Episode 3: Energy Crises and Climate Change in the 1970s

Header image for episode three of Initial Conditions showing Jimmy Carter at a panel sponsored by ERDA.

This episode describes efforts undertaken by the Department of Energy in the late 1970s to study the environmental, economic, and social consequences of anthropogenic climate change. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon confronted a series of energy crises. Blackouts in major U.S. cities, natural gas shortages, and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo led to cold winters, hot summers, and long lines at the pump. In response, Nixon began reorganizing the executive branch to better respond to such crises, an effort that would continue during the terms of his successors Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. One proposal that Nixon’s new energy advisors suggested was to burn more domestic coal and oil. Meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, and scientists in related fields paid close attention to these new energy policies. Some, including William P. Elliott, then working in the Air Resources Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, responded with alarm. Based on the papers of William P. Elliott, this episode covers federal research efforts on anthropogenic climate change during the Carter administration. A handful of scientists began organizing a research program within the new Department of Energy to study the consequences of relying on more fossil fuels. That is, until the sudden closure of that program in 1981. We’ll also discuss how debates about climate change from nearly fifty years ago still resonate today.

Blog Post: Ex LIbris Universum

Speakers: Maura Shapiro and Justin Shapiro

Initial Conditions Episode 3: The Elliot Papers Date: March 18, 2022

JUSTIN: Well, let's walk over here, because the Elliot papers are already out.

ALLISON: Yeah, you requested (audio trails off)

MAURA: I'm Maura Shapiro.

JUSTIN: And I'm Justin Shapiro.

ALLISON: And I'm Allison Rein, your tour guide through the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. And we're looking through the Elliot papers.

MAURA: The letters of William P. Elliot, the atmospheric scientist.

JUSTIN: And I found them because I was really interested... It doesn't have the date on the box, but on the finding aid it has the date, and it's something like 1975, and I was like, "Climate change in 1975?" It just seems remarkably early.

ALLISON: Yeah, it is.

MAURA: It seems early because it is early. William Elliot was part of a team of researchers who were on the cutting edge of climate research beginning in the late 1970s.

JUSTIN: We're been unearthing the story of what the research reveals about the evolution of climate science. And to that end, we are digging through Elliot's papers.

MAURA: Well, not digging. Handling gently, more like.

ALLISON: I appreciate that.

JUSTIN: We'll take them over to the beautifully-lit reading room here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. 

ALLISON: Never lacking for natural light.

JUSTIN: I'll take the first folder here.

ALLISON: Yeah, what's the gem? What's the like "ah-ha!" moment where you're like, "This is something, I've got it"?

JUSTIN: Well, it wasn't just one moment. I guess it was just seeing the finding aid and seeing that the years were so early in climate change history, but really the story kind of just unfolded in front of me. But there's some cool stuff in here. Just documents from the 1970s, some copies of obviously typed letters. But yeah, so these are the Elliot papers. These are what we base the episode on.

ALLISON: It's very nondescript, but you're bringing it to life. You know, you're turning this, what a lot of people would see as very colorless, grey documents and you saw the story inside of it.

JUSTIN: I just try to picture everybody in like a thick paisley tie. And the story just comes from that, you know?

ALLISON: (laughs) Yeah.


MAURA: This is Initial Conditions.

JUSTIN: A physics history podcast.

MAURA: Every physics problem begins with a set of initial conditions that provide the context for physics to happen.

JUSTIN: Likewise, in this podcast, we'll dive into the initial conditions that made science possible. The people, places, and events that have been overlooked and under-studied. And today, we dive into the work of climate scientists from the 1970s.

MAURA: Justin, why don't you break it down for us?

JUSTIN: I'll give you three initial conditions. First, the Nixon presidency and the formation of the EPA. That's one together. Second, the energy crisis of the early 1970s. And third, I want to talk a little bit about how scientists in the 1970s, right? Almost 50 years ago, talked about climate change among themselves. How in their personal correspondence they emphasized some of the more dire implications of continued fossil fuel use and climate change.

