Oral History Transcript — Dr. William Elliott
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Interview with Dr. William Elliott
William Elliott; April 24, 1991
ABSTRACT: Brief review of education and work: interest in carbon dioxide; program administration under David Slade at Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy, ca. 1974-1982, and development of Slade's climate change research program; advice from A. Weinberg; studies at NOAA Air Resources Laboratory of carbon dioxide emissions; controversies over fate of carbon dioxide.
Weart:Let's spend a couple of minutes on your background. I have it on your vitae that you got a Bachelor's in Liberal Arts at St. John's College and then went into electrical engineering before you went on to meteorology and then physical oceanography. This will be a focused interview on carbon dioxide stuff, but I wonder if you could just briefly tell me about this pattern. How did you get started in life—what started your interest in science?
Elliott:Actually my original interest in meteorology came about when I was in junior high school or in high school. I, along with a number of people of my generation, read a book called Storm by George Stewart that somehow seemed fascinating to me. I went through a number of other interests before finally settling. I attended St. John's in liberal arts because my family moved from Minnesota to Aurora, Illinois and my father didn't like the high schools in the town. At that time St. John's would take people with only two years of high school. So I went there and went through the program. When I came out I decided I wanted to go into science in some way, although I wasn't pointed necessarily toward meteorology at that moment. I figured I had to have a little more background in science and technology, so I went to the University of Illinois. I was an Illinois resident at the time and it was the least expensive alternative. Then I decided "Okay, this is enough of this, I will go and start getting down to work," and I went to the University of Chicago. I entered the mathematics department but very quickly went over to the meteorology department within about a semester and got a Master's there.
Weart:Was there any particular teacher or someone who influenced you in meteorology?
Elliott:It's hard to say. I don't think so. There were a lot of them that I liked there.
Weart:What did meteorology mean at the time? Did it mean weather prediction or scientific studies?
Elliott:It was scientific. I suppose the person who was the star of the department and the one that we all really liked was Carl-Gustav Rossby, from whom I had courses in basic dynamics. The people there that I remember well were of course Rossby; Erik Palmen, who used to come in from Finland periodically; George Platzman, who was another dynamics teacher and very good; Dave Fultz, whom we all liked personally but Dave wasn't the easiest teacher to have. He actually tried to stuff too much into us.
Weart:You were taking a scientific course—
Elliott:Yes, this was a scientific course. Most everybody came out of there pointed towards research.
Weart:But then the next thing I have here is physical oceanography?
Elliott:Yes. When I got my Master's I was tired of school. There was a small group of people from the University of Chicago—Walt Saucier and John Freeman—who were going down to Texas A & M to start a meteorology program within the newly established department of oceanography down there. They recruited me and another fellow—Guy Francischini—to go down with them and help them start this meteorology group. It was a nice job. I actually didn't particularly want to live in Texas but it was a job and sounded interesting. I started taking an occasional course in oceanography while I was there. It was easy to do. Actually at one point somebody came and pointed out to me that I had taken all the advanced oceanography courses, and if I went back and took the biology and chemistry courses, I would have all the course work out of the way for a Ph.D. They didn't offer one in meteorology at that time.
Weart:I see. I noticed that the title of your dissertation is "On the growth of the internal boundary layer in the atmosphere," which doesn't sound very oceanographic to me!
Elliott:I know it didn't. The idea started out actually—oceanographic—as an air-sea boundary kind of problem. But in fact the work was sponsored by the Air Force. They were interested at the time in such questions as why jet aircraft, which were just coming into being, sometimes needed longer runways long to take off. The runways were short in design. They were worried whether the temperature over the concrete runways was different from the temperature that was measured in the shelter. That was the impetus for that.
Weart:I just wanted to get that straightened out because I wasn't quite clear on that. A lot of these are things that probably should be covered in more detail when you get a full interview about your interaction with your lab here and so on. I want to jump forward a bit through this. I wanted to know a little bit, to jump up really to the first paper I have here by you (and I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to look at it) where you did some work with P. K. Park—what's his first name?
Elliott:I think it's Paul. But he goes by Kilho Park. He was at Oregon State when I was there—in fact I knew him in graduate school.
Weart:And you started to do some work on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere around 1972. So, tell me how you got into that?
Elliott:There was a seminar series at Oregon State for water resources, as I recall, but at this moment I am rather vague. Somebody wanted a talk about carbon dioxide in the ocean—I don't know why the topic was chosen.
Weart:It was just a seminar topic.
Elliott:A seminar type of thing, and he and I put it together. Kilho did the ocean part—he is an ocean chemist. I started looking into a little bit of the history of people's estimates of the effect of doubling CO2 in the atmosphere. So we put together this little paper—it really wasn't original research.
Weart:That was a survey?
Weart:So when did you first become aware of the problem of carbon dioxide, or maybe one should say, in general, in greenhouse gases?
Elliott:Well it goes back just to hearing about it when I was in graduate school.
Weart:With Rossby and those people?
Elliott:No, actually it was down in Texas. I think Plass had published this paper—
Weart:That was about the time—1955. He wrote a couple of papers in 1955 to 1957.
Elliott:I had always been curious about long-term climate change. I don't know why. It was just something that interested me. I will give you an anecdote about this time, which always amuses me. I will use the guy's name. When I was in this period—about 1954-55 but I don't remember—Reid Bryson came—
Weart:Already Reid Bryson?
