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On its hundredth birthday in 1959, Edward Teller warned the oil industry about global warming

Posted on 1 January 2018 by Guest Author, DPiepgrass

Benjamin Franta (@BenFranta) is a PhD student in history of science at Stanford University who studies the history of climate change science and politics. He has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and is a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

It was a typical November day in New York City. The year: 1959. Robert Dunlop, 50 years old and photographed later as clean-shaven, hair carefully parted, his earnest face donning horn-rimmed glasses, passed under the Ionian columns of Columbia University’s iconic Low Library. He was a guest of honor for a grand occasion: the centennial of the American oil industry. 

Over 300 government officials, economists, historians, scientists, and industry executives were present for the Energy and Man symposium – organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business – and Dunlop was to address the entire congregation on the “prime mover” of the last century – energy – and its major source: oil. As President of the Sun OilCompany, he new the business well, and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute – the industry’s largest and oldest trade association in the land of Uncle Sam – he was responsible for representing the interests of all those many oilmen gathered around him.

Four others joined Dunlop at the podium that day, one of whom had made the journey from California – and Hungary before that. The nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller had, by 1959, become ostracized by the scientific community for betraying his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he retained the embrace of industry and government. Teller’s task that November fourth was to address the crowd on “energy patterns of the future,” and his words carried an unexpected warning:

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.

How, precisely, Mr. Dunlop and the rest of the audience reacted is unknown, but it’s hard to imagine this being welcome news. After his talk, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century.” The physicist, as if considering a numerical estimation problem, responded: 

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.

And so, at its hundredth birthday party, American oil was warned of its civilization-destroying potential.

Talk about a buzzkill.

How did the petroleum industry respond? Eight years later, on a cold, clear day in March, Robert Dunlop walked the halls of the U.S. Congress. The 1967 oil embargo was weeks away, and the Senate was investigating the potential of electric vehicles. Dunlop, testifying now as the Chairman of the Board of the American Petroleum Institute, posed the question, “tomorrow’s car: electric or gasoline powered?” His preferred answer was the latter:

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.

Dunlop went on to describe progress in controlling carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbon emissions from automobiles. Absent from his list? The pollutant he had been warned of years before: carbon dioxide.

We might surmise that the odorless gas simply passed under Robert Dunlop’s nose unnoticed. But less than a year later, the American Petroleum Institute quietly received a report on air pollution it had commissioned from the Stanford Research Institute, and its warning on carbon dioxide was direct: 

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. Astonishing history, and no chinese names as far as I can see. The early rough calculations from people like Teller and Arrhenius have been very perceptive, and an excellent validation of agw theory. if predictions work, it is a powerful validation of a theory.

    Despite this the fossil fuel industry remains in denial. Of course the fossil fuel industry say they accept the climate problem, but this is a veneer of respectability, because the real denialism has been out sourced to groups like the Heartland Institute.

    The fossil fuel industry have done basically nothing about the problem, other than tinkering around the edges to make it look like action, while lobbying against ets schemes. Leaders of industry and sharholders still mostly put profit and pushing the limits and boundaries ahead of everything else.

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  2. We (the US and Europe) are (mostly) democracies. Democracies run on emotion, not science. That was rather helpful when countenancing whether we should have expanded Aktion T4 to a global extent (there was a little dust-up over that sort of issue), it's not so helpful in dealing with a substance whose only hazard can be discerned only via science. 

    Dictatiorships of one form or another run on thirst for expanding and retaining power, they are even less concerned with such issues.  Iran, Mexico etc have not volunteered to cut their oil exports, much the contrary. 

    Teller was entirely correct and was entirely ignored.  In the USA, LBJ accepted a more detail report and estimates from Keeling, but did not act on it. The protest movement of the era was mostly focused on leaving Cambodia to the Khmer, using drugs and rioting.  There appears to have been even less interest in the issue from other nations. 

    The message from Science of what was then a readily avoidable issue was lost in the babble of immediate event.   It will not be the last time. 

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  3. This is more proof that Winners/Leaders anywhere in the world today have absolutely no excuse for claims that they doubt the validity of climate science or the changes that it has identified are required for humanity to have a future that actually has a chance of being better.

    I have long been aware of the unacceptability of Private Interests such as pursuits of profit from the global burning of fossil fuels.

    This article pushes back the date when leaders pursuing benefit from that activity could claim to be unaware of the likely harmful future consequences of their ultimately unsustainable Private Interest pursuit of benefit from pushing for increased burning of fossil fuels, rather than pushing for the rapid development of, and transition to, ways of living that were actually sustainable; economic development that actually had a chance of being sustained and grown.

    And the 1972 Stockholm Conference including CO2 from fossil fuel burning as one of the many major global concerns to be collectively corrected makes any claim since that time by a 'leader/winner pursuing more benefit from the global burning of fossil fuels attempting to deny that they appreciated how damaging their Private Interest was' even less justified.

