Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dr. Strange Versus Global Cooling

Global-warming denialists often proclaim that in the 1970s scientists predicted global cooling, then in the 1980s suddenly changed their minds to global warming. Implication: scientists are always changing their minds, so don’t take them seriously when they declare that the world has been warming for decades and is going to get a lot hotter before it’s through. What’ll the big scare be tomorrow? Global polka-dots? Hah!

It’s effective rhetoric even though it makes no sense: So what if scientists have changed their minds — isn’t that what they’re supposed to do, when the facts warrant it? But the point is moot anyway because the story is false. There was no 1970s global cooling scare—not among scientists. A few scientists did suggest that cooling was a possibility, but the overwhelming majority, as reviews of the literature have shown, said that global warming was on its way. This view solidified in the 1980s with increasingly deep knowledge of atmospheric physics. And warming is exactly what we have seen since then and will continue to see: the first decade of the 21st century was, according to NASA, the hottest in the instrumental record, which goes back to before the Civil War.

Whence, then, the myth of the Great ’70s Global Cooling Scare? Several pop media outlets, such as Newsweek (“The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975), did actually publish scare stories on global cooling. These grossly misrepresented the state of the climate science; their contribution to human understanding has been entirely negative, as they now make excellent ammo for the anti-science crowd.

But not all popular media were fooled. Marvel Comics, trying hard in the 1970s to be hip on issues like race, drug addiction, and urban alienation, managed to get it basically right. In Doctor Strange No. 6, February, 1975, the good-guy sorcerer Dr. Strange and his lover/sidekick Clea are confronted by a bitter heroin addict while walking in Central Park. The man points to the sky and says:

dr strange 1.jpg

Right on! Well, the science is a little wrinkled — nothing is “cutting the oxygen,” and you can’t see the stuff that’s causing the greenhouse effect — but what do you expect from a heroin addict? In any case, Dr. Strange author Steve Englehart landed a lot closer to the mark than the high-paid babblers at Newsweek, Time, and elsewhere who were ignoring the scientific literature and pushing global cooling.

That one slightly awkward frame does not do justice to the trademark fluidity of artist Gene Colan’s pencils. Here it is in its full-page context (well-handled by inker Klaus Janson):

dr strange 2.jpg

The moral: if you want to understand the world, you are infinitely better off reading comics than listening to the likes of George Will and Rush Limbaugh, who are still dishonestly pushing the myth of a 70s global-cooling consensus among scientists.

But climate-change denialism is here to stay no matter how many comic books we read (and I read my share). Its star may rise higher or sink lower but it will never set, no matter how hot the climate gets, because no form of denialism, once deeply entrenched in a wide following, has ever totally disappeared from the face of the earth. As Dr. Strange says in the last frame, “It is beyond even a sorcerer supreme!”