Elliott:Yup, he came to give a talk to the graduate students in the department. He gave this very interesting talk—which he later on referred to as a sort of Kiwanis Club talk or something like that—about climate change, giving all the evidence for climate change and how you took the pollen counts, the various—
Weart:He was talking about Indians in the Midwest?
Elliott:Yes, that whole sort of thing. It was a fascinating talk. At the end of it he pointed out (this is the 1950s) that the world was warming. Now the data upon which this was based probably were really from in the 1940s—
Weart:In the 1950s people generally believed what they had first learned in the 1930s, that it was warming. There is always a ten year lag.
Elliott:Yes. Reid went through this frightening scenario at the very end of his talk. It's warming, the most warming takes place at the high latitudes, the countries that are going to benefit from this warming are those in the high latitudes—what big country is in the high latitudes that will benefit? Clearly the Soviet Union! We've got this big horror, the red menace that was going to benefit from this.
Weart:He was not the only one concerned at that time.
Elliott:When I came here, ARL [Air Resources Lab]—I went to a meeting very shortly after I came here—
Weart:It was 19—
Elliott:The Fall of 1974—very shortly after that I went to a meeting on inadvertent climate modification where Reid Bryson was giving a talk on climate change. Most of the talk was exactly what I had heard about twenty years prior to that. That is, going through the basis of how you estimate it.
Weart:Right. That climate has made a big impact on history and so forth.
Elliott:And it was the same talk. Reid speaks very well. We came to the end—as you may recall it was cooling—
Weart:Yes, he was the big advocate of cooling.
Elliott:He ended the talk with a picture which he had taken of a glowing sky with the setting sun behind the Himalayas—this huge red sky which indicated a lot of dust in the atmosphere—and what was the message here? What is causing this dust? It's the Chinese plowing up that region, for more food production and they're not going make it and they're going to be coming over the Himalayas—the red menace was back with us. Reid was in both cases was about a decade out of date. It was probably warming then. That's an aside.
Weart:I suppose like most meteorologists, you've always had some interest in climate change.
Elliott:Yes I think it's the same sort—
Weart:Part of the general background. You were actually working at that time, at the time you came here, on some stuff that's since been found to be of interest, and that is, CCN [Cloud Condensation Nuclei] and things like that. Did that have any interaction at that time with concern about climate change and so on?
Elliott:Not really. Certainly that wasn't my motive or my particular interest. I did look at some cases with some anthropogenic effects or looking at the distribution of particles over the sea—but I wasn't looking at it in terms of long-term climate change.
Weart:I see, it was simply one of the meteorologic things to study. Now we are at 1974 and you are seconded to the Department of Energy on a part-time basis. Does that mean that you had your office with the ARL?
Elliott:I had three days a week I worked at Silver Spring and two days a week I worked in Germantown. I had an office there as well as having an office in Silver Spring.
Weart:Your diary will give me more information on this but I still would like to go over it in summary form, how you recollect it. How did it come about?
Elliott:When I was at Oregon State I was looking to leave. I was getting tired of being on soft money all the time and I decided to get back closer to the source of money.
Weart:Whose money were you on at the time?
Weart:Just living from grant to grant—that's not nice.
Elliott:Dave Slade, was at that moment head of the atmospheric science program—I've forgotten the exact title he used—in what was then the Atomic Energy Commission. He put out a notice trying to hire somebody. That was a way for me to get back East, so I talked to him on the phone. What he had was a long-term arrangement between the Atomic Energy Commission and this laboratory [AEL]. I guess at that time this laboratory was recruiting for somebody. I had done a lot of things earlier in air pollution and that kind of work, and so Slade arranged that I came out for the interview and I interviewed in both places. His agreement was that he would pay 40% of my salary—send the money through a contract with ARL—if I would come out there two days a week, basically as an administrator, a program manager, and not do research out there.
Weart:So he had enough money or enough work for a part-time and not a full-time program manager.
Elliott:Yes, and then I would do research here. It's an odd kind of thing but I was anxious to get back.
Weart:Sounds valuable actually.
Elliott:Yes, for a while there it was a great deal of fun.
Weart:What was their concern? Why did they want meteorology?
Elliott:The Atomic Energy Commission's concern was basically diffusion. Where do the radioactive effluents from various AEC activities go? They had been a long-time sponsor of diffusion work.
Weart:Right, whether it's fallout or reactor effluents or whatever.
Elliott:They had a whole group out there who were concerned not only with where does it go, but what does it do once it gets there.
Elliott:Yes, in what was called biomedical and environmental research. They knew at that time that they were going to be taken into ERDA [Energy Research and Development Administration] and that their purview would expand to all energy effluents not just those from nuclear energy.
Weart:I see, cool, acid rain—all those things—so they would have to expand.
Elliott:They would have to expand, and I had worked in diffusion. In a lot of ways it doesn't matter what's diffusing physically; as long as it's a particle or a gas, the physics of diffusion is the same. This ignores chemical transportation, of course. I started working out there as an assistant, handling proposals, getting reviews of proposals—more like what one does at NSF. Then I came back to Silver Spring three days a week doing research on different kinds of topics. To get into the CO2 business, I really wasn't working in CO2. AEC wasn't doing it at all. The Atomic Energy Commission used to sponsor annually what was called a Chemist/Meteorologist Workshop, traditionally held in January in Fort Lauderdale. They would bring together chemists and meteorologists and sit them down in several different rooms to talk about problems—how do we interact, what sort of research do we do together and what are the problems. I went to my first meeting, in January 1975. That meeting had nothing to do, as I recall, with climate or CO2. Mike McCracken was there, he was, and still is, at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and is now the director of the atmospheric program (I think he was the deputy then or something), but he'd been working at AEC for quite a while. He talked to a guy by the name of Rudy Engelman; Rudy was the Deputy Program Manager for environmental research at Germantown. He was Slade's immediate boss. Mike apparently said to Rudy, "Why don't you think about this CO2 problem. You're going to get into this when ERDA's formed." Rudy said, "Okay, write me a letter telling me about why I should worry about it." McCracken wrote him a letter—
Weart:Where would we find that letter?
Elliott:Rudy might have it.
Weart:Where is he? Dian Gaffen: Rudy is now private—
Weart:—in the Washington area? That would be interesting to know. When you hear about a letter or something it is often interesting to ask that question. This is the way we track down stuff.
Elliott:I don't know where the letter is. It could be there in DOE files. Anyway, Rudy said, "Well gee, I wonder if this is important." He came to me and said, "Can you give me a list of people to whom I can send this letter of McCracken and ask their opinion—is this a real problem." So I drew up a list of names of about, I don't know, 15.
Weart:It would be interesting to see that—the climatologists, presumably.
Elliott:Not all. It was guys like Broecker, Keeling. I knew enough about this thing to get a sampling of different scientist—some climatologists, of course.
Weart:It was a small community in those days, right? You probably knew these people personally.
Elliott:No, but I knew the names. That was one of the nice things about being in oceanography: you cover an awful lot of the sciences—chemistry, biology as well as the physical things—and at least know the names of a lot of the people. So anyway, I drew up this list and Rudy picked—I don't know a half-dozen or so—out of that list and sent it out. He got back "Yes, this is going to be a real problem and people ought to do something."
Weart:Those replies—I would love to see that. I hope he's retained some of that.
Elliott:I hope he has. I should have retained it because he turned it over to me and said, "Draw up a little program in response to this—what should we do."
Weart:In that folder you had you did have a summary.
Elliott:I may have some of it.
Weart:I saw today in that folder you had, you had a summary with little short excerpts of what they had said. So that is something there.
Elliott:I drew up this set of recommendations. At that time Rudy was leaving and he was going to NOAA at Boulder. I drew up this memo and had this nice little program that I thought ERDA ought to take part in. I produced a memo and sent it up to the head of biomedical and environmental research; his name was James Liverman. That is the last I ever heard of it. About that time, as I say, Engelmann left and Slade moved into his position as deputy manager. Slade wanted to arrange the Ft. Lauderdale 1976 meeting but got too busy. I remember he asked me several suggestions and I said, "Why don't you do the CO2?" but he decided with all his other things he didn't have time to do it. He just let it go and it died. But it turned out that he got an awful lot of requests—"Why did you kill it?" [the chemists/meteorologists meeting]
Weart:Requests from whom?
Elliott:From people who had gone to these meetings, liked them and said, "Gee why don't they have another one." Slade said, "Well we will have one in 1977." He said, "What should be the topic?" He came to Lester [Machta]—by the way Slade used to work for Machta at this lab before I ever came—and said, "What should be a good topic for next year?" Machta said, "CO2 and climate change." Dave said, "Well okay, if you, Lester, will run this—if you'll put together the meeting." Lester said, "All right, I will do this."
Weart:Pointing the finger at you!
Elliott:That's right. He promptly left for three or four months for England and said, "Will you?"
Weart:Because you were still active at DOE?
Elliott:Yes I was in and out . . . so I put it together. At about that time two other things happened. The National Academy came out with a report called "Energy and Climate." It took forever to get it out but we knew of its existence. We got informal copies of it. They were looking at all the energy effluents. But again, they were going to conclude—as they did—the carbon dioxide was the main offender.
Weart:So you were aware of this even before this was issued?
Elliott:Yes, so that was another lever to move ERDA—which I think may have become the Department of Energy by that time but I am not sure. It was after Carter came in, in that period anyway. That didn't have a great deal of effect on it then. Actually it was not yet the Department of Energy, it was ERDA because Robert Seamans was head of ERDA and apparently—according to a story—he'd read an article in the Christian Science Monitor saying that carbon dioxide has an effect on climate. I don't know what the article said but he passed down to his troops something about, "Hey, does this have any effect?"
Weart:About when was this?
Elliott:I think 1976.
Weart:Late 1976 probably.
Elliott:Late 1976, sometime in there. So all of these things were coming together. They were sort of pushing the Department of Energy on ERDA to put something together: the three things, Seaman's concern, the National Academy report which could not be avoided by ERDA, and then the idea that maybe we ought to have a CO2 conference.
Weart:I should ask, even before this in 1974-75, there was an academy study that recommended an expanded National Climate Program and there were people who were pushing just in general—not necessarily pushing DOE but in general for a large program. Were you aware of that—did that have any influence or interaction that you know of?
Elliott:I can't remember any specifics. I do know what you mean.
