “environmental refugees” by 2050. This was even scarier than UN’s original “climate refugees” scare of 2005, predicting 50 million by 2010.[27] (When the 50 million failed to show up by 2010, the UN discreetly substituted “2020” for the originally forecast “2010”.)[28]

Melbourne IT expert John McLean, who has studied Houghton’s role in this souping-up of the conclusions of the 1995 report, says that the “new evidence” involved was a five-page draft paper submitted to Nature but not yet reviewed, let alone published. And who co-wrote this draft article? The chapter heads Ben Santer and Tom Wigley, along with about seven authors of the IPCC chapter and five other names.

Sherlock Holmes would conclude that the chapter team, lacking evidence to back up their desired post-review rewrite, had written a paper and sent it off to Nature specifically so they could cite it for the IPCC report. The paper itself was clubby, thirty-two of its fifty-nine references involving papers by the chapter members, according to McLean. Four of the fifty-nine references were not even published work, and eight referred to IPCC documents. Of those, three were circular, referring to the impending 1995 IPCC report itself![29] The Nature paper was not published till July 1996. It was of the “state-of-the-art models suggest” kind, and it concluded rather weakly, “It is likely that this [warming] trend is partially due to human activities, although many uncertainties remain, particularly relating to estimates of natural variability.”[30]

Somehow this conclusion had justified the 1995 IPCC summary: “The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” The saga was prolonged when several of the paper’s authors were selected as authors of the 2001 report, which in turn cited the Nature paper approvingly.

With human causation now “consensus”, the 2001 and 2007 reports toughened the language, upping the causation from “likely” (2001) to “very likely” (2007), on the basis of further modelling. The 2001 report also splashed in seven places the now-discredited Michael Mann “hockey stick” graph showing current temperatures to be at their highest for a thousand years. It is not quite true that the hockey stick disappeared in the 2007 IPCC report but the one reproduction there is accompanied by discussion about its validity.[31]

Governments have various ways of pressuring IPCC authors about what they write. For example, the UK Department for Environment (DEFRA) briefed the first scoping meeting for the science section of the 2007 IPCC report:

There is general consensus, presented in the TAR [2001 IPCC report] and widely accepted, that climate change in the latter half of the twentieth century, is due to anthropogenic forcing, and the emphasis for WG1 [the science section] should be on anthropogenic change rather than shorter term variability.

This document went on to urge that the 2007 report writers play down paleoclimate information—how the earth’s climate has behaved over recent geological periods, which is something sceptics like to cite.[32]

The IPCC’s current role, apart from supporting the UNFCCC climate treaties, includes

to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Note that human causation is a given, and that the charter does not encourage the IPCC to investigate potential natural causation. Such processes could be solar cosmic rays seeding clouds and influencing temperatures, and the mystery mechanism driving the Pacific Decadal Oscillation cycles (which correlate well with the temperature record).[33] [34]

The IPCC charter has instead generated a circular process. Research funds pour into the human-attribution issue. Non-human causation has become the Cinderella of science, starved of funds and likely to kill your promotion prospects. Such research could put the IPCC out of business, and evaporate a lot of the science and technology funding (of which something like $80 billion has been spent since 1989 by the USA alone).

The IPCC’s melting-glacier scandal of 2010 and the “Climategate” e-mail scandals (2009 and 2011) have arguably forced the IPCC into a more disciplined approach, with the determination not to be further caught out on scientific bias. The fruits of this new approach emerged in November 2011 with the IPCC’s special draft report on extreme weather events.[35] Thanks to anodyne IPCC press releases, the mass media (which avoids non-summarised material) failed to notice a bombshell finding. Translated from long-winded science-style language, it says:

for the next twenty to thirty years, man-made warming effects on climate extremes will be swamped by natural climate variability;

the man-made warming may even be beneficial by reducing the number of extreme events; and

neither IPCC models nor emissions forecasting are good enough to forecast extreme weather events up to the end of the century.
These IPCC authors won’t be thanked for giving the IPCC modellers a hotfoot. But the 2001 IPCC report, in a bit of buried text, had said something similar: “The climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.”[36]

Indeed, the IPCC report in 2007 pulled the rug from under its own models. It said that in terms of sixteen major climate forces, the “level of scientific understanding” was less than “medium” for thirteen of them, and for five, it’s “very low”.[37] It is remarkable that IPCC scientists can build climate models—and trumpet the outputs—when they don’t understand climate. But as things now stand, the modellers will nearly all be retired or dead by the time their new grace period of twenty to thirty years is up.

Doubts about modellers’ outputs wouldn’t matter if this was all just a morning tea debate among Kevin Rudd’s “humourless scientists in their white coats who go around measuring things”. One wishes it were only that.

Tony Thomas, a retired journalist, worked for thirty years with the Age and BRW. He contributed “The Fictive World of Rajendra Pachauri” in the March issue.






[6] Worlds in the making: the evolution of the universe, p63 Harper, 1908.

[7] Wendy Franz, p9.

[8] Bill Kinninmonth

[9] Franz op cit p10

[10] “Introduce a tax on Carbon Dioxide”, Bert Bolin & Mans Lonnroth, in Dagens Nyheter newspaper, 24/3/1988

[11] Wendy Franz, op cit., p25


[13] Bolin, Bert: A history of the Science and Politics of Climate Change, Cambridge UP, 2007, p51

[14] McLean, John, Climate Science Corrupted. SPPI, Nov 20, 2009, p7.


[16] Bolin, A history op cit P55.

[17] ibid p63

[18] ibid p112.


[20] Laframboise, Donna, Delinquent Teenager, Avenue Press, Toronto, 2011, p41

[21] page 6

[22] Bolin: A History op cit p112-113


[24] Bolin, A History, op cit p113

[25] Bolin, A History, op cit p114




[29] McLean, John, We have been Conned – an independent review of the IPCC, p30-32.


[31] (Box 6.4, WG1).

[32] Op cit McLean, Climate Science Corrupted, p17. The quote is from p36 of the un-numbered pdf file cited




[36] P771, chapter 14, TAR.

[37] Table 2.11, p 201, Chapter 2, WG1, IPCC 4AR.


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