Charles David Keeling with Keeling Curve graphs. Credit: Keeling Papers, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

Carbon Dioxide, Radio Isotopes, The Keeling Curve, And The Greatest Cover Up In History

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70 years ago, Los Angeles had an air pollution problem. People driving toward LA from the south, east, or north saw the City of Angeles shrouded in a miasma that looked like a combination of smoke and fog. A new word was coined to describe the phenomenon — smog. To understand the problem, a research group known as the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation was established in 1953. No one knew at that time that carbon dioxide and other tailpipe emissions were to blame.

18 American car and truck manufacturers contributed to the funding of the new organization. A 1959 internal U.S. Public Health Service memo also identifies the American Petroleum Institute and the Western Oil & Gas Associationthe oldest petroleum trade association in the US now known as the Western States Petroleum Association — as “major contributors to the funds of the Air Pollution Foundation.” Its board of trustees included top level representatives from the Southern California Gas Company, the Southern California Edison Co., Chrysler, General Motors, and Union Oil (now Chevron).

From the middle of 1955, these trustees were also appraised of research projects by a seven-man “technical advisory committee,” which included a senior official from API as well as scientists from the Richfield Oil Corporation (now BP) and Chrysler, according to a report by DeSmog. Here’s more from DeSmog:

With the discovery of these Air Pollution Foundation documents, it is now possible to date the earliest sponsorship of climate science by the fossil fuel industry to 1954, approximately a quarter of a century before Exxon’s internal research program of the late 1970s.

These new documents provide important evidence that the fossil fuel industry has been intricately connected to climate science from its earliest beginnings — not only as a driver of the greenhouse effect behind climate change, but also as a contributor to the scientific discoveries that would transform our understanding of humanity’s relationship with the Earth and its atmosphere.

It’s important to know that the oil industry sponsored climate science research in the 1950s because it reveals a picture of a much more nuanced, closely connected world of science and the frontiers of scientific discovery than the oil industry has admitted to.

In addition, despite being warned about the potential climate impacts of CO2 in 1954, 35 years later numerous members and sponsors of the Air Pollution Foundation (including API, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, Chevron, and BP) participated in a multi-million dollar campaign attacking climate policies aimed at tackling global warming and promoting denial of the science they themselves had helped to fund.

Charles Keeling And Carbon Dioxide

The Air Pollution Foundation turned to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) to conduct research into smog. The person in charge was Samuel Epstein who turned to his young research assistant, Charles Keeling, to do the actual research. From January, 1955 until June, 1956, Keeling collected carbon dioxide samples from the redwood forests along Big Sur, from desert and high mountain areas, and from forests and grassland above the city of Los Angeles. He also took samples from the air above the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1956, he mentioned his work to a colleague at the US Weather Service, who mentioned it to Harry Wexler, the head of meteorological research for the Weather Service.  Wexler invited Keeling to Washington, D.C. and suggested he continue his investigations by measuring carbon dioxide at a newly built observatory in Hawai’i. Keeling secured federal sponsorship for this work and began measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide on Mauna Loa where he observed an increase from approximately 313 ppm in 1957 to 320 ppm in 1967.

That research became the Keeling Curve, the bell weather model for anthropomorphic climate change that became the basis for the testimony by Dr. James Hansen to Congress in June of 1988 and Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

Carbon Dating And Tree Rings

After World War II, scientists discovered there were three isotopes of carbon — carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14. Carbon atoms from fossil fuels, however, contain relatively little C-13 and almost no C-14, which is radioactive and decays over time. By analyzing the isotopic fingerprint of carbon atoms in tree rings, scientists could identify whether the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees through photosynthesis had been produced naturally or as a result of burning fossil fuels. And by measuring the isotopic ratios in tree rings of various ages, researchers could also estimate how far CO2 concentrations had risen since the Industrial Revolution as a result of burning fossil fuels.