Weart:There were ideas circulating—I'm not talking about greenhouse warming, I'm just talking about an enlarged feeling that the time was right to push for a much larger climate program in general. There had been the droughts in the Sahel, there had been concern about global food supplies, and so on.
Elliott:And the potential global cooling. I don't remember if that had—
Weart:You just sort of put this all as sort of background rather than having any specific input.
Elliott:Yes, I don't think it did. I can't remember if it did. If I did I might have written it down in my notes.
Weart:Essentially I am just talking about stuff that was in the background.
Elliott:Yes, it was all going on. And at the same time, of course, this group—here at ARL—was starting the GMCC program [Geophysical Monitoring for Climate Change].
Weart:Maybe if I could interrupt a bit about the origins of that.
Elliott:I don't know too much about them because the origins preceded my time here. When I got here, things were sort of under way. A director [Don Pack] had been chosen. Mauna Loa I think was operating as a GMCC site. S.POLE had been absorbed into the program and maybe Barrow. Barrow had started, I guess. I was kind of on the edge of that. Don Pack had invited me to come to one of their meetings and was explaining it to me but I really don't know.
Weart:OK, that's not your story. So that was getting started here so that meant that people in the lab were becoming more oriented towards climate change.
Elliott:Yes, Lester Machta had always been interested in the CO2 and a supporter of Keeling. Keeling had been making measurements at Mauna Loa with NOAA's acquiescence and urging all these years—
Elliott:Yes. So this was all well known.
Weart:Back to DOE then, you start planning this conference.
Elliott:Yes, we finally set it up. We chose the people to give talks, who should come, and I chose most of the panel chairmen and they helped choose the panel members.
Weart:At this time the conference is still just seen as an entity in itself—it's not necessarily seen as a stepping stone to an enlarged DOE program?
Elliott:It was just before the meeting. It was seen that way by Slade but probably by nobody else, because this was a little thing that they always ran. Yes, Dave saw that maybe something would come from it. He did a very interesting thing. Because there was pressure from Seamans that maybe ERDA should start something, there was then talk about it. What Slade was afraid of was that if we started a program the money for it would come out of our existing funds. So how can we get new money in, not just reprogram old money. He came up with the idea of, "Let's get a distinguished panel, exterior to us, to tell Seamans that this is what he ought to do." So we went to Alvin Weinberg who was head then—I think he had retired from Oak Ridge National Lab and was head of an Institute for Energy Analysis—
Weart:Yes, so he was already retired.
Elliott:I think he retired from Oak Ridge but he was head of IEA. He had this little "think tank" that had started in Oak Ridge.
Weart:Weinberg had already been concerned the year before, in these Academy studies and the effort to start up a national climate program. He was a player in that.
Elliott:He was a player in that, I guess that's right.
Weart:I don't know the story of it but I know he was involved in it. So you went to Weinberg?
Elliott:We went to Weinberg and said, "Would you head a little committee?" We picked (or Slade picked) some names of people who would be on Weinberg's committee, and then tell Seamans what a big problem this was.
Weart:Do you by any chance know whether Weinberg was concerned because already in those days people were saying the carbon dioxide problem was an argument in favor of nuclear power?
Elliott:Yes, there were people who did not like the choice of Weinberg for that reason. They suspected that this was a set-up. My own dealings with Weinberg convinced me that he was a very honest scientist. If Weinberg did not see a carbon dioxide problem he would have said so. I believe that to be so, but yes, he had an interest in it.
Weart:That brought his attention to it?
Elliott:He may, in fact, have been thinking about it beforehand but I really think he went after carbon dioxide as a scientific question, not as an advocate.
Weart:This is a theme in the carbon dioxide, believe it or not, that goes all the way back to the 1950s.
Elliott:I believe it. My one suggestion that got on the committee was Melvin Calvin.
Weart:That's interesting. Why Melvin Calvin?
Elliott:Because he was interested in photosynthesis—if you can say Melvin Calvin was interested in photosynthesis, you could say that Newton was interested in gravity.
Weart:But that still doesn't give me—
Elliott:They wanted somebody that knew plants. A friend of mine at Oregon State—a biologist—by the name of Larry Small actually brought the name up to me. I guess he knew Calvin or knew about him. He said, "He's a very interesting individual and he might be interested in this kind of thing." So I passed this on.
Weart:Did you know whether he had any interest in the carbon dioxide problem before that?
Elliott:No I don't.
Weart:Did the fact of bringing him on add prestige?
Elliott:Yes, that had an effect. But it turned out he was a great fellow. I enjoyed my interactions with him and subsequently he threw himself into this problem with a great deal of gusto.
Weart:Subsequently his testimony before Congress was important in bringing public attention to it.
Elliott:I think maybe his service on this committee brought him more attention. Then there was Ruth Patrick. She was an ecologist from Philadelphia—the Academy of Sciences (I think). Tom Malone—the names are written down.
Weart:Is this before or after the conference?
Elliott:This is before so that in fact there was an awful mess about actually running the conference—who was to run it, bureaucratically—I don't even want to go into it.
Weart:Yes, I will find it in the diary.
Elliott:Anyhow, Weinberg was at the meeting and in a sense the panel directed the whole thing toward Weinberg.
Weart:We missed the last minute, so let's just go over what you were saying. These reports were put together. They were published in this workshop on the effects of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in 1979, but even well before that in 1977 they were circulating. The Department of Energy said they helped stimulate the start-up of a program. Slade got a little of the fiscal year-end money that was hanging around and started to spend it, on what?
Elliott:The first thing he did was to give money to some of the people who had been at the meeting—particularly the panel chairman and a few important people—a little money to think about what we should do. In other words, more planning money than research money. There were several meetings which we went to—Lester and I and Slade—particularly in La Jolla. We tended to meet in La Jolla because that's where Dave Keeling was, and he couldn't travel at that time because he had a bad back and couldn't spend four hours on an airplane. So, happily the rest of us got to go out to La Jolla. That was not a bad thing! People made some reports and wrote some things—a lot of ins and outs of talking. Machta and I took these reports and suggestions and whatnot, and put together a program plan for the (by then) Department of Energy. We put together a summary of what the problems are, what research immediately needs to be done, what long-term projects. We circulated a draft back not only to the people we had been dealing with in the La Jolla meetings but sent it around to a number of other people—scientists—not all of whom had been at Miami Beach. You know, the usual selection of who you think are knowledgeable people and some bureaucrats as well. We collected all their comments and finally came out with the DoE plan. That came out in 1978 before the actual publication of the proceedings of the Miami Beach meeting.
Weart:Of the conference.
Elliott:Yes. I think it's fair to say that conference and post-conference discussions did form the basis of our recommendations and some budget estimates.
Weart:You probably have a copy of that in your file.
Elliott:Yes, I do. It isn't radically different from what we'd recommend now. Some things would change and a few things are not in there that should have been; some things should have been emphasized more and subsequent research has shown to be necessary. So Slade set up this program, in response to this document that got disseminated around, and he now had some more money.
Weart:You can take that up the line.
Elliott:You could take it up the line. He had some money in his pocket and he could give out funds. For a while there his budget had a doubling time of about one year.
Weart:Which you can do if you start on a small level.
Elliott:He set up these very elaborate structures. Dave seemed to have the feeling that there was some management structure which solves all problems, so he was constantly tinkering with management structures.
Weart:All of them with acronyms, no doubt.
Elliott:Most of them with acronyms. Some didn't last long enough to have an acronym. He finally ended up with scientists sending in proposals to him. He would send them to Machta. He and I would go over the proposals to see if indeed they fit the plan that we did devise or if they didn't how could they be revised to fit. We would make comments on them and send them back to Slade and he'd go through his other reviewing process. Gradually this program developed.
Weart:Did you have any role in the negotiation to get the budget for this, or is this all done by Slade?
Elliott:That was all done by Slade. I think it was. I think we wrote things for him.
Weart:What do you think—where does all this come from? What's the impetus for that? What's the most effective or important argument for getting such a program started?
Elliott:You mean in the Department of Energy?
Weart:In the Department of Energy.
Elliott:Well, certainly they did have a history of worrying about where their effluents went. The argument was made on this basis—that DoE has this responsibility.
Weart:So it's treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, so to speak.
Elliott:As we produce energy and in this process we are going to produce carbon dioxide and it is our responsibility to—
Weart:Know where it goes and what it does.
Weart:Just as if it were a radioactive fallout or anything else.
Elliott:It was within that philosophy—within DOE. Some people in DoE looked at Slade as something of a nuisance. They finally said, "All right Dave, you can have a program of your own." As I said, before the Miami Beach meeting Dave was sort of interested but this was just one more thing he was going to do. After the meeting he was so excited about it I think he decided he was really going to go into this.
Weart:It would be his thing.
Elliott:It would be his thing. He fought all sorts of internal administrative battles, the details of which are tedious.
Weart:Is he around so I could ask him?
Elliott:Oh yes, he's around.
Weart:Where is he?
Elliott:He, too, is in private life—in Silver Spring. Some of that is in my diary.
Weart:I'll look through that.
Elliott:He has a very selective memory.
Weart:I want to ask you a little bit about your own carbon dioxide work but first is there anything else about this interval in the Department of Energy or have we covered it?
Elliott:We pretty well covered it. I think slowly Lester and I had less to do with all of these things. What we did was mostly work on carbon cycle, which is where our own research interests led us, and the climate. Then Slade wanted to expand it into biological effects and other such effects. There is a whole problem that you may want to get into—an interesting question—as to why DOE fired him, about 1981 or 1982.
Weart:Why did they?
Elliott:I don't know precisely. There were all sorts of stories. He had an interview with the new Secretary of Energy, if you remember—that dentist from South Carolina.
Weart:Oh yes, right. I had forgotten.
Elliott:We've all tried to forget it! Dave thinks that—well, it was shortly after that that he was relieved of his duties—he overstepped himself. He tried to impress the dentist with how serious a problem this was—
Weart:The global warming problem?
Elliott:The global warming problem. Of course at this time it was 1980-82 and in the scientific community it was pretty well—
Weart:Yes, but this was not what the Reagan administration was interested in.
Elliott:This was not what Reagan was interested in hearing and that's why he got fired. I don't know whether that's entirely true because Dave had some enemies within the organization. There were other people who thought that Dave was letting the program be run too much from the outside. In other words, Dave was collecting input from Lester and me and from scientists all around. I think they had the feeling the Department of Energy wasn't running its program anymore, it was all the outside scientists.