MAURA: Well, I'm excited to hear how the story evolves. So where would you like to start?

JUSTIN: Well, I want to start with Richard Nixon. And in our conversations together, we've expressed a lot of interest in the man and his presidency. I could give an impression, if you want.

MAURA: I don't know that I want that, but go ahead.

JUSTIN: All right, no, we'll save it for a bonus ep then.

MAURA: (laughs) Okay.

JUSTIN: Yeah, that'll be on our Patreon.

MAURA: Oh we totally want that. (laughs)

JUSTIN: All right.

MAURA: I'm just hearing from the producer, and in fact we do want that.

JUSTIN: All right, I'll edit out the curse words, but he something like, "They made him look like a goddamn animal."

MAURA: (laughs) That's pretty good. Well and sense it's a podcast and not on radio, you're allowed to swear. (laughs)

JUSTIN: Anyway, let's be professional about this. And let's get into the history of (CDERA 03:37).


MAURA: So Justin, how did you come to find out about federal climate change research?

JUSTIN: Well, I was doing my job, which is looking through the collections here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. And-- 

MAURA: We do have a great job.

JUSTIN: It's a really great job. One of the great things about being a historian, and I'm borrowing a former professor of mine's phraseology here, but you get to read other people's mail. And so I was looking back through these archives, and one box stood out. It was called "The William P. Elliot Papers on Climate Change and Fossil Fuels." That might not be exactly right, but the William Elliot Papers, we'll call them. And the date on them was from I think 1974, until 1996. And I was like, "Whoa. Fossil fuels and climate research? In 1974?" And I looked in it, and thanks to Melanie, one of our supervisors here, all the papers were laid out in exact chronological order. And this story just sort of unfolded in front of me.

MAURA: So you read William Elliot's mail like a book and what did you find?

JUSTIN: Well, I found that scientists in the 1970s, some of them, not all of them, but some of them were very concerned about the effects of climate change. Again, about 50 years ago.

MAURA: And this sets the timeline back for when scientists were really speaking loudly about the disastrous effects of climate change, right?

JUSTIN: Well, they weren't speaking loudly. To each other, they were expressing how dire the situation was, but to lawmakers and policymakers, they were using this sort of more careful and cautious terminology that we're more familiar with today.

MAURA: And what about the 70s facilitated this interest in climate?

JUSTIN: Well, this is where we get into Nixon and the energy crisis. So, Nixon took office at a time of uncertainty, to put it mildly. There had been uprisings in cities across the United States in response to police brutality and violence, especially in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MAURA: Mmhmm.) And Nixon in his first inaugural address said, "I will be a law and order president." It's very familiar terminology.

MAURA: I've heard that before.

JUSTIN: Mmhmm. And that's one thing that I kind of realized about the CDERA project, is how much the past, these conversations in the past, are echoed today. And we'll see that in the way that certain politicians and political appointees responded to what CDERA was trying to do. But that comes at the end of the episode. Now, in addition to all these political crises, Nixon also faced major energy crises as well. There were brownouts in major US cities in 1971, natural gas shortages for heating and cooking, and increasing fuel prices. This was all sort of exacerbated in 1973, during the Arab-Israeli war. During that war, you may know the United States supported Israel, and in response, OPEC, which is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, put an embargo on oil shipments to the US and three other countries that had supported Israel.

MAURA: Just to penalize their support for Israel?

JUSTIN: Exactly, exactly. The US faced, again, rising fuel prices. Fuel rationing had to be imposed, and this was something that the country hadn't seen since WWII. And so in response, Nixon and his advisors decided to try to work with Congress to get one single, coordinated energy department up and running. And this wasn't the first time that Nixon turned to federal power in order to research and help implement new policy. I know you're familiar with the EPA.

