Credit: Oliver Atkins/National Archives

In 1971, The Nixon Administration Punted On A Revolutionary Climate Study

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“The gates of history turn on tiny hinges,” my high school history teacher Mrs. Monahon (not Monahan!) liked to say. That is especially true when it comes to climate science. The folks at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization based at George Washington University, focus their attention on using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain historical documents. The organization currently maintains one of the largest non-governmental archives of declassified government documents, many of which relate to military and security issues.

In the past year, the Archive has launched its Climate Change Transparency project that seeks to compile the historical record of US government actions with regard to climate change. To mark Earth Week, the group released a briefing book last week that focuses on climate change discussions in the Nixon White House.

A Ground-Breaking Climate Science Project

As reported by Inside Climate News, in 1971, the science advisers to Richard Nixon proposed a multi-million dollar climate change research project with benefits they said were too “immense” to be quantified since they involved “ensuring man’s survival.” That’s according to a White House document obtained recently by the Archive.

The plan would have established 6 global and 10 regional monitoring stations in remote locations to collect data on carbon dioxide, solar radiation, aerosols, and other factors that influence the atmosphere. It would have engaged 5 government agencies in a 6-year initiative, with spending of $23 million in the project’s peak year of 1974 — equivalent to $172 million in today’s dollars. It would have used technology that was cutting edge at the time, some of which is only now being widely used — like lidar — to monitor carbon dioxide levels.

The National Security Archive was unable to find any documentation that explains what happened to the proposal. All we know is that it was never implemented. “Who knows what would have happened if we had some kind of concerted effort, just even on the monitoring side of things?” asked Rachel Santarsiero, an analyst who directs the National Security Archive Climate Change Transparency project.

From Nixon To Exxon

It turns out that the monitoring proposal, which was authorized by the head of Nixon’s White House Office of Science and Technology, Edward E. David Jr., did get a second life in another form. After leaving the Nixon administration, David took a job at Exxon. As president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company from 1977 to 1986, he signed off on a groundbreaking Exxon project that used one of its oil tankers to gather atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide samples, beginning in 1979.

That research, which was first reported by Inside Climate News in 2015, confirmed the role of fossil fuels in global warming, but of course Exxon never shared that information publicly. It also showed that the oil industry knew the harm of its products, which is now a key piece of evidence in lawsuits by states and cities across the country seeking compensation from the oil industry for climate damages.

It has long been known that Nixon’s advisers warned him of the risks of global warming. A tranche of documents released by the Nixon Presidential Library in 2010 showed that his then-adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, urged his administration to engage with the issue as early as 1969. Moynihan, who later served 24 years as a Senator from New York, noted that sea level rise of 10 feet was possible with a 7-degree Fahrenheit (3.9-degree Celsius) temperature increase. “Goodbye, New York,” he wrote. “Goodbye Washington, for that matter.”

He went on to say humans might need to grow gills to adapt to rising sea levels, an eerily prescient foretaste of former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson snarling that people would just have to adapt to changes caused by the massive amounts of pollution released into the atmosphere.

No Climate Analysis Is Feasible

Moynihan suggested in a memo to John Ehrlichman that the scale of such impacts would “seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.” He also broached the idea of geoengineering as a way to offset the damage from too much carbon dioxide in the air, an idea that is getting a lot of renewed interest today.

The purpose of the project proposed in 1971 was to “assess the current and future impact of natural climatic changes, provide alerts to potential catastrophic trends, and gain new environmental insight and understanding as a basis for wise strategies.” The memo is unsigned but was conducted under the authority of Edward David. In a section marked “cost-benefit analysis,” the authors wrote, “No analysis is feasible. Benefits are immense, but not quantifiable, since this element contributes to ensuring man’s survival.”

The Nixon advisers were correct about the advantages of lidar for measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but it would be more than four decades until scientists at NASA and around the world began to use it to study not just the concentration of carbon dioxide but also its global distribution and daily variations. “I felt like this document was really ahead of its time,” Santarsiero said.

The advisers to President Nixon argued the research they proposed would assist in the “taking of protective measures against potential natural disasters such as large scale inundation of low lying coastal regions, broad extensions of ice sheets and severe health hazards.” They demonstrated a keen awareness of the role of fossil fuel pollution in climate change, even if their understanding was incomplete. “Transportation on land or in the air exerts a deleterious effect upon the atmosphere and is in turn affected by it,” they wrote.

“They readily admitted that the science wasn’t there yet to solve these problems,” Santarsiero said. “But they said we still need to take action, and the science will grow alongside, to help us tackle these issues. That attitude just feels markedly different from the discourse that’s happening today, where we can’t even get general consensus, and that basically halts preventative or mitigation efforts in its tracks.”

Nixon had a strong environmental record. He proposed and established the Environmental Protection Agency and later embraced the idea of a national Earth Day. Although the US never embarked on a carbon dioxide monitoring plan as ambitious as the one Nixon’s science advisers proposed, it did expand its research stations beyond the one site at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened additional carbon dioxide measurement stations at Barrow, Alaska; American Samoa; and at the South Pole in Antarctica, in 1973.

Nixon, Watergate, & Climate

But by then, the Nixon administration was unraveling because of Watergate. Nixon, who had privately railed against environmentalists for wanting humans to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals,” as Santarsiero says in her briefing book, abolished his science and technology office. Its leader, David, quit in frustration early in 1973, according to his New York Times obituary in 2017.

While at Exxon, David continued to press for more science related to global warming. In addition to the sampling research, he oversaw a transition to more climate modeling work, some of which was remarkably on target in its projection of temperature increase related to carbon dioxide concentrations. Ultimately, US government researchers at NASA, NOAA, and other agencies would lead much of the science that led to a consensus on global warming. But government policy has lagged far behind the warnings of scientists, as the latest document from the Nixon archives makes clear.

The Takeaway

File this away as another example of what might have been had we listened to James Hansen, Michael Mann, and Al Gore when they tried to tell us what would happen to the Earth and the human species if we did not rein in our insatiable thirst for fossil fuels. Yet, today, we extract and burn more fossil fuels than ever as we pray at the altar of dirty energy.

The inevitable end of human civilization as we know it is reminiscent of a popular anecdote. A religious man watches as flood waters come up to the porch of his house. A man in a canoe comes by and offers to give him a ride to safety, but he says he believes God will save him. The waters continue to rise, and when they reach the second floor, a man in a boat comes by and offers to take him to safety, but he declines, saying that God will save him. At last he is standing on the roof with the water around his ankles and rising when a helicopter comes by and offers to rescue him. Again he declines.

A few minutes later, he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he confronts God and says he always led a virtuous life and God let him down when he needed Him most. “What are you taking about?” God asks. “I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. There’s only so much I can do for those who won’t lift a finger to save themselves.”

We are like that man on the roof, trusting that something will intervene to save us from ourselves. It won’t. Only we can do that, but we refuse to because we believe in magic realism or that somehow we will “science our way out” of our dilemma. God has sent us James Hansen, Michael Mann, and people like Edward David. Yet, as Don McLean told us, “They would not listen; they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will?”


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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." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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