In a proposal sent to the Air Pollution Foundation in November 1954, Samuel Epstein wrote, “It is clear that several factors contribute to the variations in the isotopic composition of carbon in trees. Since 1840, the carbon/isotope ratio (C12/C13) has increased in the trees so far investigated,” he wrote — an increase which could be explained by a change in the carbon/isotope ratio in atmospheric carbon dioxide “resulting from the burning of the C12-enriched coal and petroleum.”

Epstein’s research proposal left no doubt about the potential significance of this research, DeSmog says. He described the “concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere” as a matter “of well recognized importance to our civilization” and explained that the possible consequences of “a changing concentration of the CO2 in the atmosphere with reference to climate” may “ultimately prove of considerable significance to civilization.”

The Disinformation Campaign

These documents from the mid-50s only came to light recently thanks to the tireless research efforts by Rebecca John, a researcher at the Climate Investigations Center. She uncovered previously unknown documents from the Caltech Archives, the US National Archives, and material from the Charles David Keeling papers at the University of California at San Diego, and local Los Angeles newspapers from the 1950s. DeSmog says,

It’s important to know that the oil industry sponsored climate science research in the 1950s because it reveals a picture of a much more nuanced, closely connected world of science and the frontiers of scientific discovery than the oil industry has admitted to.

In addition, despite being warned about the potential climate impacts of carbon dioxide in 1954, 35 years later numerous members and sponsors of the Air Pollution Foundation (including API, the Automobile Manufacturers Association, Chevron, and BP) participated in a multi-million dollar campaign attacking climate policies aimed at tackling global warming and promoting denial of the science they themselves had helped to fund.

Geoffrey Supran, an expert in historic climate disinformation at the University of Miami, told The Guardian, “They contain smoking gun proof that by at least 1954, the fossil fuel industry was on notice about the potential for its products to disrupt Earth’s climate on a scale significant to human civilization. These findings are a startling confirmation that big oil has had its finger on the pulse of academic climate science for 70 years and a reminder that it continues to do so to this day. They make a mockery of the oil industry’s denial of basic climate science decades later.”

Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law says the documents show the oil and gas industry was initially concerned with research related to smog and other direct air pollutants before branching out into related climate change impacts.

You just come back to the oil and gas industry again and again, they were omnipresent in this space,” Muffett said. “The industry was not just on notice but deeply aware of the potential climate implications of its products for going on 70 years.

These documents talk about carbon dioxide emissions having planetary implications, meaning this industry understood extraordinarily early on that fossil fuel combustion was profound on a planetary scale.

There is overwhelming evidence the oil and gas industry has been misleading the public and regulators around the climate risks of their product for 70 years. Trusting them to be part of the solutions is foolhardy. We’ve now moved into an era of accountability.

The Takeaway

So, what can we learn from these revelations? For one, we now know that the American Petroleum Institute, the Western States Petroleum Association, and every major automaker in America has been fully aware of the harm their business practices were doing to the Earth and everything that lives on it every hour of every days since at least 1954.

It is bad enough that these people did nothing to protect those who had no knowledge of this information, but to actively manage a widespread disinformation campaign to hide it from the public borders on criminal behavior. The law in many jurisdiction recognizes behavior that rises to the level of depraved indifference or reckless endangerment as crimes.

Many states and cities are suing Big Oil for damages, but that has not slowed the frenzy to extract every last drop or nugget of fossil fuel one bit. Perhaps if some of these captains of industry were to find themselves sentenced to long prison terms, the message would start to get through. What should the penalty be for willfully putting a planet and all who live on it at risk in pursuit of profits be? Please use the comments section to share your thoughts on this topic with the CleanTechnica community.

[Note: the research Rebecca John to uncover these long buried documents is worthy of a Pulitzer prize. It is comprehensive, cogent, and compelling. Her report has been published in full by DeSmog. What you see in this article is just a portion of her work and we encourage you to read her entire report. It is an amazing read.]


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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."

Steve Hanley has 5408 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley