Initial Conditions Episode 3: Climate Change Science in the 1970s

Initial Conditions Episode 3: Climate Change Science in the 1970s

The images, texts, and details that did not make it into this week’s episode of Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast.

Find the corresponding podcast episode here: Initial Conditions - A Physics History Podcast

One of the most thrilling aspects of a historian’s work is discovering something new in the archives. Historical research makes use of the sources that people in the past created. These can be written sources, such as letters, reports, memoranda, or non-written sources, such as buildings, pottery, utensils, and a whole host of other things. Anything that was verifiably used or produced by people in the past can help reveal something about how they lived, interacted, and understood the world around them. We can use historical sources to reconstruct the past and try, as best we can, to figure out how different people in the past understood the world in which they lived, and how their world changed over time. This is also true for the recent past, for which we have an abundance of printed sources, which are often housed in archives. Often, historical research on the recent past involves visiting different archives and sifting through reams and reams of unimportant documents; this is especially true for historians like me who are interested in the U.S. federal bureaucracy. For every truly useful and interesting document there are thousands of letters that state something like “I received your last memorandum.” Once in a while, though, a historian stumbles upon something truly fascinating. This was the case for the William P. Elliott Papers.

Click here to read the transcript of an oral history interview with William Elliott, conducted by Spencer Weart.

William P. Elliott was an atmospheric physicist who worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the late 1970s, along with a group of other prestigious climate scientists including Lester Machta, Wallace Broecker, program manager David Slade, and others, Elliott helped organize the Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment Program (CDERA) in the newly-formed Department of Energy. The bureaucratic name hides the significance and importance of the program’s mission. It was established specifically to fund and organize research on anthropogenic climate change. CDERA was a remarkably early effort to conduct research on the effects of carbon dioxide and climate change across many different scientific fields.

Portrait of Lester Machta

Portrait of Lester Machta.

Media Credits

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Machta Lester A1.

Included in the collection are Elliott’s letters to his colleagues, which reveal that he and others were anxious about the possible hazards that climate change posed. They thought that improved knowledge about carbon emissions and the global climate was imperative. The scientists involved in organizing CDERA were also realistic about politicians’ willingness to take on the task of reducing the threat posed by global warming. Take, for example, this excerpt from a 1977 letter Elliott wrote to Ralph Rotty, a colleague at the Institute for Energy Analysis:

Barring the unexpected development of methods of removing CO2 from the air, the only reaction to proof that the climate change will indeed lead to vast social upheavals is a drastic reduction in fossil fuel consumption (or radical change in land-use practices should these be shown to be a significant source of CO2). The only alternative will be to live with the changes. The curtailment of fossil fuel usage will come only, I believe if a non-CO2 producing energy source is available to replace fossil fuels….

No matter how convinced we become that the predictions of climate changes are basically correct they will rest on computer simulations: until they are verified by observations they will always be suspect. No amount of preaching will convince the public to lower its standard of living now because people will be a few degrees warmer in 50 years…. Furthermore, no politician will support Draconian measures which would, in the absence of alternate fuels, result in internal economic disruptions as great as the hypothetical ones that might occur later.

Although written forty-five years ago, Elliott’s language sounds frighteningly similar to the way that many people (again, those who “follow the science”) speak about climate change today.

Frank Press looks on as President Jimmy Carter flips through Press's textbook

Frank Press looks on as President Jimmy Carter flips through Press's textbook. For more on Frank Press's role in federal climate research efforts during the Carter administration, see this article by Emma Pattee.

Media Credits

White House Photograph, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Press Collection, Press Frank C1.

So why didn’t Elliott advocate more forcefully for precautionary climate policy? The sentiment he expressed in his letter was shared by some of his colleagues, yet they only wrote in such ways to each other, and rarely to policymakers. As I wrote in the last Initial Conditions blog entry, we can answer that question by putting the science in its proper context. By the late 1970s, although there was increasing recognition among scientists that anthropogenic climate change merited attention on its own terms—long past were the days when proto-climatologists thought the ocean could serve as a buffer to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide—questions about the rapidity of climate change, the scale of climate change, and the range of climate effects were still hard to answer. If nothing else, its organizers believed, CDERA could help answer those questions and put policymakers on a firmer scientific footing. For their part, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter at least, policymakers largely agreed. That sentiment changed very quickly with the election of Ronald Reagan and the appointment of a new cadre at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Reagan made no secret of his disdain for the Department of Energy as he hiked the 1980 campaign trail. While he was unable to dismantle the Department entirely, he did cut its budget extensively. In late spring of 1981, the cuts made to CDERA became widely known in scientific circles as research proposals began to be rejected. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and CDERA had previously worked closely together. In 1981, David Burns, the Director of the AAAS Climate Project, wrote to Roger Revelle, who at that time was the Chair of the AAAS Climate Committee, to express his concerns about CDERA’s sudden termination of its research partnership with AAAS. Together, the two organizations had been working on the second part of a substantial report on anthropogenic climate change with a third part detailing the potential social and economic hazards associated with climate change in the early stages of preparation. As Burns explained it, when he called to find out what happened, CDERA Project Manager David Slade read a prepared statement, but his tone indicated that their partnership was over. Scientists and administrators in the Department of Energy who had previously been eager to work with the AAAS fell silent; Burns wrote: “I called his colleagues, but got no other information. It seemed clear they were under orders to say little or nothing.” Burns indicated to Revelle that the cuts to CDERA threatened the progress yet to be made on answering fundamental questions about climate change:

The suddenness of the DoE cut may be a severe set-back to all CO2-climate research, including the AAAS effort. It is the suddenness that affects our work most severely. Had we not been requested in October 1980 to prepare a “Phase III” proposal, we could have used the nine months between then and now to contact other funding sources, and widen our base of support. Instead, at DoE’s request, and with their continuous encouragement, we used this time to recruit a team of experts and meet with them several times. We consulted by ‘phone and correspondence. We went through many drafts of a detailed proposal. DoE encouraged us at each step of the preparations.

When I talked with Slade on Thursday, he said there was nothing wrong with the AAAS proposal. The cut was “the result of a high level policy decision.

Although I haven’t been able to find any records of his response, Revelle was likely frustrated upon hearing this news. He was perhaps the preeminent oceanographer in the United States, and over the course of his career he had mentored many in the next generation of climate scientists. For example, Revelle hired C.D. Keeling, who I wrote about last week, to work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Revelle was also an educator, having taught undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard. In the late 1960s he taught a bright young student from Washington, D.C. who spent his summers at his family’s farm in Tennessee. In 1981, when Revelle received Burns’s letter, that former student was six months into his third term as a U.S. Representative for Tennessee and was eager to play a big role in American politics. His name was Al Gore, Jr.

Two months after Burns sent his letter to Revelle, Gore called two Reagan appointees to testify in front of the House Subcommittee on Science and Technology about the cuts to the Department of Energy. During the hearing, Gore and one of the appointees, N. Douglas Pewitt, sparred in a heated back-and-forth. Pewitt’s testimony focused on three major points. First, he claimed that scientists wanted more money and that drumming up concern was one way to get it. Second, he said it was anathema to good governance to allow scientists to come up with policy proposals and then ask for money to fund those proposals. Finally, Pewitt claimed that the scientists who were present for the hearings were playing “chartology” and making mountains out of molehills. Gore and the scientists responded to Pewitt’s points, but the Congressman had to interrupt the hearing when he was called to the House floor for a vote on social security.

The story of CDERA’s brief rise and fall resonates today. In Elliott and Pewitt’s words we hear refrains that are all too familiar. This should alarm us. Scientists have greatly enhanced what we know about climate change in the almost fifty years that have passed since CDERA was organized. Elliott’s concerns, and those of his colleagues, have been vindicated. More than four decades later we continue to confront a range of possible futures, many of which will bring more extreme weather events, along with the economic and social tolls that such devastation takes. The future, however, remains unwritten.

One final note—I opened this blog post by writing a bit about the thrill of discovery in the pursuit of historical knowledge. I would be remiss not to mention the role of archivists in finding compelling stories among the reams and reams of mostly inconsequential paperwork. The Elliott Papers were cataloged in 2005 by Melanie Mueller. Now she is the Director of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, but back then Melanie was an archivist, diligently sorting through the papers of prominent physicists. Opening the Elliott papers–which had been used just a few times before, most notably in this article by Spencer Weart–I was immediately drawn into a compelling story about early efforts to organize large-scale, interdisciplinary, scientific research on anthropogenic climate change. Had Melanie not cataloged the papers legibly, the story of CDERA might remain unknown but to just a few scientists and historians.

You can listen to Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast wherever you get your podcasts. A new episode will be released every Thursday so be sure to subscribe! On our website, you will find transcripts, show notes, and our suggested resources to learn more about each topic we discuss.

To learn more about climate history, visit


Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

Pattee, Emma. "The 1977 White House Climate Memo that Should Have Changed the World." The Guardian. June 14th, 2022.

Weart, Spencer. "Money for Keeling: Monitoring COLevels." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 37, no. 2 (2007): 435-452.

Weart, Spencer. The Discovery of Global Warming: Revised and Expanded Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Visit the Digital Exhibit for this episode here.

About the Author

Justin Shapiro

Justin Shapiro outside portrait

Justin Shapiro. Image credit: Hyun Joo Kim

Justin Shapiro

Justin Shapiro is a historian of the environment and technology. His interests include environmental justice, climate history, the environmental history of cities, and the history of infrastructure. His most recent publication can be found in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Transport History. During his time at NBL&A, Justin has enjoyed researching the history of climate science, the history of the African American presence in physics, and pseudoscience, among other topics.

See all articles by Justin Shapiro.

Add new comment

Submitted bySpencer Wearton Thu, 08/04/2022 - 19:55

Hi Justin,
Nice work. But I'll now make a shameless plug for my own work, how about a link to, er, the AIP website

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