MAURA: I am familiar with the EPA. I have a fairly personal stake in it. I don't know if this should go on the podcast or not, but both my parents work for the EPA, and now my sister does too, so we consider the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, sort of a family business. My interest in Richard Nixon started in the third grade when I wrote a five-page biography of him in cursive for school. And what I learned was that he started the EPA, and even at the ripe age of nine, I realized how monumental that was that a Republican leader formed a new body in the federal government. And that really surprised me. Right so he takes office, as Justin mentioned, in this sort of chaotic time in American history, and not only were there riots, but also pollution was getting really bad. And pollution is different from climate change. Climate change is kind of an abstract issue, or was, an abstract issue. But the pollution that they experienced was seen and it was felt and you could smell it in the air. People really started to feel a stake in the environment. This is also around the time of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which for the first time made people really aware of what we were putting into the environment. So pretty much immediately right after Nixon takes office, this environmental activism campaign stars and the very first Earth Day in 1970 was so popular and so widely-attended that Congress had to shut down, because all the Congress-people were busy making stump speeches about how important environmental protection was. And this is a really rapid change, because on the campaign, Richard Nixon did not talk about climate at all. It was just not something people cared about. But if he's one thing, he is a smart politician, and knows sort of what the people are looking for. And recognized the need to make legislative change on the environment. So early in 1970, Richard Nixon spoke to Congress and he emphasized the need for change. He lays out a 37 point program tackling water pollution, air pollution, solid waste management, park lands, and public recreation, and organizing. And he says, "It is in this way with vigorous federal leadership, with active enlistment of governments at every level, with the aid of industry and private groups, and above all with the determined participation by individual citizens in every state and every community that we at last will succeed in restoring the kind of environment we want for ourselves and the kind the generations that come after deserve to inherit. This task is ours. It summons our energy, our ingenuity, and our conscience in a cause as fundamental as life itself."

JUSTIN: What that speech, to me, sort of represents is Nixon understanding that there was growing support for the environmental movement in the 1960s. And you mentioned Silent Spring. And it's really hard to underestimate the significance of that book, published in 1962. Carson died in '64. And she became a sort of  legend in the environmental community. But all the while in the 60s, there's this ferment of counter-culture. New political demonstrations. Movements. Especially tied to the Civil Rights Movement. And these were all kind of the undercurrent of the 1960s. Or an overcurrent, depending on who you ask. But they all come together in Earth Day. In 1970, Nixon sees this enthusiasm for environmental activism, for environmentalism, and he decides to act on it. And he does so in a way that is maybe unfamiliar for contemporary audiences who understand the Republican party's relationship to the federal government today. He said, "Perhaps there is a role for the federal government. Perhaps we can craft policies that will in some ways protect the environment. Nixon, the opportunist here, saw this groundswell of environmental activism, and he pushed forward an idea for a new federal agency, one that would be in charge of enforcing environmental laws and protecting the air, land, and water of the United States.

MAURA: You know, in some ways, this is a break from the Republican party that we experience today, but in other ways, it makes a lot of sense. Richard Nixon wanted an efficient government. And the way that the federal government had been set up already, it was just not equipped to handle environmental issues, which Richard Nixon realized would be an important thing to tackle based on public opinion. And so he created this commission to kind of audit the federal government. What they realized was all these inefficiencies. For example, almost every government agency had a stake in the environment. For obvious reasons, the agencies that worked on human health had a stake in the environment, because people were breathing in smog. Agencies on housing had a stake in the environment. Agencies that dealt with transportation had a stake in the environment. And so, all these agencies are interacting with the environment in their own way, and that's slowing the process down, spreading out something through multiple bureaucracies. So this commission says, "We need one agency to tackle all of these." And that agency, as Justin mentioned, was the Environmental Protection Agency.

JUSTIN: All right. So the EPA has been established. It is meant to coordinate and implement federal policy regarding air, land, and water quality. But in our conversations, you've told me before that Nixon kind of soured on this project of his.

