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The Real TIME Cover Behind That Fake ‘Ice Age’ Report

5 minute read

Apparently, an effective hoax is like an old soldier. It never dies; it merely fades away to resurface later.

The latest example of that phenomenon is a Politico report from Monday morning, about how fake news can make its way to President Donald Trump. The story related an anecdote in which deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland reportedly presented the President with a print-out that included an image of a 1970s TIME cover predicting a coming ice age. The problem? That cover never existed.

It’s far from the first time that particular hoax cover has made news. A few years ago, at another moment when it was making the rounds, Bryan Walsh explained the science behind the fake news. The meme in question shows the supposed 1977 ice age cover on one side and a real 2006 cover story about global warming on the other; the takeaway is that even the most confident reporting on global warming might be negated soon.

“[The] hoax does touch on an important part of climate science — and one that’s often misunderstood by skeptics. Call it the Ice Age Fallacy,” Walsh wrote. “Skeptics argue that back in the 1970s both popular media and some scientists were far more worried about global cooling than they were about global warming. For some reason a Newsweek article on the next ice age, published back in 1975, gets a lot of the attention, though TIME did a version of the story, as did a number of other media outlets. The rationale goes this way: the fact that scientists were once supposedly so concerned about global cooling, which didn’t come true, just shows that we shouldn’t worry about the new fears of climate change.”

Read more: Sorry, a TIME Magazine Cover Did Not Predict a Coming Ice Age

But, while some media outlets in the 1970s did report on that idea of global cooling, actual science from the time — though not as developed as today’s science on global warming is — generally predicted just the opposite: global warming. In fact, scientists had already been thinking about global warming for decades at that point.

As Walsh pointed out, the doctored cover isn’t entirely invented. The background image of the penguin does come from a real issue, from 2007. (One easy giveaway: compare the range of TIME covers from 2007 to those from 1977. You don’t have to be a graphic designer to see that the penguin photo is not something that would have appeared on the front of the magazine 40 years ago.)

The real story, written by Jeffrey Kluger, was an examination of the things that could be done to combat global warming.

It was probably always too much to believe that human beings would be responsible stewards of the planet. We may be the smartest of all the animals, endowed with exponentially greater powers of insight and abstraction, but we’re animals all the same. That means that we can also be shortsighted and brutish, hungry for food, resources, land–and heedless of the mess we leave behind trying to get them.

And make a mess we have. If droughts and wildfires, floods and crop failures, collapsing climate-sensitive species and the images of drowning polar bears didn’t quiet most of the remaining global-warming doubters, the hurricane-driven destruction of New Orleans did. Dismissing a scientist’s temperature chart is one thing. Dismissing the death of a major American city is something else entirely. What’s more, the heat is only continuing to rise. This past year was the hottest on record in the U.S. The deceptively normal average temperature this winter masked record-breaking highs in December and record-breaking lows in February. That’s the sign not of a planet keeping an even strain but of one thrashing through the alternating chills and night sweats of a serious illness.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on the state of planetary warming in February that was surprising only in its utter lack of hedging. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” the report stated. What’s more, there is “very high confidence” that human activities since 1750 have played a significant role by overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide hence retaining solar heat that would otherwise radiate away. The report concludes that while the long-term solution is to reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, for now we’re going to have to dig in and prepare, building better levees, moving to higher ground, abandoning vulnerable floodplains altogether. When former Vice President Al Gore made his triumphant return to Capitol Hill on March 21 to testify before Congress on climate change, he issued an uncompromising warning: “We do not have time to play around with this.”

Some lingering critics still found wiggle room in the U.N. panel’s findings. “I think there is a healthy debate ongoing, even though the scientists who are in favor of doing something on greenhouse gases are in the majority,” says Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But when your last good position is to debate the difference between certain and extra certain, you’re playing a losing hand. “The science,” says Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (epa), “now is getting to the point where it’s pretty hard to deny.” Indeed it is. Atmospheric levels of CO2 were 379 parts per million (p.p.m.) in 2005, higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years. Of the 12 warmest years on record, 11 occurred between 1995 and 2006.

So if the diagnosis is in, what’s the cure?

You can read the rest of the story here, in the TIME Vault.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com