Edward Teller warned big oil about CO2 and climate change… 60 years ago
Edward Teller was a Hungarian-born physicist who became in integral part of the Manhattan Project, the secretive team that created the first atomic bomb. In November, 1959, he was the guest of honor at an celebration in New York City to mark the 100th anniversary of the oil industry in America. The gala was organized by the American Petroleum Institute, then, as now, one of the most powerful trade groups in America.
In his remarks, Teller had some words for the group that its members didn’t want to hear. According to a transcript reprinted by The Guardian, he told the 300 people in attendance,
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am to talk to you about energy in the future. I will start by telling you why I believe that the energy resources of the past must be supplemented. First of all, these energy resources will run short as we use more and more of the fossil fuels. But I would […] like to mention another reason why we probably have to look for additional fuel supplies. And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere. [….] Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it?
“Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [….] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”
Those words stand in stark contrast to the screams of protest from people like Scott Pruitt and other industry stooges who vehemently deny that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and is therefore an not a proper subject of government regulation. After his speech, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century.” He answered this way:
“At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent [about 360 parts per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5.
“But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don’t know whether they will cover the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it by looking at the map and noting that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are perhaps five thousand feet thick.”
Teller’s response to that question is eerily prescient. Today, carbon dioxide has hit 420 parts per million and is rising rapidly. Global average temperatures have already risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit and the polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. Sea level rise of 6 feet or more could occur by the end of this century.
Maura Healey, attorney general for the state of Masschusetts, and Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of the state of New York, have sued ExxonMobil, claiming it knowingly, willfully, and deliberately lied to Congress, the public, and the courts for 40 years about what it knew of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. ExxonMobil has fought those claims with a vehemence that approaches insanity, probably because it knows if the allegations are proven true, the damages could put it out of business.
That lawsuit is similar to the legal actions brought by many states against the tobacco companies years ago. Interestingly enough, many of the same actors who defended Big Tobacco then are now using the same tactics perfected then to cover up the sins of ExxonMobil and its peers now. For more on this subject, watch Merchants of Doubt, a documentary movie that examines how soulless people willingly place the lives and health of others in grave danger for money.
Robert Dunlop was one of the 300 people present to hear Teller’s speech. In 1967, he was chairman of the board of directors of the American Petroleum Institute. In that role, he gave the following testimony to a Congressional committee on the topic, “Tomorrow’s car: electric or gasoline powered?” He told the committee, “We in the petroleum industry are convinced that by the time a practical electric car can be mass-produced and marketed, it will not enjoy any meaningful advantage from an air pollution standpoint. Emissions from internal combustion engines will have long since been controlled.” The list of pollutants he referred to included carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and other hydrocarbon emissions, but not carbon dioxide.
Shortly thereafter, the API commissioned a study by the Stanford Research Institute. The report it got from the Stanford researchers in 1968 was blunt. “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes. […] there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe. […] pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.” Those “submicron particles” we now call particulates and we know they can transfer directly into the bloodstream of human beings in the lungs, leading to pulmonary, respiratory, and other diseases.
The Guardian article referenced above was written by Benjamin Franta, who studies the history of climate change science and politics at Stanford. He has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard and is a former research fellow at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He summarizes his research into what ExxonMobil knew and when it knew it as follows:
“This is a history of choices made, paths not taken, and the fall from grace of one of the greatest enterprises … ever to tread the earth. American oil’s awareness of global warming — and its conspiracy of silence, deceit, and obstruction — goes further than any one company. It extends beyond (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is implicated to its core by the history of its largest representative, the American Petroleum Institute.
“It is now too late to stop a great deal of change to our planet’s climate and its global payload of disease, destruction, and death. But we can fight to halt climate change as quickly as possible, and we can uncover the history of how we got here. There are lessons to be learned, and there is justice to be served.”
Thanks to Maura Healey and Eric Schneiderman, with a helping hand from Benjamin Franta, the day when justice is served may be close at hand
(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)