Naomi Oreskes and Jonathan Renouf
Monday, Sept 8, 2008
A shadowy scientific elite codenamed Jason warned the US about global warming 30 years ago but was sidelined for political convenience.
Today the scientific argument about the broad principles of what we are doing to the Earth’s climate is over. By releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere we are warming the world.
Since the early 1990s there has been a furious debate about global warming. So-called climate change “sceptics” have spent years disputing almost every aspect of the scientific consensus on the subject. Their arguments have successfully delayed significant political action to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. Recent research reveals how the roots of this argument stretch back to two hugely influential reports written almost 30 years ago.
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These reports involve a secret organisation of American scientists reporting to the US Department of Defense. At the highest levels of the American government, officials pondered whether global warming was a significant new threat to civilisation. They turned for advice to the elite special forces of the scientific world – a shadowy organisation known as Jason. Even today few people have heard of Jason. It was established in 1960 at the height of the cold war when a group of physicists who had helped to develop the atomic bomb proposed a new organisation that would – to quote one of its founders – “inject new ideas into national defence”.
So the Jasons (as they style themselves) were born; a self-selected group of brilliant minds free to think the unthinkable in the knowledge that their work was classified. Membership was by invitation only and they are indeed the cream. Of the roughly 100 Jasons over the years, 11 have won Nobel prizes and 43 have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.
For years, being a Jason was just about the best job going in American science. Every summer the Jasons all moved to San Diego in California to devote six weeks to working together. They were paid well and rented houses by the beach. The kids surfed while their dads saved the world. Less James Bond, more Club Med.
Today the Jasons still meet in San Diego in a quaint postwar construction with more than a hint of Thunderbirds about it. In 1977 they got to work on global warming. There was one potential problem. Only a few of them knew anything about climatology. To get a better understanding they relocated for a few days to Boulder, Colorado, the base for NCAR – the National Center for Atmospheric Research – where they heard the latest information on climate change. Then, being physicists, they went back to first principles and decided to build a model of the climate system. Officially it was called Features of Energy-Budget Climate Models: An Example of Weather-Driven Climate Stability, but it was dubbed the Jason Model of the World.
In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.
Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it’s expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that’s smack in the middle of today’s predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true – last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.
This article was posted: Monday, September 8, 2008 at 12:49 pm