Weart:We know the Reagan administration wanted to destroy the climate change program. They weren't interested in these kinds of things.
Elliott:They weren't interested in it. It was not something that was going to carry a great deal of weight with them.
Weart:Whereas Schlesinger—Secretary of Energy Schlesinger—had been interested in it. You wouldn't happen to know how that got up to his attention?
Elliott:No I don't. Ruth Clusen was Assistant Secretary for the Environment, within the Department of Energy, and Slade talked to her a good bit. She was convinced this was an environmental problem. Now how far up to Schlesinger it got, I don't know.
Weart:I know he did, in one point in 1979, make statements about the carbon dioxide.
Elliott:Yes. Alvin Weinberg talked to Slade. Alvin Weinberg actually talked about the CO2 to Jimmy Carter after the election but before his inauguration. He was down in Plains [Georgia] talking to him about the problem.
Weart:Of course Carter would have been aware of it already as being—
Weart:—concerned with nuclear energy, he would have known about it.
Elliott:So Carter was sympathetic. It flourished pretty briefly with Carter and stagnated awhile under the next one.
Weart:Did it flourish even that much under Carter?
Elliott:Well, the CO2 thing it pretty—
Weart:I meant climate studies in general.
Elliott:I really don't remember the state of climate work in the Carter years. The national Climate Program Act was passed during Carter's administration.
Weart:CO2 did get a run up—
Elliott:Yes it got a run up, pause, then dipped and then sort of stayed kind of level. I had less and less to do with their budget.
Weart:You were already out of there and full-time here.
Elliott:Yes, full-time here. When Koomanoff came in to replace Slade he pretty well terminated Machta's and my influence on his program, that we had under Slade. It wasn't particularly rancorous but we were part of the old order so we were gradually eased back from that. [As I said, I don't know why DoE relieved Slade of his position and replaced him with Koomanoff. Whether it was because Slade was stressing environmental problems to as administration that didn't want to hear about them (as Slade believes) or whether the decision was made at a lower level because he had turned the program over to outsiders to run (as I believe was a strong contributor to the decision) or whether some combination or something entirely different, DoE certainly got a different style of manager in Koomanoff. Whereas Slade was well liked by the scientific community (one respects managers who have enough judgement to ask your advice) but was looked down on by many DoE managers, Koomanoff came to be detested by the scientists but held in high regard by DoE, at least for a while. I don't know what changed their mind and why they finally relieved K. I know that Wally Broecker made no secret of his feelings and he said them in some pretty influential places but I have no direct evidence that DoE was affected by his an other's animosity. Added later by Elliot]
Weart:Let's go on then and briefly tell me a little bit about how you became personally interested in doing work on carbon dioxide. I have here in 1983 you began to do some work on the early amount of carbon dioxide and then you went on to some other types of studies. Just tell me a little about how that got started.
Elliott:Because the measurement of carbon dioxide was a big part of our GMCC program, which was a fairly substantial part of this laboratory's program, the data were easily available and having been involved in the bureaucratic business led to involvement in scientific sorts of things. One thing I did was to look at the records of CO2 emissions from about 1869, which had been compiled, and made a slightly different interpretation from what other people had done. One of the big questions at Miami Beach in 1977 and for the next five or six years, and which is still a big question, is, "What is the contribution to the buildup of carbon dioxide from deforestation?"
Weart:That's right. That was already controversial in 1977. In fact, did people get very excited about that at Miami Beach?
Elliott:They screamed at each other over that!
Weart:I've heard of other conferences where they screamed at each other, now Miami Beach too. Who was screaming at whom?
Elliott:Wally Broecker was screaming mainly at George Woodwell.
Weart:They were both there?
Elliott:They were both there.
Weart:I see. So this was another occasion where Broecker and Woodwell were screaming at each other. What did people think of all that at the time?
Elliott:Some people like we who were just learning, thought, "Wow, this is fun to listen to!" My scientific sympathies were with Broecker's position. I still think George was over-estimating—as George now does—
Weart:He backed off a little?
Elliott:Backed off from the numbers he suggested then, not from the general idea. He probably should also get credit for pumping this thing although he was suggesting that the forest emissions could be as much as three times the fossil fuel emissions. Now we are back arguing about whether it's ten or whether it's twenty percent.
Weart:But nevertheless it is there. There is no question it's there.
Elliott:Yes. So, the argument was that George said, "I calculated how much is coming out of the biosphere, I don't care where you guys put it." Broecker is saying that much can't possibly be going into the oceans so therefore you are wrong.
Weart:Right. That was the classic argument and has been going on ever since.
Elliott:. . . but it has calmed down. The differences are much smaller than they were.
Weart:Why did it become such an emotional thing?
Elliott:I don't know why it becomes emotional. Probably because Wally gets excited. He gets emotional and when you are around him you get emotional. Part of it is that way. George was making some pretty flat-out statements that this is what it is.
Weart:Did other people get much involved—did they choose up sides or were they sitting back and watching these two guys?
Elliott:There was some choosing of sides. There wasn't so much shouting in the meeting, at least openly; sort of in the evenings. Most people would end up with some sort of compromise.
Weart:Could you say if A is an oceanographer, then A must agree with Broecker?
