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The 1977 climate memo that should’ve changed the world

‘If you could go back’ must be one of the most uttered phrases in human history. Decades before the term ‘climate crisis’ dominated tabloids and political discourse, here’s the vital 1977 memo that could have helped to prevent it all.

// This article is entirely based on research conducted by The GuardianEmma Pattee is the author of the original story. See for reference. //

If you don’t lay in bed at gone midnight and run through a top 10 of things you could have done differently, are you even human?

Regrets are a natural part of life. We can either let them eat us up, or chalk our cringe inducing misgivings up to valuable life lessons that will serve us well in the future.

Some decisions we (I’m talking humanity in general now) make, however, have implications that can alter greater events beyond our own lives. You’ve no doubt heard of the butterfly effect, right? Well, what we’re talking about here certainly falls under that category.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars first hit movie theatres and a certain Elvis Presley left us, a single-page memo arrived at the White House warning about the potential implications of an unknown phenomena called climate change.

Jumping ahead 45 years, some of the assertions made within this document and delivered to US President Jimmy Carter were unnervingly accurate. You probably won’t thank me for it, but it’s time now to drudge up that pang of guilt and regret once more.

Read on for about 3 minutes and then come and join me. If only we’d listened!


The historical context

By July 1977, President Jimmy Carter had been in office for less than 12 months and yet had already built a reputation for being socially responsible and environmentally conscious.

Choosing to install solar panels on the White House caused a stir among the public at the time, but he remained firm in pushing renewables as the future of energy way before it was popular.

‘We must start to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century,’ he famously stated in an address to the nation.

The climate memo appeared on his desk just days after Independence Day celebrations on July 4, courtesy of his respected science advisor Frank Press. It ominously read: ‘Release of Fossil CO2 and the Possibility of a Catastrophic Climate Change.’

Before being taken under the wing of Carter, Press had been director of the Seismology Lab at the California Institute of Technology and had been consulted from federal agencies including NASA and the Navy. Suffice to say – and as his colleagues publicly declared – he was ‘brilliant.’

He began the memo by explaining the science of climate change, as we knew it before we really knew it.


Comparing warnings to the reality

‘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,’ it read.

‘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.’

These assertions built on initial evidence from a decade prior that carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Today, obviously, this is now common knowledge, akin to the sky being blue or grass being green.

In terms of the predicted impacts, Press rightly pointed out that ‘rapid fluctuation’ in the climate would lead to unprecedented difficulties throughout big money making industries – probably for maximum impact and fear factor, in hindsight. The American dream and all that.

He highlighted wide scale crop failures as a prime example, which has proven to be the case with global warming continuing to stunt agricultural productivity in several places across the world. He also said impact assessments were of ‘unprecedented importance’ and eluded to extreme weather events in the future.

Perhaps most crucially, though, Press warned ‘the situation could grow out of control before alternate energy sources and other remedial actions become effective,’ and all but faultlessly pointed to the year 2000 as the time when the effects of climate change would become apparent.

As you read this now, with us all on the cusp of living through irreversible climate shifts, it’s easy for our generations to ask: why were these warnings not heeded?


Why did we fail to act?

Attached to the memo of Carter’s trusted confidant, was a note from America’s first secretary of energy, Jim Schlesinger. It read: ‘My view is that the policy implications of this issue are still too uncertain to warrant Presidential involvement and policy initiatives.’

Oh boy, must he have had some regrets late in life.

Seeds of doubt rapidly spread throughout the US – you could say like wildfire – and beyond, and climate change deniers were rife.

Then, there were conflicting political interests thwarting any radical shifts away from fossil fuels. For one, the US was desperate to end its dependence on foreign oil and encouraged a full scale revolution for domestic fuel.

While this was happening, Carter was counter-intuitively launching the first federal toxic waste clean-ups ever, suggesting he never fully got to grips with the severity of the situation himself.

After losing his re-election campaign, Carter’s tenure was ended by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and his successor’s attitude towards the far away rhetoric of ecological doom became immediately clear. First order of business was to rip the solar panels off the White House.

The fossil fuel industry then, in its lucrative prime, sunk millions of dollars into discrediting the validity of climate science.

All the while, legislators were more concerned with the immediate harm of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide poisoning than the seemingly distant threat of climate change.

If you were being kind, you’d say that Press’s memo had a stunted impact then. Despite hitting the mark with many of its proclamations, we find ourselves here, right now tittering on the edge of irreparable damage.

We’ve come full circle then, that’s the nature of regrets right?

All we can do now, is make damn sure that those with the power to enact change are wide awake and making the crucial changes needed for future generations.

 

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