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Hubert Lamb: The scepticism of CRU’s founder

This is a guest post by Bernie Lewin.

The Wikipedia article on the founder of CRU, Hubert Lamb,states:

At first his view was that global cooling would lead within 10,000 years to a future ice age and he was known as “the ice man”, but over a period including the UK's exceptional drought and heat wave of 1975–76 he changed to predicting that global warming could have serious effects within a century. His warnings of damage to agriculture, ice caps melting, and cities being flooded caught widespread attention and helped to shape public opinion.

There are a number of oddities about this claim. For one: why would you need to renounce a prediction of an ice age in a few thousand years so as to come around to the global warming scare—which is predicted for the next few centuries, if not decades? But strangest of all is that Lamb never professed alarm about manmade global warming. In fact, from his earliest writing on the greenhouse warming hypothesis until his death in 1997, he was a vocal sceptic. One could even say that he was the original opponent of global warming alarm, vocal in opposition even in its nascent state during the 1970s and early 1980s. 

A hint of Lamb’s scepticism entered the contemporary global warming controversy with Fred Pearce in an introductory chapter of his book about Climategate, The Climate Files. There Pearce quotes a high-profile speech that Lamb delivered in 1984. An addition to the Wikipedia article citing this secondary source represented the first first hint there of Lamb’s scepticism. Within hours this addition was ripped out by the notorious William Connolley.

A minor editorial dispute ensued. In the end, with a small concession, the defenders of Lamb’s virtue were victorious. And so there remains the story (quoted above) of how Lamb’s warning of a warming-driven catastrophe gained attention and brought the public on side. Such heroic actions could not be further from the truth. And the problem is not only with Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, there is a similar fudging in the biography posted at CRU. A search of the internet reveals only a few hints of what was a scepticism of every aspect of the whole darn thing — and a scepticism that persisted across the last three decades of his life. For some time I have been meaning to do something about this, and so, to improve the situation, I have now laid out extensive quotes from Lamb’s main published discussions of the greenhouse warming hypothesis.

In these extracts Lamb expresses scepticism of the theoretical physics, he suggests likely negative feedbacks, he notes that the models are not matching the trends, he outlines how 20th century trends are better explained by natural drives (solar and volcanic), he wonders that some of the warming in the station-based global temperature anomalies are still infected by UHI effect, he puts his hope in satellite data to give better results…and so much more. He also spends some time analysing the funding drivers behind the scare, including vested interests, and other reasons why climate modelling gets so much support.

Lamb completed his memoirs in his final year 1997, months before Kyoto. In it he laments:

It is unfortunate that studies produced nowadays treat these and other matters related to changes of climate as if they are always, and only, attributable to the activities of Man and side-effects on the climate.


Since my retirement from the directorship of the Climatic Research Unit there have been changes there… My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climate being changed as a result of human activities,…After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which had first made the Unit well known, was abandoned.

Lamb saw hope in Briffa and others taking up dendroclimatology, but pleaded that this data should be consulted in concert with multiple historical sources. Indeed,it was not, and the story from there is familiar to BH readers.

Extended quotes from Lamb are here. An introductory essay is here, and more here.

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Reader Comments (23)

Surely that assertion re Lamb and Global warming should have a citation? Any Wikipedia editors here able to flag that statement as needing a citation. Garbage like this gives Wikipedia a bad name.

Feb 25, 2014 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Poynton

I began reading Lamb long before he published the second edition of his main book, Climate, History and the Modern World, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1995.

[Even by 1958 I was well enough read in the subject of climate hisrory to know that my professor was wrong when he said that there had been no climate change since 5000 BC, the end of the Hypsithermal, better known as the Holocene Climate Optimum, which for a thousand years or so was a couple of degrees Celsius warmer than today with sea level about 2 meters higher,]

I do not recall any indication in the first edition that Lamb expected catastrophic global warming.

I am away from my library at the moment and have not opened the 2nd edition for a month or so, but my recollection is that Lamb thought that some warming might be a good thing if it delayed the onset of the cooling that will inevitably come sooner or later.

But Lamb did definitely change his position by 1995. He added a chapter about global warming to the 2nd edition, though he was far more cautious about the science of global warming than modern writers.

I found that chapter puzzling because the bulk of the book and indeed of his whole career was directed to demonstrating that climate has always changed and has done so naturally,sometimes with dramatic consequences for Mankind.

Lamb was a rigorous scientist as you can see by reading his chapter outlining what he thought should be the future of climate science as a discipline towards the end of the 2nd edition.

Your quotations are perfectly consistent with Lamb's cautionary statements in the 2nd edition, warnings that have been ignored by the CRU in recent years.

Feb 25, 2014 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterFred Colbourne

The two quotes above are from Lamb's Through all the Changing Scenes of Life, p234 and 249 respectively.
Full citations including page reference and a link to full bibliographic records are on the H H Lamb page here:

The Wikipedia article requires a major re-write on this subject, but I would not want to get into an editorial dispute without first laying out the extensive evidence of Lamb's consistent scepticism of nearly ever aspect and dimension of the warming scare as such a view of Lamb is far and away from the secondary sources on the internet that it is likely to be met with disbelief.

Feb 25, 2014 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernieL

Anyone who consults Wikipedia on anything deserves whatever junk they get.

To be fair, though, it does take a certain perverse genius on the part of his successors at CRU to stand on the shoulders of a giant like Lamb and see far less than he did ...

Feb 25, 2014 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve C

This is excellent work. Far from his Climate, History and the Modern World supporting the notion that Lamb was any sort of "alarmist", one finds only good, properly cautious science. He deserves better than to be squalidly air-brushed from the record if for no other purpose that to begin the rehabilitation of the department he founded. I accept that that isn't going to happen in a hurry but this is still a most worthwhile contribution.

Feb 25, 2014 at 12:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveB

I'm with you Bernie. I read from a few decades back and he never in that time spoke about human effects on the climate. I read his book/thesis several times. There is something very wrong with the statement above. I want to know where it has come from.

This looks like a connerly of as we say in france une connerie.

Feb 25, 2014 at 1:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

What do you mean "gives" Wikipedia a bad name.
As far as climate science is concerned Wikipedia's name stinks and always has. If ever you needed evidence that AGW is a scam and has always been driven by those with a socio-political agenda then all you need do is compare Andrew's links here with Wikipedia's entry. Then go and try to edit it.
If your edit lasts 10 minutes you'll be lucky.

Feb 25, 2014 at 1:03 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Anyone who consults Wikipedia on anything deserves whatever junk they get.

I'd like to qualify that with "without checking other sources".

For my areas of interest (software, music, engineering) Wikipedia is usually a good starting point but I'd never rely on it solely. This isn't because Wikipedia is fundamentally bad, rather it relies on the wisdom of crowds. This is fundamentally a people problem, and like social media one can't blame the owners of the site for the way some individuals abuse it.

Feb 25, 2014 at 1:22 PM | Registered Commenterthrog

"But Lamb did definitely change his position by 1995."

I don't read the new chapter (Ch 19) in the 2nd edition in that way at all.
See if your memory fits with the extracts I have in the Ch 19 sub-section under the 1995 heading:

Feb 25, 2014 at 1:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernieL

Be careful about Routledge's copyright. If memory serves me correctly, they are among the most aggressive of the academic publishers.

Feb 25, 2014 at 1:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

Steve C,

I like what you did there. Well done you!!! :)



Feb 25, 2014 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Lamb's autobiographical reflections, Through All the Changing Scenes of Life, was published in 1997 (ISBN 1 901470 02 4), presumably with the help of his wife Marion who is credited with the copyright of the book. Unfortunately, several books seem to have used the same title, and the Lamb one was no longer available on the second-hand book site AbeBooks when I checked just now. I have had a copy of it for some time though, and if one thing leaps out at you when reading it, it is that Lamb was a very decent, straightforward, and thoughtful man. He was clearly sidelined by those who were to take over his leadership of the Climate Research Unit, e.g. in 1974 it seems he was about to get a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, but it all fell through (page 204):

The research project which I put forward to the Rcokefeller Foundation as awarded a handsome grant, but it sadly came to grief over an understandable difference of scientific judgement between me and the scientist, Dr Tom Wigely, whom we appointed to take charge of the research.

Wigely of course went on to become the next leader of the CRU. He wanted to concentrate on human-impact on climate, whereas Lamb was more concerned to 'establish the facts of the past record of the natural climate in times before any side effects of human activities could well be important'. The new CRU did allow some pursuit of tree-ring studies (Briffa's in particular). One can't but help wonder if we'd be in a better scientific and political situation now if Lamb's ambitions had dominated. Water under the bridge and all that, but it is part of the jigsaw yet to be assembled (and it will be more like an encyclopedia if it ever is) in adequate detail to account for the astonishing political success of efforts to raise acute and melodramatic alarm about rising levels of CO2. It has been, in my opinion, perhaps the most disgraceful period ever in the history of science, and it deserves to be examined closely for decades to come. The superb work of Bernie Lewin is so inspirational and informative for that end, that I do believe it could yet take off and be part of the recovery process that we shall need.

Feb 25, 2014 at 4:54 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Right at the end of "Climate: Present, Past & Future", and clearly after Lamb had finished the book, comes this quite remarkable footnote (and it was exactly that)

Since this chapter, (Approaches to the problem of forecasting), was written, however, an official statement, issued by the WMO in June 1976, places most emphasis on the prospects of man’s impact on the global climate, through the increasing production of CO2 and waste heat, both producing a warming effect expected to become dominant over the natural climate fluctuations by about 2000 AD.

The statement warned of dire consequences to be expected within the next 50-100 years through the displacement of the natural vegetation and crop belts and melting of ice caps.

I say remarkable, because none of what Lamb had just written, including summaries of a whole host of other studies, had come to such a conclusion. It was almost as if somebody had siad "Put this footnote in"

It was clear that the WMO statement could not have been based on years of research, and must have been a political decision.

Feb 25, 2014 at 5:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Homewood

1975 `Endangered Atmosphere' Conference: Where the Global Warming Hoax Was Born by Marjorie Mazel Hecht.

Mead who was President of the American Association for the Advancement (sic) of Science (sic) organized a North Carolina conference in 1975 titled "The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering," shortly after she had attended the United Nations Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania, in August 1974. Her keynote address to the 1975 conference contains this:

"What we need from scientists are estimates, presented with sufficient conservatism and plausibility but at the same time as free as possible from internal disagreements that can be exploited by political interests, that will allow us to start building a system of artificial but effective warnings, warnings which will parallel the instincts of animals who flee before the hurricane, pile up a larger store of nuts before a severe winter, or of caterpillars who respond to impending climatic changes by growing thicker coats".

The chronological coincidence with the point made by John Shade above about CRU non-funding I do not think is accidental.

Mead herself seems to have had few scruples when it came to her own career advancement: the ludicrous Samoan anthropology; the study of the effects on civilians of US bombing of Japan in WW2; the whitewashing of 1960's 'mercenary anthropology', as well as her period at the AAAS.

Feb 25, 2014 at 8:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuther Bl't

Always check the history page in Wiki.

If its climate related, look for the name William Connolly (with an 'E')

Click and compare the before and afters

Eg On 13 September 2010 Connolley removed the following statement:

Lamb recruited [[Phil Jones (climatologist)|Phil Jones]] and [[Tom Wigley]], among others, to work at the CRU but later criticised their theories on man-made climate change as "simplistic."1

He also removed this comment from Fred Pearce's book:

In a 1984 lecture on "the future of the earth" given to the [[British Science Association|British Association for the Advancement of Science]], Lamb cautioned that the effects of carbon dioxide on global warming might be less than expected, and pointed to the possibilities of error or misjudgement in preparing temperature series, referring particularly to the [[urban heat island]] effect.<ref name="Pearce IX">[[Fred Pearce|Pearce, Fred]], ''The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming'', (2010)

If its remotely connected to climate you can pretty much bet that Connolley's grubby little editorial paws will have been all over it, expurgating anything he sees as contrary to the global warming line, slowly rewriting history one edit at a time. When he was banned from Wiki they should have reversed every edit he ever made - otherwise what was the point of the ban?

Feb 25, 2014 at 9:33 PM | Registered Commenterthinkingscientist

bernie1815 said:

Be careful about Routledge's copyright. If memory serves me correctly, they are among the most aggressive of the academic publishers.