Elliott:There was generally that tendency, yes. There was generally the tendency for the ocean carbon people to feel that Woodwell's estimates were much too high. I think some of the biologists also were less sure about Woodwell's estimates. A number of them were a little more agnostic.
Weart:Following up on this, it's a matter of general interest and maybe you can tell me whether there is any other area where this has happened. One of the big problems in geophysics—anything to do with geophysics—is its interdisciplinary nature. Therefore the tendency for people in different disciplines to line up a little bit. The most notorious case is in the dinosaur extinction controversy where you get physical scientists, and paleontologists and all those people on the other side. Were there any other areas in this whole thing where you can talk about disciplines separating out a little bit?
Elliott:None pops to my mind immediately, at least in this sense.
Weart:This is the only case I know of. I just wondered whether any other cases would pop in your mind. That was a diversion I had to follow up on because I had been interested in these particular incidents.
Elliott:It is an interesting thing. At the end of that meeting—and this was one of the things in Weinberg's summing up—Weinberg said he really wanted to solve this problem.
Weart:Right. It shows the need for more research.
Elliott:Some people got annoyed with Weinberg because he seemed to them to try to force them to say who was right—what was the amount coming out. Biologists said they couldn't do it, they just didn't know. A good bit of research effort was—
Weart:At that point they didn't know whether the deforestation contribution was positive or negative, let alone the magnitude of it.
Elliott:That's right. There was this business about the possibility of fertilizing. All of these things were brought out in our report or at least in our summary. We certainly didn't choose sides at all. People mentioned the necessity for solving this problem and outlined some of the work that might be done to do it.
Weart:We got started on this, what has been a very interesting diversion for me, because you said then you got interested in this later on in the 1980s.
Elliott:There is a paper in there—Elliott—
Weart:Elliott, Machta and Keeling—1985 JGR90—
Elliott:We argued, looking at the overall record (the carbon dioxide record, basically Keeling's records) that the net effect of the forests, I should say the net effect of the non-fossil fuel emissions, is very small. I am not saying it was not coming out of some part of the forest.
Weart:I apologize that I haven't seen this paper.
Elliott:Sort of an ad hoc kind of thing, look at the data and fiddle with it. What we did is just simply look at the trend and then put together various scenarios of fossil fuel emission and putative biological emissions and see which one fit—
Weart:Could match the trend—
Elliott:Could match the trend, could match the details of the trend. Then we looked at under what special conditions net non-fossil fuel emission our method would not distinguish the two sources. We concluded it was unlikely that there was a large net effect of non-fossil sources, which we called biological but it could have been emitted here and absorbed there, within the year.
Weart:The net other effects.
Elliott:A very, very simple kind of model which has been criticized a little bit, but some of the people that criticized it came up with about the same answer we did in a much fancier way. The argument is still going on.
Weart:Well, sure. As you say, getting down from orders of magnitude to a little more narrowing in. Then I see you have a paper that says here, "To be published in Tellus," so maybe you've published it already, with Angell and Thoning.
Elliott:Right. It just came out. I got a copy yesterday.
Weart:What is that about?
Elliott:That's just a follow-on of an earlier Elliott and Angell,—
Weart:The relation between CO2 and equatorial sea surface temperature, which was back in Tellus in 1987.
Elliott:So they are both looking at the records at the permanent stations, the four GMCC baseline stations. What we have done is look at these records—the records of sea-surface temperature in basically the El Nino region (eastern equatorial Pacific). That's in the first paper. There appear to be relations, that is, the inter-annual change—
Weart:So you are looking for El Nino affects on CO2.
Elliott:Not only the El Nino but the cold phase as well as the warm phase.
Weart:I see. Presumably you would find a stronger influence in Mauna Loa than you do at the other ones.
Elliott:Sometimes it is a little obscure what is happening. The later paper brought in some records of precipitation in the tropics and records of the air temperature. It appears now, and one of the things that we say in the last paper, is that probably changes in the SSY are as much a surrogate for changes elsewhere as a cause of the CO2 changes. We speculate that when precipitation is down in the tropics, things aren't growing so much, therefore they're not absorbing as much CO2 and it's probably also sunnier so there is more decay.
Weart:Well, the El Nino is famous for having to do with the productivity. That is what it is all about.
Elliott:So all of this is linked. It's not just the surface temperature of the water.
Weart:Right. It's a lot of things. Now let me just wind up with a few questions that I ask everybody. First of all, about the current situation—do you want to say how we got there anyway? What do you feel now are the main divisions of opinion? Where are people uncertain and where are the lines on which they are uncertain now? I am talking about human-induced climate change.
Elliott:Well, clearly we have been talking about this forest problem. That is clearly one. The question of the magnitude of the climate change—
Weart:Of the likely climate change or whether it has yet been observed. How would you characterize the different sides on that?
Elliott:Well there are certainly people who feel that we have seen the future.
Weart:Hansen and ?
Elliott:Hansen mainly—though slowly others are coming to perhaps say, "Well, if it keeps getting warmer every damn year how long are you going to say we don't know?" There are others that still are not quite sure yet. I assume that if we believe the theory, it ought to have some effect. I certainly accept it in the qualitative sense that some of the change in the last 50 to 100 years (temperature change) is probably attributable to the CO2. Whether it's all attributable I don't know. Some component of it has to be. Maybe it's absolutely negligible, but at least we ought to agree the sign of the change is positive.