    And that ability of the Winners/Leaders to deny awareness and understanding of the problem was categorically shut down in 1987 when the the UN report "Our Common Future" was published with the following clear statement highlighting the real problem in its opening section:
    "25. Many present efforts to guard and maintain human progress, to meet human needs, and to realize human ambitions are simply unsustainable - in both the rich and poor nations. They draw too heavily, too quickly, on already overdrawn environmental resource accounts to be affordable far into the future without bankrupting those accounts. They may show profit on the balance sheets of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses. We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.
    26. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations. Most of today's decision makers will be dead before the planet feels; the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion, or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of the young voters of today will still be alive. In the Commission's hearings it was the young, those who have the most to lose, who were the harshest critics of the planet's present management."

    Clearly, the many problems are developed by pursuit of a 'Better Personal Present (Private Interest)' at the expense of 'Developing the Gift of A Better Future for All Others (Gloabl Public Interest)'.

    And the 2015 publication of the UN Sustainable Development Goals further reinforces the fact that no current day Winner/Leader has any credible basis to deny the understandable required corrections of incorrectly over-developed perceptions of prosperity and opportunity. The need for many current day Winners/Leaders to swiftly Lose/Be Demoted is undeniable. Unjustified efforts to minimize the Losses of such people are easy to spot, and the success of those efforts expose the failing of things like Democracy and Rule of Law to effectively limit the damage done by unacceptable actors in the games of competition to appear to Win Relative to Others that humans allow to be played.

    Popularity and Profitability based games can clearly develop extremely Harmful results if people with Private Interests that are contrary to the Sustainable Development Goals are allowed to compete to Win (they have an unjustified competitive advantage - especially when misleading marketing messages that appeal to or excuse harmful things like greed and intolerance can be gotten away with).

    I included a variation of the following in my recent comment on the "Fake news is a threat to humanity, but scientists may have a solution" OP.

    As an engineer with an MBA whenever I am presented with an existing item that 'appears to need to be fixed or corrected' my first step is to ensure I identify/understand the fundamental basis of the problem. I also make sure that any correction is consistent with the overall guiding objective of engineering to protect the general population (Others) and the environment (today and into the future) from the potential negative consequences of what a pursuer of Private Interest may try to get away with. That objective is well aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately many engineering actions (and political actions) have that objective diminished by 'being balanced with Private Interests that are contrary to that objective (less safe, more harmful). My MBA training in the 1980s helped me understand and witness how motivated many classmates pursuing an MBA were to Win their competition for Private Interests any way they could get away with.

    Being guided by that awareness and understanding has led me to disappoint many clients/customers who have identified that their desire is 'to get something done quicker or cheaper'. Admittedly, developing the most advantageous solution to a challenge is an objective of engineering. But responsible considerate engineering (moral/ethical engineering) always has to severely limit the potential for negative Public/Environmental consequences (at the expense of the customer). When I point out the time and cost required to ensure the Quality of the engineered result there is often a claim that my job is to make them happy because 'the customer is always correct'. My response has been to pursue 'correcting the customer' to make sure the customer is actually correct. That often requires support from superiors who must be aligned with the understanding of how everyone is protected when such customers get corrected.

    The bottom line is: If the fundamental cause of the problem is not identified, or if the 'fix' is not aligned with protecting the Public/Environment into the future, then any 'fix' will not be sustainable. It will only appear to repair what appeared to be broken. There will likely be future failure because the real problem was not identified and corrected.

    If someone like me can be aware of and understand that, any person at a higher level of authority and responsibility should have no ability to claim they were 'less aware, just didn't understand the unacceptability of what was going on'.

    The lack of effective limiting of competitors actions to things that can be proven to support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is a damaging failure; a barrier to advancing humanity to economic and political leadership activity to develop truly sustainable rules of law and economic activity that are able to be improved to develop an even more beneficial future for all of humanity.

    Pursuers of Private Interests that are contrary to achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals mus be seen as a threat to the future of humanity, no matter how regionally temporarily popular or profitable they may be.

    Some of the wealthy and powerful clearly do not deserve to be seen to be Winners. Their actions related to the Climate Action Goals (and other Sustainable Development Goals), can be the basis for positively identifying and effectively dealing the unworthy winners, the harmful trouble-makers, the threats to the development of a better future of humanity.

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  4. DrivingBy @2

    "Democracies run on emotion, not science.....The protest movement of the era was mostly focused on leaving Cambodia to the Khmer, using drugs and rioting....The message from Science of what was then a readily avoidable issue was lost in the babble of immediate event. "

    This is a good comment, however back at the time of the Khmer Rouge climate change was relatively unknown by the public and even politicians, so obviously they didn't ignore it deliberately. There was also probably not enough data to be sure it was becoming a reality. However this is no excuse for the oil companies to have downplayed the science.

