In 1977, Star Wars hit theaters, New York City had a 25-hour blackout, and the Apple II personal computer was for sale. It was also the year that a notable one-page memo was circulated at the highest levels of the US government.
Years before the climate crisis was part of the national discourse, this memo outlined what was known – and feared – about the crisis at the time. It was prescient in many ways. was anyone listening
As of July 1977, President Jimmy Carter had only been in office seven months, but he had already earned a reputation for focusing on environmental issues. First, by installing solar panels on the White House. He had also announced a national renewable energy plan.
“We must begin now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy that we will rely on in the next century,” he said in an address to the nation, outlining its key goals.
The climate memo landed on his desk a few days after the July 4 Independence Day celebrations. It bears the ominous title “Fossil CO2 Release and the Possibility of Catastrophic Climate Change”.
One of the first things to notice is the stamp at the top, partially omitted, that reads THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN.
The memo’s author was Frank Press, Carter’s chief science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Press was a tall, serious geophysicist who grew up poor in a Jewish family in Brooklyn and was described by his peers as “brilliant.” Before working for the Carter administration, he was director of the Seismology Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and a consultant to federal agencies such as the Navy and NASA.
“Carter had great respect for Frank [Press] and for science,” said Stu Eizenstat, who was Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser from 1977 to 1981.
Press begins the memo by laying out the science of the climate crisis as it was understood at the time.
Burning of fossil fuels has increased exponentially over the last 100 years. As a result, atmospheric CO2 concentration is now 12 percent above pre-industrial revolution levels and may increase to 1.5 to 2.0 times that level within 60 years. Due to the “greenhouse effect” of atmospheric CO2, the increased concentration leads to global climate warming of 0.5 to 5 °C.
These far-sighted claims were consistent with the climate science that emerged over the previous decade, when the US government funded major science agencies focused on space, atmospheric, and marine sciences. A 1965 study for President Lyndon B. Johnson found that billions of tons of “carbon dioxide are added to the earth’s atmosphere from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas.”
The press memo hit the mark. In 2021, for the first time ever, atmospheric CO2 concentration reached 420 PPM, half the doubling of pre-industrial CO2 concentration postulated by Press.
The potential environmental impacts of such rapid climate variability could be catastrophic and require an impact assessment of unprecedented importance and difficulty. Rapid climate change can lead to large-scale crop failures, while a growing world population is pushing agriculture to the limits of productivity.
The press was right. Indeed, we have seen the catastrophic effects of climate variability in the form of increasingly severe weather events such as droughts, heat waves and hurricanes of greater intensity. Meanwhile, in many parts of the world, warming has already contained growth in agricultural productivity, and large-scale food production crises are thought to be possible.
The urgency of the problem stems from our inability to rapidly switch to non-fossil fuel sources once the climatic impacts become apparent not long after the year 2000; The situation could spiral out of control before alternative energy sources and other remedial measures take effect.
That’s right. In the 2000s, the effects of the climate crisis were felt in some regions in the form of more deadly heat waves and more severe floods and droughts.
A natural release of CO2 would not take place for a millennium after the burning of fossil fuels was significantly reduced.
This prediction by Press was actually debunked at least a decade ago. Scientists used to think that some warming was ‘burned in’, but scientists have now found that once CO2 emissions stop rising, atmospheric CO2 concentration levels off and slowly falls.
As you know, this is not a new problem. What is new is the growing weight of scientific support that is turning the effects of carbon climate from speculation to a serious hypothesis worthy of a response that is neither smug nor panicked.
But there were other currents opposed to the kind of response the press is demanding. “The history of climate policy in the US in general is one of missed opportunity and unwarranted delay,” said Jack Lienke, author of the book Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the War on Coal.
Many other issues seem more urgent or simply better understood. As Lienke writes in Struggling for Air: “At a time when Americans were still dying relatively regularly from acute, inversion-related air pollution episodes, it is not surprising that legislators were more concerned with the known harms of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide than with the uncertain seemingly distant threat of climate change.”
The authoritative National Academy of Sciences has just warned us that they will issue a public statement along these lines in a few weeks.
That public statement, released later this month, underscored the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and stressed the urgency to begin the transition to new sources of energy as soon as possible: “With the end of the oil age in sight, we must it creates long-term decisions about future energy policy. A lesson we have learned is that the transition from one main source to another takes several decades.”
So what happened? When the press memo reached the President’s desk, Jim Schlesinger, America’s first Secretary of Energy, also included his own note in response:
In my view, the political implications of this issue are still too uncertain to justify Presidential involvement and political initiatives.
Carter seems to have heeded this warning and has not made much progress in containing the climate crisis during his presidency. Still, he signed some important environmental legislation, including initiating the first state toxic waste cleanup and creating the first fuel economy standards.
A major challenge for Carter was his own conflicting energy goals. Despite his goal of promoting alternative energy, he also felt there was a national security interest in boosting US oil production after the 1973 oil crisis.
“We realized that our reliance on foreign oil was dangerous and, very importantly, alternative energy was still in its infancy,” Eizenstat said. “So Carter has been both environmentally friendly and producing more domestic oil and gas to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” Eizenstat said. “As with any politics, you have conflicting goals.”
Still, it seems possible that the world would have been in a better position today in terms of climate impact if Carter had been re-elected. One of the first things Reagan did after winning the 1981 election was to turn off the White House’s solar panels. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry — whose scientists were already studying how fossil fuels are changing the climate — began spending tens of millions of dollars sowing doubt on climate science.
Did the press memo achieve anything at all? For one, it was indeed a “transitional moment” — that was Eizenstat himself. He says it was instrumental in his own future work on the climate crisis, including his decision in 1997 to serve as that of the United States Chief Negotiator for the Kyoto Protocols on Global Warming.
These protocols form the basis for the first international effort to address climate change governance at the global level. While Press’s memo had a muted impact at the time, his warning wasn’t completely ignored.