The 1977 Climate Memo That Could Have Changed The Course Of History

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My high school history teacher, Mrs. Monahon (NOT Monahan, she told us frequently), liked to say, “The gates of history turn on tiny hinges,” and she spent a lot of time teaching us about some of them, like the Confederate courier who was intercepted shortly before the battle of Gettysburg with the plans for the attack in his satchel. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now The Guardian has revealed the existence of a climate memo written for president Jimmy Carter in 1977 by Frank Press, Carter’s chief science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It bore the rather ominous title “Release of Fossil CO2 and the Possibility of a Catastrophic Climate Change.” Here’s part of that memo:

“Fossil fuel combustion has increased at an exponential rate over the last 100 years. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now 12 percent above the pre-industrial revolution level and may grow to 1.5 to 2.0 times that level within 60 years. Because of the “greenhouse effect” of atmospheric CO2 the increased concentration will induce a global climatic warming of anywhere from 0.5 to 5°C.

“The potential effect on the environment of a climatic fluctuation of such rapidity could be catastrophic and calls for an impact assessment of unprecedented importance and difficulty. A rapid climatic change may result in large scale crop failures at a time when an increased world population taxes agriculture to the limits of productivity.

“The urgency of the problem derives from our inability to shift rapidly to non-fossil fuel sources once the climatic effects become evident not long after the year 2000; the situation could grow out of control before alternate energy sources and other remedial actions become effective.

“Natural dissipation of C02 would not occur for a millennium after fossil fuel combustion was markedly reduced.As you know this is not a new issue. What is new is the growing weight of scientific support which raises the CO2-climate impact from speculation to a serious hypothesis worthy of a response that is neither complacent nor panicky.”

After The Climate Memo, The Clean Energy Transition Stalls

A few weeks after the Press memo, the National Academy of Sciences emphasized the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels and highlighted the urgent need to start transitioning to new energy sources as soon as possible: “With the end of the oil age in sight, we must make long term decisions as to future energy policies. One lesson we have been learning is that the time required for transition from one major source to another is several decades.”

Carter started out as the environmental president with an address to the nation that said, “We must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century.” So what happened? The OPEC oil embargoes happened. They left America panicking about high gas prices and a new concept known as “energy security” was born. Carter, despite having a solar hot water heating system installed on the roof of the White House, was more worried about expanding America’s oil and gas production than addressing the specter of a warming planet.

“​​The story of climate policy in the US, generally, is one of missed opportunities and unjustifiable delay,” said Jack Lienke, author of the book Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the “War on Coal.” Many other issues seemed more pressing or were better understood. Lienke writes, “At a time when Americans were still dying somewhat regularly in acute, inversion-related pollution episodes, it is unsurprising that legislators were more concerned with the known harms of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide than the uncertain, seemingly distant threat of climate change.”

Stu Eizenstat, who served as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser from 1977 to 1981, tells The Guardian a significant challenge facing Carter was his own contradictory energy aims. Despite his goal of encouraging alternative energy, he also felt there was a national security interest in boosting US oil production in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

“We realized our dependence on foreign oil was dangerous and, very importantly, alternative energy was in its infancy,” Eizenstat says. “So Carter was both doing conservation and still encouraging more domestic oil and gas as a way of reducing dependence on foreign oil. As with all policy, you have conflicting goals.”

When Press’s memo landed on Carter’s desk, it had a note attached from James Schlesinger, America’s first secretary of energy. “My view is that the policy implications of this issue are still too uncertain to warrant Presidential involvement and policy initiatives,” it read. It was at about this time that the oil industry began its full court press designed to sow doubts about what climate scientists were saying, a process that goes on today within an industry whose position is, “It’s not our fault if people use our products to heat their homes, power their cars, and generate their electricity. We just supply the stuff. We aren’t forcing people to use it.”

What Effect Did The Climate Memo Have?

The Press memo may not have held Carter’s attention, but it was a transformative document for Stu Eizenstadt, who says it was instrumental in his own future work on the climate crisis, including his decision in 1997 to serve as the United States’s principal negotiator for the Kyoto global warming protocols. Those protocols set the stage for the first international effort to tackle climate policy on a global level. So even if Press’s memo had a muted impact at the time, his warning wasn’t entirely ignored. Still, the United States refused to ratify the Kyoto protocols largely because of pressure from the oil industry.

The Takeaway

Once again, the world finds itself struggling with high energy prices and once again, the stock answer is to produce more oil, more methane, and more coal. People are pushing for dozens of new LNG terminals in the US and in Europe to help heat people’s homes this winter. Once again, little emergencies are drowning out the larger emergency, namely the existential threat of an Earth that is no longer habitable by humans.

“We’ll worry about that later,” the fossil fuel advocates say. “Right now, we are just trying to keep the lights on.” The difference is, today we have affordable renewable energy available, emissions free cars and trucks, efficient heat pumps, and ways to make steel and cement without dumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What we need is the political will to bring all those new technologies to bear so we can finally, if belatedly, address the multitude of existential threats confronting the human race.

We had a chance to do something in 1977 but we blinked. We have the chance again today. Will we put our long term needs ahead of our short term interests or kick the can down the road…again?

The national weather service has issued extreme heat advisories for nearly 100 million Americans and yet all anyone wants to talk about is the high price of gasoline. If that is a clue as to how we are going to address our looming climate calamity, then humans haven’t a prayer of surviving much beyond the end of this century. Our epitaph will be, “They knew what would happen but they decided to do it anyway.” Sic transit gloria mundi.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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