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Warming warning a 1981 documentary about climate change
Credit: FremantleMedia/Thames Television
2 May 2017 6:45

The 1981 TV documentary that warned about global warming

Leo Hickman


Leo Hickman

02.05.2017 | 6:45am
FeaturesThe 1981 TV documentary that warned about global warming

On the evening of Tuesday, 8 December, 1981, the UK’s only commercial TV channel, ITV, broadcast an hour-long documentary called “Warming Warning”.

It was among the earliest occasions – possibly the earliest – anywhere in the world where a major broadcaster aired a documentary dedicated solely to the topic of human-caused climate change.

The documentary, which was made by the now-defunct Thames Television, has sat in the archives largely unseen ever since. Until now.

Carbon Brief has tracked down the copyright holder, FremantleMedia Ltd, and persuaded it to release into the public domain a selection of key clips from the documentary.

The clips provide a poignant, historical insight into what scientists knew about climate change almost four decades ago – and how the world was beginning to react in terms of the resulting geopolitical, technological and societal ramifications. Many of themes still resonate strongly today.

To put it in context, the documentary was broadcast seven years before Dr James Hansen’s famous “it is already happening now” Senate testimony in 1988, nine years before the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report was published, and 25 years before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released. After it first aired in 1981, Warming Warning went on to be broadcast in the US (in 1990 on PBS), Greece, Japan and Israel, according to FremantleMedia.


In its TV listings on the day the programme aired, the Times described it as “a documentary about the serious effects our polluting of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide will have on the climate”. It added: “Scientists are worried that at the present rate the Earth will be 2C warmer by the middle of the next century with disastrous consequences for the polar regions.”

New Scientist said at the time it was “excellently written and directed” by Richard Broad, a current affairs documentary-maker, then better known for films focused on the Middle East conflict. (The credits at the end thank, among others, the science writer Dr John Gribbin.)

The film, narrated by the presenter Tom Vernon, opens with an introduction to the problem of burning fossil fuels. The narration begins:

“Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, Man has consumed huge and increasing amounts of fossil fuel to sustain the growth of industrial societies…Meteorologists now believe that increased quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to significant warming of the planet within decades.”

The film then introduces several US-based experts, starting with Gus Speth, who is captioned as “an environmental adviser to President Carter”, but who went on to found the World Resources Institute thinktank and advised Bill Clinton, among many other roles. He begins:

“It’s hard for me to imagine a more serious environmental issue.”

In quick succession, the film also introduces two more talking heads. First, David Burns, who was director of the “climate project” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Then comes Dr Walter Orr Roberts, a well-known US atmospheric scientist.

Running time of this clip in original documentary: 05:25-08.07. (This, and all clips below, are courtesy of FremantleMedia Ltd/Thames Television.)


Once the film returns from the first commercial break, it introduces two more US experts. Dr William Kellogg is captioned as a “climatologist”, but he played a key role researching climate change in the 1970s, in particular, based at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. Earlier in the same year that Warming Warning aired, Kellogg also co-authored one of the earliest books on the topic, titled “Climate Change and Society: Consequences of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”.

Next comes (a very young looking) Stephen Schneider, a seminal figure for alerting the world to the potential dangers of human-caused climate change. At the time, Schneider was also based at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, but he would go on to be among the world’s most prominent scientists warning about climate change (and, in the process, was the target of a campaign of abuse, intimidation and even death threats).

The documentary intersperses the interviews with lots of stock footage showing human dependence on fossil fuels – aircraft taking off, coal mining, modern agriculture, etc.

This second clip also contains the views of another seminal climate scientist, Dr George Woodwell. He was the director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Four years later, he would go on to found the Woods Hole Research Center.

Running time: 11.09-17.44

Rising CO2

The film is notable for being careful to explain the nuances of the latest scientific knowledge about climate change. For example, in the third clip below it says that the uptake of CO2 by the oceans is a “slow and poorly understood process”.

Dr Lester Machta, director of the Air Resources Lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), explains that “up until the 1960s the prevailing scientific view was that the oceans could soak up all of the CO2 that might come from the combustion of fossil fuels”. He then explains that, from the late 1950s onwards, observatories were set up – most famously at Mauna Loa in Hawaii – to measure the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The film shows a chart plotting the “steady rise” in CO2 since 1958. The narrator pauses to remark that in 1981 the concentration stood at 338 parts per million (ppm) – “a rise of 7% in 23 years”. Today, in 2017, the concentration now stands at 407ppm.

He adds: “We believe now that there is some suggestive evidence now that the atmosphere is indeed warming due to the greenhouse effect.

Running time: 18:58-21:32


The viewer is then shown a scientific paper published that year in the journal Science, titled “Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”, which attributed the warming to rising CO2 concentrations. The lead author was Dr James Hansen, who has since become one of the world’s most prominent and outspoken climate scientists.

Dr Woodall remarks: “There is a reasonable consensus among meteorologists that the warming will continue and will be significant and easily measurable roughly by the end of this century.”

The narrator adds that most scientists agree that the temperature will rise by “some two degrees in the next century…but the warming will be much more dramatic in some areas than in others”.

Dr William Kellogg then returns to explain that “by the middle of next century, when we might have twice as much carbon dioxide than in 1900, it may rise by an average of 2-3C, but in the polar regions 5 or 10C, which becomes a very large change and would change the whole character of the polar regions”.

The metric used to estimate the warming caused by a doubling in concentration of atmospheric CO2 is known as “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS). The most recent IPCC report, published in 2013, gave an ECS range of 1.5-4.5C, with the majority of climate scientists still believing that 2-3C of warming is most likely from a doubling of CO2 concentration.

