1969 Global Warming White House Memo

Anthropogenic global warming has been suspected for decades, and a simple one paragraph long characterization of the problem 40 years ago was substantially identical to any accurate characterization we might make today. One has to wonder why after 40 years of time we still see headlines telling us that it might, after all, turn out to be true that anthropogenic global warming is real. Indeed, it is a bit disconcerting when the inestimable climate blog RealClimate notes that this is the 35th "Anniversary of Global Warming" as a term in the peer reviewed scientific literature (though I suspect it is older). (See RealClimate's post on the anniversary for very important details!)

The phenomenon of anthropogenic global warming as a point of policy discussion is older than 35 years. Below is a memo from one White House staffer to another both to eventually become quite famous in their own ways, regarding the "carbon dioxide problem." You will find a link to a copy of the original, and some context notes for you youn'uns who may not remember the mid 20trh century. Below the fold.

Memo from Daniel P. Moyihan to John Ehrlichman regarding the "Carbon Dioxide Problem," September 17, 1969.

From the Nixon Library, the PDF is available here. The following is a transcript of the body of the memo flanked by screen shots of the top and bottom portions. Thanks to Lee Witt for sending me a copy of this memo on the chance it would be of interest.



As with so many of the more interesting environmental questions, we really don't have a very satisfactory measurement of the carbon dioxide problem. On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.

The process is a simple one. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels. At the turn of the century several persons raised the question whether this would change the temperature of the atmosphere. Over the years the hypothesis has been refined, and more evidence has come along to support it. it is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. this could increase the average temperature near the earth's surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Good bye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.

It is entirely possible that there will be countervailing effects. For example, an increase of dust in the atmosphere would tend to lower temperatures, and might offset the CO2 effect. Similarly, it is possible to conceive fairly mammoth man-made efforts to countervail the CO2. (E.g., stop burning fossil fuels.)

In any event, I would think this is a subject that the Administration ought to get involved wit. It is a natural for NATO. Perhaps the first order of business is to begin a worldwide monitoring system. At present, I believe only the United States is doing any serious monitoring, and we have only one or two stations.

Hugh Heffner knows a great deal about this, as does also the estimable Bob White, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau. (Teddy White's brother.)

Then Environmental Pollution Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee reported at length on the subject in 1965. I attach their conclusions.

Daniel P. Moynihan



In September 1969 Moynihan (later to be US Senator from New York) was on Nixon's White House staff and Councilor to the President for Urban Affairs. NATO was being asked at that time to create a civil hub of research regarding various issues including environmental topics. Wikipedia gives this reference: Die Frühgeschichte der globalen Umweltkrise und die Formierung der deutschen Umweltpolitik(1950-1973) (Early history of the environmental crisis and the setup of German environmental policy 1950-1973), Kai F. Hünemörder, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004 ISBN 3515081887 as indicating that this initiative involved global warming issues.

Ehrlichman was council and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and, unlike Moynihan, was part of Nixon's' inner circle. He spent a year and a half in prison on charges related to Watergate.

The Hugh Heffner referred to here is not Hugh Marston Hefner of the Playboy Empire.


More like this

Isaac Asimov was writing about the global warming in the early sixties. He later realized that due to other industrial pollutants the effects of CO2 were being cancelled out. He pointed out that if these other pollutants were ever regulated we could expect significant warming trend. Those pollutants were regulated in the early seventies. I believe the essays were in a collection called, "Asimov on Chemistry." There have been folks aware of this potential going quite a ways back...I believe Asimov mentioned that the first person to notice the potential for CO2 build up was a Swedish chemist in the 1890's.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

Greg, please change the URL to the destination instead of the Google search. Those can get .... messy. They don't keep well, for one thing.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

The problem as ever is that the prediction of 7 degrees F rise in temperature (13.9 degrees C in real money), and 10 feet (3.05m in real money) sea-level rise clearly have not happened by 2000, so the sceptics can make hay (while the sun shines too much) by throwing out the theory with the bathwater. The theory is probably still right only the specific predictions were wrong.
There is a bit of a pattern here.

@Iain - an increase of 7 degrees F is 4 degrees C - still wrong, but not as bad as you suggest.

However, remember this isn't any kind of scientific "prediction", it is simply an assertion by one Whitehouse staffer to another presumably based on his notes or recollections of a meeting with the scientist(s) who alerted him to this issue. Read the Realclimate article for actual predictions from scientists 40+ years ago.

Note the comment about Seattle - this makes no sense at all so must be the result of some cryptic note he jotted down at some point in the meeting.

Ooops. I just discovered something about my Blackberry. It does not convert numbers from F to C but temperatures. So 7degF is -13.89degC. Sorry, it seemed wrong but I was not thinking before I posted. Thanks for the correction.

There is something very interesting about the interaction between such informal assertions and public expectations, as there is about the public expectations about the veracities of theories and the possibility of absolute truth of hypotheses derived from them. The issues about the failures of public education in science are more complex than a recent survey in Oz revealed. It is less important that students are ignorant of advanced mathematics or the "facts" of advanced physics, as that they are ignorant about the process of science and how they should react to scientific uncertainties.

Iain, I think you may have the Fahrenheit-Celsius ratio the wrong way around.