MAURA: Sure. So before we talk about kind of the drama, I want to set the scene a little bit for what the early EPA was like. We have this brand-new agency, and as I mentioned before, the environment was the responsibility of a lot of federal agencies. And instead of hiring a new staff that would be, you know, the uniquely EPA staff, what they did was they just cut and pasted together these individual programs from all over the federal government. So many of the EPA employees came to EPA already with their vested interest and with their own stake in the environment. In addition, the first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, really needed to establish the legitimacy of the agency. He needed authority because it was regulatory, and he needed the respect of the field. And one of the ways he did this was by immediately enforcing already-existing standards. And one of those cases is, I think, what Justin's hinting at, which kind of shows how Richard Nixon created this beast, the EPA, and then was not so happy with it.

JUSTIN: That's exactly it.

MAURA: And the case that is in question is ARMCO Steel. In 1970, the EPA referred ARMCO Steel to the Department of Justice for dumping over a half ton of toxic chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel every day.

JUSTIN: And this is how industry dealt with waste for most of the... Well, for the 19th and most of the 20th century, is you simply dump it in a nearby body of water and expect that the running water will just clean all of those toxins and pollutants out.

MAURA: Right, and there was already legislation that enforced water quality, and dumping a half ton of toxic chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel every day was illegal. So the case gets sent to court, and ARMCO Steel is found guilty of, you know, dumping chemicals in the water. And the court ordered them to stop. ARMCO Steel responded that, "If we have to stop dumping chemicals in the water, we would have to close this facility." So ARMCO Steel's president sent a letter to Richard Nixon to complain about the EPA, and he claimed that enforcing these federal water quality standards countered Nixon's promise that industry wouldn't be penalized for these new environmental standards and, they said that if EPA were going to enforce the water quality standards, that they would have to fire over a couple hundred workers. The Richard Nixon administration got really nervous. Because unemployment was already kind of high. It would look really bad if the federal agency that he created to tackle this public opinion issue that he didn't really care that much about was going to cause more unemployment. So Richard Nixon called EPA, and asked for a stay on enforcing the water quality act so that they could negotiate. But regional EPA officials had learned that ARMCO Steel had already planned to lay off those couple hundred workers, even before EPA's ruling. So they found that EPA really had nothing to do with ARMCO Steel's plans to increase unemployment. But then the Washington Star uncovered documents proving that ARMCO Steel made significant campaign contributions to the Nixon administration and argued that Nixon administration siding with ARMCO was completely inappropriate, because that was a conflict of interest. The Nixon administration was so embarrassed that they were forced to negotiate a settlement with ARMCO who agreed to follow the EPA guidelines for waste treatment. And this brought up a lot of questions about the EPA. This brand-new baby agency that could be melded over who really controlled what they did.

JUSTIN: By the time of the Arab-Israeli War and the OPEC embargo, Congress was pursuing any information it could find about the Watergate break-in. Information that would eventually lead, and this is a very simplified story, to Richard Nixon's resignation. Interestingly enough, there was no sort of precedent for how a president resigned. So he wrote a letter to someone who is still alive today, his Secretary of State--

MAURA: Gerald--

JUSTIN: No, not Gerald--

MAURA: He died.

JUSTIN: No, Henry Kissinger. (laughs) Yeah, Ford is dead. Kissinger is still alive. But yeah, he wrote a letter to Kissinger saying, "I'm done." And there was no precedent, but it was just sort of a little interesting thing. But in '74, Nixon was out and Ford is in, and I know I've told you this sort of trivia. This tidbit a number of times... What-- I don't know how to phrase this, for the (laughs) podcast, other than saying, what do I find interesting about Gerald Ford?

MAURA: (laughs) Why don't you tell me, Justin, what you find interesting about Gerald Ford?