Running time: 23:16-25:25

Melting ice

The narrator explains that there is already “some tentative evidence” that the poles have already begun to warm. But the film concentrates on the risk of the “inherently unstable” Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf melting.

Schneider provides a succinct summary of what might happen if one of these “kilometre thick floating blocks of ice”, which are “pinned” on islands, were to disintegrate due to global warming. Because they act like “buttresses of a medieval building”, they are holding back the ice on the land, he says: “If the climate warms up by a few degrees, there are a number of glaciologists who believe these shelves could break up.”

This could then lead to a “surge” of land ice entering the ocean which could cause sea-level rise of up to 5-8 metres. The narrator stresses that glaciologists “disagree” whether this is likely to occur within “decades or centuries”, adding:

“However, a rise of up to 20ft would make the new Thames barrier, designed to meet surge tides of 11ft, redundant.”

It imagines a scenario – illustrated with aerial shots of 1981 central London – where “Buckingham Palace would be under 7ft of water”.

Running time: 25:26-27:47


How do scientists know how CO2 will likely impact the climate in the future? The film moves on to discuss the use of computer models by climate scientists.

Schneider explains:

“The simplest way to figure out how a CO2 increase will change the climate is no theory at all. Just go ahead and find some Twin Earth and pollute it and see what happens. But we don’t have a Twin Earth, so we have to build one…The only thing you can do is build a mathematical model to try to simulate the way the Earth’s climate behaves.”

The narrator says that the “latest generation of computers”, which “make 80 million calculations a second”, are being used at research centres around the world, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The narrator adds:

“The computer is fed with equations that relate to the behaviour of clouds…to that of sea…to the role of sunlight…and to the effect of the poles. The model’s subtlety can be tested and refined by observing how well it imitates the real climate, responds to seasonal differences and regional change. Though crude compared to the real thing, it is a useful tool.”

Dr Kellogg remarks that they “look as if they match our real system rather well”.

Then you take the model, Schneider says, and you “literally pollute it” by going to the computer and “typing in a couple of cards“. That’s where the climate predictions come from, he says.

Running time: 33:23-37:15


Beyond the clips highlighted above, the film also discusses the best choice of power generation, carbon pollution caused by transport, how to feed a growing population, and the impact of land-use change through deforestation and agriculture. Still today, all very familiar topics of debate and research.

But the most remarkable section of the documentary is, perhaps, its conclusion. The narration is both poignant and prescient:

“Uncertainty will permeate energy policy, if only because such a policy needs to be introduced before the irrefutable evidence that it is needed. They’ll be difficulties, too. The call for restraint in a society built on the exploitation of energy may meet irresistible forces. There is, for example, the vested interests that many of the world’s great corporations have in fossil fuels and the power they could wield on their behalf. International agreement will be needed to control the use of fossil fuels, but with the third world likely to benefit from climatic changes [one part of the film explores the idea of warming helping to grow crops in some famine-hit regions], and while China and Russia have vast reserves of coal, that seems unlikely.

“Alternatives to fossil fuels, such as nuclear power, have their own dangers. Or, in the case of solar energy, present technical problems. Yet a serious policy of fuel conservation, which makes good sense for many other reasons, becomes imperative as a result of the CO2 problem.”

Gus Speth then reappears for a final comment: “Long before we could ever use all the coal on this planet, we will have greatly exceeded tolerable levels of CO2 concentration. We ought to face the fact that we can’t use all that coal…The CO2 issue is not being seriously considered. And it is high time that it should be.”

He adds: “Is the world ours to experiment with? I think not. I think we owe future generations, other life on the planet, a profound duty of restraint and, right now, we don’t seem to be exercising it.”

The narrator then ends the film with a concluding monologue:

“But to stop the easy flow of energy is difficult. We all enjoy it far too much…It is our wealth that has manufactured CO2. But, having created the problem, can we reasonably ask countries that have never enjoyed all this to exercise restraint?

“When economists argue that our industrial difficulties can only be relieved by promoting industry and creating growth, CO2 seems a remote problem. Yet more jobs, mean more power and increased CO2…Government today is not designed to deal with a problem of this dimension at such a timescale; a problem challenging the belief that more means better…

“The prospect of a warmer world may seem superficially attractive. Electorates are unlikely to be seduced by policies of restraint, constraint and self-denial…To apply the brake now, to introduce policies and avert the possibility of a crisis ahead, demands a vision across decades among politicians who rarely hold office for more than a few years. Economic imperatives, political realities and the very way our society is organised dictate that the power continue to flow. But now we know what this implies…

“Yet we’re mortgaging the world against the future to be paid by our descendents, our children. The carbon dioxide problem is a warning…

“Man has demonstrated he has the capacity to change one of the great natural systems of the world. The sheer weight of our presence is altering the planet. Our industry has now become part of the climate; a new intruder disturbing an old system. Most of the small group of scientists who really understand the interactions of the climate have now warned us in measured language of the prospects that we face.”

Running time: 46:20-53:43

Finally, for further context, Carbon Brief has produced this chart showing global CO2 emissions since 1959. It allows you to quickly see the continued increase in emissions since the documentary was broadcast in 1981. Or, to put it another way, just over a trillion tonnes of CO2 have entered the atmosphere since the film was first shown.


N.B. Carbon Brief is keen to hear from readers who know of other early examples of broadcasters airing programmes dedicated to climate change. There are a variety of ways to contact us.

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