Don't worry about that. It would be impossible to criticise, support or review an academic's work properly without quoting from it. That is known as "fair dealing" and is not an infringement of copyright. If any lawyer tries it on, he (or she) should be told to go to hell!

Feb 25, 2014 at 10:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

Shouldn't someone write an article for Wikipedia on the topic of censorship by William Connolley? If they did, would William Connolley be allowed to edit it?

Feb 25, 2014 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

Every page on Wikipedia has its Connolley equivalents. It's not a reference work, it's an online game.

Note that Wikipedia's rules specifically exclude subject experts from writing about their areas of expertise. It is a compilation of second and third hand "facts" assembled by people who don't know what they are writing about.

The internet gives everyone access to material written by identifiable people whose credentials to do so are a matter of record. Wikipedia articles are the result of endless battles between pseudonymous identities playing online power games, a major part of which is getting anyone who claims expertise or knowledge of the subject banned.

Feb 25, 2014 at 11:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

John Shade:
The autobiography is difficult to obtain. There is only one known copy in a library in Australia (at the BoM staff library). However, it can still be ordered from the voluntary librarian at CRU. My order caused a small drama due to difficulties in accepting an overseas payment. In the end they just sent out a copy and my payment has been let to remain outstanding. I have acknowledge the generous assistance of the two main people involved.

The Rockefeller Foundation grant did come through. It was a grant for Lamb's grand project to use historical documentation (along with proxies) to reconstruct seasonal weather patterns across Europe and back through the last millennium. According to Lamb, he employed Wigley for the task, but Wigley did not do it (see my Part II). Note that my recent approaches to Wigley were unsuccessful and so it is hard to say exactly what happened because Lamb was clearly trying to be very polite about it.

Paul Homewood:
Lamb's belated note about the 1996 WMO statement at the end of the second volume of Climate might be worthy of inclusion in my SourceBook. However, like many other statements, the message that is obvious to the reader of the entire book is somewhat between-the-lines, and so not explicit when taken out of the broader context.

In my reading Lamb was saddened by the position taken by the WMO in 1976 -- he mentions it a number of times. I think he saw it as a weakening of resolve that was also evident for him at the World Climate Conference in 1979. (It all seems so mild when compared to the statement of Villach '85 and declaration of Toronto '88!) But the pressure building up to the mid-1970s within the climatology community had been much stronger and for longer than most of us realize. Lamb marks a beginning of this in 1961. In that year he attended three very different conference in New York, Poland and Rome. At each one he noticed interest in the anthropogenic influence coming to dominance.

Feb 26, 2014 at 2:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterBernieL

If I read this correctly the research which was not done by Wigley despite funding being in place went beyond tree ring studies with all the problems we now know them to have and included studies of historical material.

I find this interesting as I have a theory that much useful historical information could be obtained from "indirect" sources for example references to weather conditions in works where such is not the main subject, because such passing references are not generally subject to an overall agenda as is the case when they are the basis of a work.
Descriptive passages might also give a much more complete picture of conditions than bare numerical records or their proxy equivalent.

Feb 26, 2014 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterNW

Thanks for all your efforts on this Bernie.
A very interesting and useful reminder of the real thoughts of Lamb, as opposed to the spin some would like to propagate.

One section from your links sums it up for me -
“He was adamant that climatology as a natural science should find its ground in the record of our experience of nature. For him the empirical record includes what was the bulk of his contribution, where he used historical documents and proxy data to extend the short instrumental record. He saw this as more solid science than the projections of mathematical modelling – about which he was highly dubious. On this later,
the obituary in Nature is more explicit:

During his later years, Lamb was skeptical of certain claims regarding the dangers posed by global warming. An empiricist at heart, and well aware of the complexities of the climate system, he felt that climate models were limited in their ability to provide accurate forecasts. As he observed in 1994, “there has been too much theory and not enough fact in predicting the future.
[Nature, vol388 p836]”

Feb 26, 2014 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

Thanks for that correction and clarification, BernieL (Feb 26, 2014 at 2:30 AM), and for all your scholarly work in this area. I hope you will be able to publish a book on it before long.

In the meantime, I hope a few readers will manage to get copies of the Lamb book from CRU!

Feb 26, 2014 at 3:24 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Fortunately, some have figured out the whole thing... /sarc

Feb 26, 2014 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterTomRude

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