JUSTIN: What I find interesting about Gerald Ford is that, first of all, that wasn't his name. Gerald Ford was not born Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. But he took his adopted father's last name.

MAURA: And just the name Gerald?

JUSTIN: And the name Gerald, yeah, which is a great 1970s era kind of name, I think. But that's the timeline, right? So Nixon resigns in 1974, Ford is in. Neither of them was able to get this single, unified cabinet level energy program up and running. Carter was. On August 4th, 1977, so just about seven, eight months into his presidency, Carter gets Congress to approve the Department of Energy. And that is not where the story of CDERA begins. But that's the sort of context, right? So the mid-70s was a period when energy policy was being shuffled among many different departments. But the one that began to take the lead and sort of started to morph in the early days of the Carter administration into the Department of Energy was this organization called the Energy Research and Development Agency. ERDA for short.


JUSTIN: Yeah. And this is sort of where the story of CDERA begins. So we've got the political background. Let's jump into the science, shall we?

MAURA: In your words, let's dive in.

JUSTIN: So the story of CDERA. Mentioned at the top of the episode that it stands for Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment Program. Kind of a clunky acronym.

MAURA: Well they didn't take the NASA approach of finding the acronym first and then choosing the title of the program to fit it.

JUSTIN: No I wish they had. And the name changed a number of times, too, which made writing anything about it kind of difficult. But that's familiar territory for an historian of the 19...anything after the New Deal, basically. In that name, Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment Program, what they were really getting at was the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. And this took on a special importance in the aftermath of these energy crises. So we remember the Carter administration was this time of experimentation with alternative fuel sources, right? Carter famously put solar panels on the White House roof. Which were not for electricity generation, as far as I remember. They were for water heating, actually.

MAURA: Oh, interesting.

JUSTIN: Yeah, yeah, which is pretty cool. Reagan immediately took them off, and (laughs) that is a sort of representation of what's going to happen to CDERA down the road.

MAURA: An allegory.

JUSTIN: An allegory. But ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Agency, this thing that kind of morphed into the Department of Energy under Carter, they took the lead in pushing new nuclear and solar and wind and geothermal energy sources, things that were not really commercially viable in the 1970s. They took responsibility for developing. But in the aftermath of these energy crises, they were also instructed in part to figure out how to make better use of fossil fuels. This country has abundant coal, and it still has petroleum, and ERDA was also tasked with trying to figure out how to rely more heavily on these things that the US would not be so heavily dependent on foreign oil.

MAURA: So it was more of a national defense, being able to be independent from these countries that you are potentially going to war with?

JUSTIN: And this is rhetoric that we still see today. Right, our dependence on foreign oil. This is something that Bush emphasized... Both Bushes emphasized. Clinton, Obama... it is the perennial problem in American energy history. And ERDA was seen as one potential way to better-develop American fuel sources. This brings us to young scientist Michael McCracken, who in 1975 was working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA. McCracken is still alive today, and he has done a lot of really important work on both climate research and advocating for better climate policy in this country. And he was really concerned about ERDA's proposal to rely more heavily on fossil fuel resources. Michael McCracken writes to his colleague at ERDA, to express some of his concerns about the proposal to rely more heavily on coal and oil produced in the United States. He writes, "ERDA is proposing and many utility executives are urging that this country's coal resources be rapidly developed to serve as the backbone of the United States's energy resources for at least the next 100 years." At this point in 2022, we're about halfway through that. But at this crucial juncture in energy planning, there seems to have been no critical assessment in which the implications and consequences of continuing reliance on combustion of fossil fuels and the resulting increase in carbon dioxide concentrations has been carefully considered.

MAURA: Interesting. So, he is saying that there needs to be more work done on the ramifications of bumping up fossil fuel use?

