OUR DREADFUL destiny was that we were either going to starve to death or be buried by advancing glaciers in a new ice age. The alleged villain, global cooling, was coming faster than anyone predicted. It wouldn't be all that long before polar bears would be rummaging through Macy's.
That was the dire - and now infamous - warning by Newsweek science editor Peter Gwynne in the magazine's April 28, 1975, issue.
"There are ominous signs that the Earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production - with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth," Gwynne wrote. "The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now" - i.e., 1985.
In fact, the opposite occurred. World food output and per-capita production both increased steadily in the decades before and after Gwynne's prophecy of drastic scarcities.
He cited top climate experts to support his premise of global cooling: "A survey completed last year by Dr. Murray Mitchell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, reveals a drop of half a degree in average ground temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere between 1945 and 1968. According to George Kukla of Columbia University, satellite photos indicated a sudden, large increase in Northern Hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-72. And a study released last month by two NOAA scientists notes that the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the continental U.S. diminished by 1.3% between 1964 and 1972."
That era of alleged global cooling in the northern hemisphere, 1945 to 1968, is the exact period that saw unprecedented increases in overall manufacturing in the northern hemisphere and, in particular, huge increases in the number of motor vehicles on the roads - as well as huge increases in the size of the fins on an ever-growing number of ever-lengthening Coupe de Villes. (It's odd that no one at Harvard got a federal grant to study the obvious correlation between the Cadillac sales and the well-being of polar bears, the clear link between bigger fins, falling temperatures and more ice between 1945 and 1968.)
Newsweek's Gwynne saw an avalanche of evidence for global cooling and a growing scientific consensus: "The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it."
Nearly a year before Newsweek's ominous warning about global cooling, Time was beating the same drum, running "Another ice age?" in its June 24, 1974, issue.
"However widely the weather varies from place to place and time to time, when meteorologists take an average of temperatures around the globe they find that the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades," reported Time. "The trend shows no indication of reversing."
The evidence, said Time, was everywhere, "from the unexpected persistence and thickness of pack ice in the waters around Iceland to the southward migration of a warmth-loving armadillo from the Midwest."
Besides the traveling armadillos, Time reported, satellite weather data for the northern hemisphere showed that "the area of the ice and snow cover had suddenly increased by 12 percent in 1971 and the increase has persisted ever since. Areas of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, for example, were once totally free of any snow in summer; now they are covered year round."
Time also saw evidence of planetary cooling in "the Midwest's recent rash of disastrous tornadoes" and the expansion of "polar winds" and the subsequent "cap of cold air that is the immediate cause of Africa's drought."
The effect of all this could be "extremely serious, if not catastrophic," Time warned. With global food outputs "sharply reduced" by way of droughts, we could well be headed for the non-sustainability of our species if things stayed on the same chilling track. Time quotes University of Toronto climatologist Kenneth Hare, a former president of the Royal Meteorological Society: "I don't believe that the world's present population is sustainable if there are more than three years like 1972 in a row."
So what'll we do?
Kill the cows and stop eating burgers because it's getting too hot, or buy bigger Buicks because it's getting too cold?
Sen. Obama's answer on the campaign trail was that we should buy the warming premise, buckle to foreign opinion, trade in our comfortable cars for nerdmobiles, keep our homes hotter in the summer and colder in the winter, cut out ice cream and start replacing strip steaks with tofu.
'WE CAN'T DRIVE our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times," he said, "and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK."
I'd say the first step is to get the data right and forget about what the French or Chinese think about what we're driving or eating.
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.