    However climate change is now competing for attention with other concerns which appear more immediate, in a superficial sense. But climate change is a bigger threat than much of the material which makes for  screaming headlines.

    Also consider humanity responded well to the ozone issue, without emotion and it didn't get lost among other issues. The difference is possibly that climate change is a more complex issue, and has become politicised. Unwinding this is what has to be done somehow.

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  5. OPOF @4, its possibly also a difference of perspective. Professional engineers are trained with codes of ethics and understanding of environment. Practices are often partnerhip structures. Engineeres can be deregistered for breaking rules.

    Large corporates tend to be guided by slightly different principles. Executives especially the CEO are more strongly driven by the profit motive rather than professional service,  and they need to satisfy numerous people. They push the rules to the limits and beyond, sometimes, and codes of ethics are less prevalent and important, and aren't always binding.

    It's this company structure that has to change from a narrow profit motive to a wider set of goals and responsibilities. It's that, or tougher government regulation, or environmental disaster. 

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  6. nigelj @4, you are right that humanity responded well to the ozone problem.  However, the vested interests were much smaller.  The "refrigeration lobby", "aerosol lobby" and "fire extinguisher lobby" are no match for the fossil fuel lobby and the car lobby.

    Reducing GHG emissions also requires much more explicit involvement from the general population, at least in terms of stopping using internal combustion engine vehicles and putting up with seeing renewable electricity generation.

    I read someone saying that all of human civilisation until now is essentially "the fire age", since we used it for heat, light, defence, and (recently) transport and industrialisation.  Saying that the transition from the fire age to the post-fire age is "more complex" than tweaking the chemical industry to find and produce "drop in" replacements for ozone depleting chemicals is a big understatement.

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  7. nigelj@4,

    There is little difference between Engineers and Executives/Investors in their ability to be aware and understand what is actually going on; know what is helpful and what is harmful. In fact, the Executives and Wealthiest Investors have more capability (and responsibility), to be aware and understand what is actually going on. MBA students get an entire course on Ethics in most programs, and the courses lack case study examples of Good Ethical Leadership for obvious reasons.

    The failure of Executives (and the likes of Economists and elected representatives wanting to please/appeal to Executives/wealthy people) to behave more responsibly is their choice to compete to Win in a game that allows unacceptable actions to be pursued rather than fighting to keep unacceptable actions from be allowed in the games (they fight against any regulation rather than fighting for effective Good Regulation. They claim that everyone freer to believe whatever they want and do as they please is the only way to develop Good Results).

    An example of Engineers deliberately being like those Executives, failing to care about the unacceptability of their pursuit of Private Interest, is the VW diesel scam. Designing the computer to recognize the actions of an emissions test and run the engine differently under those conditions was almost certainly done by engineers who did not care about the ethics of what they did.

    But the majority of the damaging 'errors' of engineering are due to pressure from superiors over engineers pressuring them to do unacceptable things because of Private Interest desires for things to be cheaper and quicker, like the tragedy of the O-Ring on the Space Shuttle. A more recet case may be the exploding air bad problem. The least safe design Won the comeptition to be the biggest supplier of airr bags (some engineers to blame, but a lot of executives clearly failed to protect the Interest of Public Good).

    Everyone is protected when Good Reason governs actions, even the investors. Only a sub-set of humanity can temporarily regionally win personal Poor Excuse Private Interest (like the ones who won in the Enron scam). That is a part of the Ethical training I got in my MBA. What I observed was that many classmates were not concerned about fighting against unacceptable pursuits of Private Interest (I got my MBA in Alberta).

    The problem is the inertia of a society that has over-developed unsustainable perceptions of prosperity and opportunity due to too much Poor Excuse Private Interest Winning. And a society that is raised to be easily impessed by temptations to be greedier and less tolerant of Others amplifies the inetria of an incorrectly over-developed group immersed in a diversity of unsustainable damaging Private Interest desires.

    The undeserving wealthy and powerful behind the Unite the Right movements around the world can be seen to encourage people to be greedier and less tolerant and 'join their group and vote together for each other's understandably harmful unsustainable Private Interests'. To Win, Unite the Right groups have to do hostile take-overs (or mergers) of existing popular 'Conservative, Right-wing' entities to increase their chances. They do that to become the only choice for Their unkind likes, hoping to get the legacy votes of people who 'always vote conservative' or of people who will not bother to be aware and understand the changes that have occurred and the required corrections - people who fail to fight for the Good Conservative or Good Right-wing to Win - or people who may try to fight for Good but are willing to support Bad in the hopes of Winning the pursuit of their Private Interest. Canada saw Unite the Right at the Federal Level with the hostile elimination of the Progressive Conservative Party by the Reform Alliance so that the Reform allinace core of greedier and less tolerant people could get the legal right to call their party Conservative. In BC the Unite the Right too over the provincial Liberal Party. And recently in Alberta, the competing major right-wing parties merged to become the United Conservative Party.