JUSTIN: Right. And this is representative of the state of climate change research at the time. The consequences of fossil fuel research were not very well understood. The future wasn't yet predicted. But McCracken is expressing a sense of precaution. So the science is still kind of congealing. Individuals with training in a variety of disciplines, meteorology, atmospheric physics, atmospheric chemistry, geophysics. They're starting to come together and talk about what the implications of fossil fuel use might be down the road. But they simply do not know at this time.

MAURA: And I like what you said, that people from all over the scientific arena were coming together, because at the time there was not a real climate science field the way there is today.

JUSTIN: And that's why I think the story of CDERA is important. And we'll get into it as the episode goes on,  but it does (laughs) mark this moment when scientists with different training in different fields came together to really engage with the question of anthropogenic climate change. He concludes the letter with, "I write this letter to urge that carbon dioxide effects be considered in evaluating energy strategy for the next generation." So here's McCracken, writing to his colleague at ERDA saying, "Look, we don't necessarily know what's going to happen with fossil fuels, but we better damn well sure investigate and research this so that we can be sure that we're protecting the next generation." Soon after ERDA receives the letter, scientists within that division begin reaching out to their colleagues. One of them being William Elliot, the person who assembled these papers. And they start to circulate a really preliminary draft research agenda for a program on fossil fuels and climate change, (AUDIO CLIP: So it's in this purple card-- Yes.) and anthropogenic climate change. And they do what scientists always do. They circulate a proposal and they ask their colleagues, "Hey, does this look good? Does this make sense? Do you have any suggestions for how to improve it?" So they circulate a proposal to ask, "Is it feasible to set up a research program on fossil fuels and climate change? Given that we know that the effects of it might not be felt for several decades." Elliot writes back to ERDA to summarize the results of that peer review process, and he writes that of the dozen or so scientists that were consulted, every single one of them said, "Yes, a research program on fossil fuels and climate change is worth pursuing. It is worth studying, because we simply don't know the effects."

MAURA: Mmhmm.

JUSTIN: Elliot wrote, "One respondant called the problem 'the most important climate impact facing the country.' And several others stressed the serious gaps in our knowledge. One said that the possibility of effects of CO2 were so serious that nuclear energy should be pushed instead."

MAURA: Wow. And so was the public hearing any of this, or was this only in communications between scientists?

JUSTIN: This is really just scientists talking to themselves. But this letter was sent in 1975. 47 years ago. And we have scientists at the time saying, "This is really serious and we need to study it." And study it they did.

MAURA: So at the time, the science wasn't out that what was happening now was exactly causing climate change and that climate change would be bad. What you're saying is that scientists felt like something was up, and that it would be irresponsible for an increase in fossil fuel usage without looking at the possible ramifications.

JUSTIN: There's always a discrepancy between what scientists talk about and what the general public knows, and that has to do with a number of things. It has to do with the pace at which scientific research happens. It could take years, it can take decades to reach conclusions. And that's certainly true of climate change. As we talked about in the last episode, the first paper on anthropogenic climate change was published in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius. So there's a lag time between when science is done and when the public learns about it. Within scientific circles, yeah, we see evidence that some of these scientists were speaking in dire terms about the threat of climate change from fossil fuel use. Again, at the very early time of the late 1970s. The proposal circulated in the scientific community. This idea of building a research program that could study fossil fuels and climate change. And unanimously, the respondents say build it. We're not going to tell you about how big to build it. We're not going to tell you about what to cover. But you should build it. This is worth looking at. So William Elliot-- 

MAURA: The guy whose mail you read.

JUSTIN: The guy whose mail I read, who was an atmospheric physicist at NOAA, but is now in ERDA, reaches out to his colleague Lester Machta, a prominent meteorologist, David Slade, who was also with ERDA but had been in the Division of Biomedical and Environmental Research with the AEC. And other figures. And they decide the next step should be a workshop. And they begin to organize in the summer of 1976 a workshop to be held in Fort Lauderdale, FL. As they're building this sort of workshop, they decide to reach out to some of the prominent European climatologists, and what they learn very soon is that the Europeans were also organizing a conference to be held two weeks later in March of '77 on a similar topic: the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change.