Mike, the Swedish chemist was probably Svante Arrhenius (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svante_Arrhenius), who calculated a possible temperature change from a doubling in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1896.

By Composer99 (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

Iain you are partly correct that skeptics can take 40 year old memos written by English Majors turned Politicians (or history major, or whatever Danny Pat was) and make hay of it. But let's not give them too much help!!!!

Anyway, I would not expect the numbers to be even close, given that these are coming from a guy who thinks maybe (and he may have been correct) that there are two "monitoring stations") The memo does not say a 10 foot rise in sea level by 2000 nor does it link 20% increase in CO2 with a high sea level rise, but rather a rise in CO2 which he got almost exactly right (we're at 20 in 2010) leading to warming which he got way wrong, the kind of error one would expect if someone used the wrong number. But actually, I'm pretty sure the Co2->T formula we all use today did not exist in its present form yet) and THEN the sea levels rise.

Of course, the 10 foot number is pulled out of his butt.

The reference to Seattle is strange.

Do not get me wrong. I am not seeking to offer any comfort to Climate Change Sceptics (if anything I am warning you that drawing attention to this memo will do that--and that is a Bad Thing). But I am trying to make a more general point in sympathy with the sorts of things you often write about in your blog. The characterisation I have made of the relations between theory, hypothesis and data apply also to evolutionary arguments, to the Club of Rome predictions etc.

And my points about the really important things to teach people about science are still valid, and made in the context of a report from Oz that there are fundamentalists teaching in Australian Schools that people co-existed with dinosaurs without scrutiny from School administrators because religious education is taught by volunteers.

I wonder what the Tasmanians thought of global warming. Apparently, it was enough to put them of fish!

Thanks for the specifics! I'm positive Arrhenius was the chemist Asimov referenced. As to being badly wrong, I'd have to agree. I read to different collections of Asimov's essays, in one, from the early sixties he pointed out the great potential for global warming. In the later he noticed that the temp was not increasing as predicted. He posited exactly what you quoted on the link...aerosols were stabilizing the temperature...I'd say I had my dates a bit wrong. In the essay I had read he indicated that if the effects of aerosols were ever limited we could expect the warming trend. As I recall sometime in the seventies those aerosols became banned or limited. My impression was that he was chasing the best available information at the time. I'd point out as well, although he was no expert on climate, he was a biochemist as well as a science populizer. Of course I could be mistaken and he was simply off...it's been awhile since I've read those essays.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

Climategate was forecast...

I am absolutely certain of one thing. People in positions of trust have violated the principles of the scientific method. The minute you believe your own hypothesis, you are a dead duck as a scientist.

âWhat is the current scientific consensus on the conclusions reached by Drs. Mann, Bradley and Hughes? [Referring to the hockey stick propagated in UN IPCC 2001 by Michael Mann and debunked by McIntyre and McKitrick in 2003.]

Ans: Based on the literature we have reviewed, there is no overarching consensus on MBH98/99. As analyzed in our social network, there is a tightly knit group of individuals who passionately believe in their thesis. However, our perception is that this group has a self-reinforcing feedback mechanism and, moreover, the work has been sufficiently politicized that they can hardly reassess their public positions without losing credibility.â

AD HOC COMMITTEE REPORT ON THE âHOCKEY STICKâ GLOBAL CLIMATE RECONSTRUCTION, also known as The Wegman report was authored by Edward J. Wegman, George Mason University, David W. Scott, Rice University, and Yasmin H. Said, The Johns Hopkins University with the contributions of John T. Rigsby, III, Naval Surface Warfare Center, and Denise M. Reeves, MITRE Corporation.

By Fran Manns (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

"The reference to Seattle is strange."

John Ehrlichman was from the Seattle area.

I am absolutely certain of one thing. People in positions of trust have violated the principles of the scientific method.

You are absolutely certain that no one else should be certain? Or is it that people can be certain of what you think is true but for anything else, they can't be?

Fran Manns, please refer to my policy on the use of my blog as a platform for nefarious activities: http://tinyurl.com/26esl3w You have been warned.

*sigh* Nixon launched the USEPA:

'On July 9, 1970, citing rising concerns over environmental protection and conservation, President Richard Nixon transmitted Reorganization Plan No. 3 to the United States Congress by executive order, creating the EPA as a single, independent agency from a number of smaller arms of different federal agencies. Prior to the establishment of the EPA, the federal government was not structured to comprehensively regulate environmental pollutants.'

One of the first tasks was to extend the Clean Air Act of 1963 and Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977.

Air Pollution Control Acts were introduced elsewhere at about the same time. Regulations in Canada, the UK and Europe were instrumental in reducing the extent and number of serious smog events in the Northern Hemisphere in the 1980s-90s. At about the same time, New Zealand promulgated similar air pollution controls and enforcement and Australia followed suit in 1994.

By the 1990s, a more sinister air pollution source emerged that would negatively impact North American airsheds, as global consumerism fueled economic growth in Asia: transboundary aerosol transport to the Western US and Canada.

China has emerged as the number one importer of coal, and Australia the number one exporter. China and India, as consumers of coal from the Southern Hemisphere, are effectively moving pollution risk to the North, where it will have the most impact through icecap and glacier ablation.