    The same can be seen to have happened in the USA, with the Tea Party being taken over by Harmful Private Interests and that successful perverted Tea Party being used as a minority controlling interest within the Republican Party, perverting the actions of the collective Republican Party. However, the USA system is more massively perverted by the power of misleading marketing. Even elected Democrats in regions susceptable to misleading marketing against them have voted against actions that would have limited fossil fuel burning. The damaging power of Bad Private Interests can easily cross Political Party name boundaries in a society that has allowed too many of its members to grow up 'mere children' (to paraphrase John Stuart Mill's warning).

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  8. OPOF @7, yes good points. As you say management sometimes pressure technical staff to act unethically. However its not always easy to just resign from a job if you have heavy family responsibilities, so I feel for people in this predicament.

    However  I resigned a job once partly because of huge pressure from the boss to basically break the law, and generally do unethical things. We were talking significant issues here, not petty or silly rules. The stress of this was getting to be a killer, it was just ethically wrong, and of course if I was caught I would be the person blamed. 

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  9. Most of this isn't about the science but it seems consist with other comments in this thread.

    Not sure I would characterize America as a democracy. We have slid into the oligarchy realm as far as I can see and as long as dark money controls politics, things will continue to move in that direction. Elected officials don’t seem to even care what their constituents think. They are elected by money from big donors and industry. We’ll see if any of that changes in 2018 and 2020.

    As far as our response to AGW is concerned, the fossil fuel industry keeps insisting that no assets will be stranded by any regulatory action taken by the government. When that lie is eventually exposed, what will the loss of trillions of dollars in assets do to our economy? When the coastal real estate market eventually collapses, what does that do to our economy?

    The sooner we start moving in the right direction, the less the eventual pain will be, but do you really think industry is as ignorant as they pretend? Do you think maybe they’ll be safely divested leaving less sophisticated investors to bear the pain?

    The recent tax plan will aggravate the other big problem of our economy---the inequality of income distribution. History teaches that concentrating wealth in the hands of a few at the top is not only toxic for the economy but can be fatal for the system as a whole, yet the big donors of the party in power insisted on what amounts to a $1.5 trillion heist. Does that sound like a democracy or more like the family of a dictator trying to get as much wealth out of the country as they can? Again, do you think they are ignorant of history and economic theory?

    And then there is the 3rd contestant for what can take down our civilization fastest---the depletion of our agricultural base. How many decades of soil and aquifer depletion do we have left?

    Did you see the latest prediction by Stephen Hawking? He dropped the time our civilization has from 1000 years to 100 years. Think he knows something?

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  10. dkeierleber @9

    I agree on all points.

    Regarding the influence of dark money in politics, read the book "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer. Summary, review, and some discussion below:

    This book is particularly relevant to the climate issue.

    Money in election campaigns is so corrosive. IMO the only real answer is tax payer funded campaigns, but its hard getting the public to appreciate the sense in this.

    However I dont know if stranded assets would cause a recession. Money would flow from oil company shares into other companies, ideally renewable energy. It probably depends on how orderly the process is, and whether theres a panic of some sort. Recessions are usually caused mainly by the business cycle or economic bubbles. However stranded assets are still obviously a problem.

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  11. Edward Teller was a nuclear scientist and a designer of the hydrogen bomb.  Perhaps in his speech he was intending to plug nuclear energy as the alternative to fossil fuels.  Unfortunately this has not proved very successful.

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  12. @nigelj

    "Also consider humanity responded well to the ozone issue"

    Sometimes civilization does get it right, rather shockingly. The huge and successful US/Europe smog reduction was another.  My sour take: it won't last, Europe is commiting civilizational suicide and amidst the decline there will be no agreement to handle such issues.  I do hope I'm wrong. 

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  13. Driving By @12

    I'm inclined to agree at heart,  with the same sour take, it wont last. Plus the climate issue is much more challenging, with more powerful vested interests and the science is more complex.

    But I prefer to force myself to try to take a positive sort of attitude, if that makes some sort of sense. Otherwise it's a bit depressing.

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  14. @9,

    Democracy in the real world is a system and all systems breakdown over time. 

    Only life can put things back together and this is commonly known as ‘continual improvement’.

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  15. @10, the partys that run for office don’t want tax payer funded election campaigns as it takes away half the campaign material about where the other side got their campaign chest from.

    Who would decide that this should be the case?

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  16. Oldmanthames, that is the most excellent of excellent points.

    The large populated cities are now stuck with a nuclear solution! (So fossil fuels actually gave us nuclear power? NOW THAT is a conspiracy!!)

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] All-caps snipped.

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