MAURA: That's interesting. So independently, both American and European scientists were coming to the same conclusion, that they really need to be looking at the effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

JUSTIN: And I bring that up just to say that this wasn't just an American story. This is a sort of a moment of international agreement. That something needs to be studied about fossil fuels and climate change. It is important to note that in the late 70s, in addition to this American effort, there was growing international awareness of the dangers that climate change could pose. And out of it, they developed a preliminary plan for how to build the Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment Program.


JUSTIN: CDERA. David Sedaris, right?

MAURA: (laughs) A famous comedian.

JUSTIN: A famous comedian. So it's the summer of 1977, and there are some big changes taking place in the federal bureaucracy. On August 4th, 1977, the Department of Energy was formed, which was a culmination of these efforts that we talked about earlier in the Nixon and Ford administrations, to build one unified, coordinated agency that was capable of handling energy policy. And at this point, maybe we should introduce some of these leading figures in CDERA. So we mentioned at the top of the episode, this podcast is based on the papers of William P. Elliot, who was an atmospheric physicist. First located at NOAA, but later moving into ERDA, which would later be absorbed into the Department of Energy. We've got (Lester Magda 29:39), who was a preeminent post-war American meteorologist, and part of the Air Resources Laboratory at the time. And he was a leading figure organizing the efforts behind CDERA. We have David Slade. Slade was really instrumental in getting the Miami Beach conference off the ground. After all of his efforts, it was decided that he would be the one to lead what would become CDERA. And throughout the rest of its history, as far as I can tell, up until the Reagan administration, Slade would be leading the charge at CDERA. That's a brief biography of some of the figures who were instrumental in building CDERA. And in mid-1977, we see from scientists' letters to each other, that for some of them, the issue of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide and climate change, those related issues, were no less dire. And I want to read just a little bit of a letter from Elliot to his colleague, (Ralph Rotty 30:36), also an organizer of the Miami Beach conference, because I think in this letter, you get a sense of how these two scientists who were aware of the issue of anthropogenic climate change, understood it in terms that were really modern and really familiar to listeners today. So Maura, if it's okay with you, can I just read some of these quotes?

MAURA: No. (laughs)

JUSTIN: All right, so we'll move on, then, to--

MAURA: (laughs) All right, go ahead, go ahead.

JUSTIN: All right, so this is Elliot, again in the summer of 1977. "Barring the unexpected development of methods of removing carbon dioxide 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-carbon dioxide-producing energy source is available to replace fossil fuels." So in that first paragraph, we hear how dire Elliot thought the situation was. And he goes on to write, "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."

MAURA: People will doubt climate models until there's evidence to back them up, which requires some amount of waiting, because if you're predicting the future, you have to wait until the future to verify.

JUSTIN: Right. And I'm going to use one of my least-favorite cliches here. But the future is now. This is the future that Elliot was writing about. Here we are 45 years later, reading these words and understanding how this scientist in particular thought of the dire situation that climate change posed. And he concludes his letter-- In the final paragraph, he writes, "As I've said, I'm not hopeful that any amount of research will convince the world to mend its way unless substitute fuels are found and even questionable then. If indeed no worldwide action to reduce fossil fuel use would be taken, it might be better to focus research on how best to live with the consequences  rather than, like Cassandra, deliver prophecies no one believes."

MAURA: That's so interesting. So instead of trying to stop climate change by introducing alternative fuel, he's saying we need to learn how to grapple with the effects of climate change. So what would that look like?