Weart:Has this been a serious problem for people, in the sense of causing personality conflicts or in criticism of Hansen?
Elliott:Yes, there have been some. Occasionally almost I think going perhaps the bounds of propriety—a little snappish.
Weart:This is when you talk to people or whatever?
Elliott:I am not aware of public flagellating—well, I have seen some sort of quasi public flagellating of Hansen. I tend to think that Jim stretched the evidence more than I think it will bear but, boy!, that's opinion. Sometimes I think some of the people who have gone after him have been a little bit unfair about doing it. There is always the question, do you applaud the man who really brought this to everybody's attention? Is our budget going up on this because Hansen has said things, even though we don't agree with it, but are willing to take the money that it has produced? I don't know—
Weart:To what extent is he criticized for his scientific views and to what extent is he criticized for the way that he presents them?
Elliott:Mainly the latter. I don't know of anyone who thinks he isn't a good scientist. He may be over-interpreting his own results—
Elliott:—or over-dramatizing, but I don't know that anybody thinks he's done a poor job.
Weart:So if there is a difference of opinion, it's more on the way scientists should present themselves?
Elliott:That's right. The certainty with which he claims that he has seen something that was in dispute. His models are interesting and they're different from other peoples and they're contributing.
Weart:It's a question of the culture and mores.
Elliott:That's right. I think his work is respected. People read his papers for the information, it's the last bit at the end—
Weart:Or when he talks on television or whatever.
Elliott:Right. One of the things I think people are beginning to praise him for is over his last thing at NASA over the satellite bit. People that might have been against him are with him in some of his arguments against the huge space station. Lots of small satellites versus one big satellite—
Weart:Right—always a popular argument in the scientific community. What other areas would you say there is currently controversy or disagreement?
Elliott:There are many. Dian Gaffen: I think the ocean issue, don't you.
Elliott:Oh yeah—the question of what's going to happen. Why haven't we seen more change if the extreme estimates of doubling CO2 are valid? You know, the 2½ to 4½—or 2½ to 5 degrees for doubling, or whatever.
Weart:So you're talking about the issue of how much is going into the ocean?
Elliott:No, what effect—let me back off. If 5 degrees per CO2 doubling, is somehow the intrinsic rate that God has deemed will be the case, why haven't we seen more change?
Weart:What does this have to do with the ocean?
Elliott:OK, well the argument says that what is happening is the oceans are delaying the appearance of the warming—
Weart:Oh the thermal—
Elliott:The thermal lag—
Weart:Right. The thermal lag of the ocean.
Elliott:This is a question that is of some controversy. What is the thermal lag of the ocean?
Weart:Who would you associate with different viewpoints and how would you characterize them?
Elliott:Well, Hansen to some degree talked about it. Tom Wigley and Mike Schlesinger—I'm trying to think of who just made some calculations. Dian Gaffen: GFDL [Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Lab] did a model of ocean changes—
Elliott:Yes, I guess Kirk Bryan. I don't know that this is so much a formal controversy but I think there are different estimates of the lag.
Weart:I know there's been concern in which Broecker for one has been involved. I think there are some others, about the whole circulation.
Elliott:It's important because of the possibility that it could be holding back the warming thing but there is a funny kind of argument that can go on. It's almost such that you can't argue against it because anytime you say that we haven't seen as much warming as the modelers say we're going to see, the answer is that's because the ocean's holding it back—that's an argument that can go on and on until an independent determination of the lag is made. [Of course, the big controversy now concerns whether there is to be any substantial effect from increased greenhouse gases. Dick Lindzen is the loudest credible proponent of the position that there will be little change. The trouble is that he has not seen fit to publish a complete exposition of his points, so we are left with a speech or two and some Letters in journals. A lot of this controversy is the natural reaction, like an example of Newton's Third Law, to overstatements from some environmental organizations. They seem more likely to find the world teetering on the brink of catastrophe than most modelers on whose work the End of Civilization as We Know It is being anticipated. Jim Hansen and, to some extent, Steve Schneider, the most vocal scientists directly working on the problem, are less intemperate in their accounts of the future than some professional environmentalists. Added by Elliot]
Weart:Last question. What do you think should be done? Policy.
Elliott:Policy. I think that it would be prudent to start restricting CFCs, for any number of reasons. I surely want conservation and the standard things, like improved land-use efficiency—I'm not advocating anything exciting or anything that hasn't been advocated. I do think that a sensible policy. There are many benefits to be derived from reducing fossil-fuel use even if there is actually no additional greenhouse warming. We're all going to get benefits. That again is not a startling statement.
Weart:Would you say this is the consensus now that most people are saying?
Elliott:I think that is probably close to a consensus view. I think there are some who would be more vigorous, among the scientists.
Weart:Among the scientists. I am not talking about Sununu.
Elliott:Or some of the more extreme environmentalists who would like to shut down this—
Weart:I am talking about here at ARL.
Elliott:I think every scientist you talk to, anywhere, will have some slightly different view, "There is a reason I am a little more correct than my buddy who is almost correct" but we all generally agree.
Weart:Generally, for example, people would rather see some mileage standards on cars.
I think most people would accept that and argue for it, that it's a good thing. Again, because we would have benefits beyond any reduction in greenhouse warming.