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Climate Change Debate: Looking Back 50 Years

By By Valerie Smock
November 15, 2012, 4:59:01 AM EST

If you select a dozen people and ask them about global warming, you'll likely get a number of responses. Many people have an opinion on the subject, while others could care less either way.

The theory of global warming, whether you as a person care to discuss it or not, has become a very hot topic over the years. In honor of AccuWeather’s 50th Anniversary, we decided to look back and see how the debate has changed since 1962.

For starters, we should explain global warming. According to Merriam-Webster, it's an increase in the earth's atmospheric and oceanic temperatures widely predicted to occur due to an increase in the greenhouse effect resulting especially from pollution. In general, global warming is planet-wide and refers to rising global temperatures.

To some people, that description wouldn't strike a nerve or make them think twice. There are others though that feel much more strongly about the topic. The issue that once was not really discussed is now what some might call a business worth billions.

"Back in the 60s, when I was a graduate student, there were three basic theories that we were taught," said Dr. Joe Sobel, Senior Vice President and Director of Forensics. "One was the carbon dioxide cycle, second was the continental drift and the third was volcanism."

It wasn't until the next decade when the theory began to take shape.

"The consensus among those that look at climate in the 70s seemed to be that the Earth was cooling and I don't think that they were giving any attribution," said James Spann, Chief Meteorologist at WBMA-TV in Birmingham. "The weather was man-made or whether it was natural, the talk back in the 70s was global cooling, so needless to say a lot has changed in the 34 years I've done this."

Once the 1980s and 1990s came around, global warming wasn't just something to talk about. In these two decades, science became part of the discussion.

"During the 80s and 90s, the technology improved so much that you could now measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said Bernie Rayno, Expert Senior Meteorologist. "As the planet warmed and the carbon dioxide increased, there was a belief that one caused the other."

It was the advent of computer models that also helped scientists and researchers have a better understanding of the climate.

"There were more and more sophisticated climate models that were able to project what the climate would look like, or at least make an estimate what the climate would look like into the future," said Sobel.

Lee Goldberg, the Chief Meteorologist at WABC in New York City, said he didn't remember the idea of global warming being brought up.

"When you go back to the early 90s when I was at Cornell [University], I don't think it was a huge part of the curriculum," said Goldberg. "We addressed it, we obviously studied climatology, but I think that when it came to being educated in meteorology, I think we were led more toward cyclical nature of weather and more weather patterns. I don't think global warming was pushed very hard."

Goldberg arrived in New York after the winter in the mid-90s. At that point, he said nothing seemed unusual. It wasn't until a tornado struck Westchester County in 2005 that people began taking notice.

Even then, science still wasn't enough for some people to pick a side. At that point, politics found a way into the theory.

"I think during that decade, that's when it just seems like political movements were attached," said Spann. "I'll be honest with you, I work long days in what I do and I don't have time to worry about politics. I have no interest in politics and I honestly don't pay that much attention to climate science. I certainly didn't back then."

But not everyone could leave climate science on the back burner; the topic was gaining major attention.

"There’s no question that man-made global warming has been politicized," said Rayno. "It’s a business, a business that generates millions of dollars each year in research."

That business isn't sitting well with some meteorologists across the United States. Spann is one of them. He said the debate has gotten to the point where people cannot have a civil discussion and for some, it's not a topic they even want to bring up.

"The word climate has become a dirty word because of extremists on both sides of the issue," said Spann. "I think we've got to remove these fringe people on both sides of the issue because they are stirring up the pot and it's nasty. It's very uncomfortable for anybody to talk about it because of that. It is a nasty, heated battle right now and it's really ugly and I don't like it."

In the grand scheme of it all, the idea, theory or topic of global warming is out there. It's being discussed and argued about. No matter which side you take, if you even take one at all, the debate on global warming will continue now and likely for year to come.

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