JUSTIN: Well, that's a tough question to answer. And I don't really have an answer to that right now. But, this gets us into how CDERA was organized, because it was not just built to understand climate change as it was then, in 1977. It was also built to try to figure out how to mitigate future climate change and perhaps pull back from an over-dependence on fossil fuels that would just exacerbate the problem. So let's get into how CDERA actually operated. So about 9 months after the Miami Beach conference, Elliot, Mackta, and others begin to circulate a draft plan for the Carbon Dioxide Research Program, to be organized within and funded by the Department of Energy. As I mentioned before, David Slade would be the head of the office. He'd be the director. He'd be responsible for all of the logistics. And he'd work with something called the Scientific Directorate. This is a body of credentialed scientists who would review any requests for funding, would make sure the program was operating as it should, and would make sure that all of the component research programs are working towards their conclusions in a timely manner. Underneath the Scientific Directorate, these scientists are also building a panel that can research how climate change will affect society, the economy, political situations. These are things that Elliot hinted at in his letter to Rotty. Right, that climate change is not just an issue far up in the atmosphere, miles above the surface of the Earth. It's something that will affect us right here.

MAURA: Trickle-down climate change.

JUSTIN: Right. I suppose. (both laugh) 

MAURA: Right. But they're looking at a holistic approach (JUSTIN: Exactly.) to the issue.

JUSTIN: Well anyway, so that's the office. You've got David Slade as director of the office, working with other figures in the Department of Energy to get the program towork. You have the Scientific Directorate, which was tasked with developing the scientific research program and reviewing funding proposals, and (laughs) you have the five panels. Each of which is tasked with a different research program. 

MAURA: Where are we now, Justin?

JUSTIN: All right. So now it is 1979. CDERA is up and running, and it's running pretty well. By 1980, they produce a major report summarizing the state of climate change science as they saw it at that moment. It was titled: "Part one: the global carbon cycle and climatic effects of increasing carbon dioxide." And as indicated by the title, this was one part of a multi-part series. They anticipated three parts in the end. Part one basically described how the Department of Energy could continue to build on the successes of CDERA to really continue rolling out this program. And the report lacks a lot of the language that we see between scientists. In their personal correspondence. It's a pretty familiar document. The language is level-headed, it's not particularly alarming. And they basically say the increase in carbon dioxide might be a problem. What we need is further research to understand the severity of that problem.

MAURA: So this highlights the disparity between how scientists were talking to each other versus the public when it comes to the immediate and dangerous effects of climate change.

JUSTIN: Right. Because scientists at the time simply didn't agree about what the effects of climate change would be. You had some who were a little bit more concerned. You had some who say this might be a cause for concern, but we need more research. And of course in the intervening 45 years, they've done quite a lot of research in that time. The language of official reports, things from the IPCC, has gotten more dire. So now we find ourselves in the year 1980. And as a historian, I know what's coming down the road. And I think that these scientists did too.

MAURA: So I'm not a historian, Justin. What's about to come?

JUSTIN: Well, you know Carter served one term. And following him was Ronald Wilson Reagan, the Hollywood cowboy. So November 1980, Ronald Reagan is elected, and during the course of his campaign, he said on a few occasions, "I plan on closing the Department of Energy." In March, just two months after he took office, Reagan submitted a budget that slashed $344 million from the Department of Energy, resulting in major layoffs at national laboratories and cuts to CDERA's budget.

MAURA: This is part of Ronald Reagan's push for a smaller government.

JUSTIN: Right. So CDERA's research fell outside of the new, narrow focus of the Office of Science and Technology policy. So CDERA was being closed, and some of the scientists who are outside, who aren't privvy to what's going on in the Department of Energy, are seeking information about this. As we've seen, in every step of the process, in the formation of CDERA, these scientists were remarkably transparent. They were open with one another. They not only solicited feedback, but acted on it. And that is how science is done. It's an honest exchange of ideas, and a constant effort to improve those ideas by communicating with your colleagues. But all of a sudden, there's silence from David Slade. Otherwise so enthusiastic about this program. So this was a time when some scientists saw that the anthropogenic climate change issue was becoming more dire. That rather than waiting until the effects were apparent, they had to act then, to start to figure out what was going on. And they got pretty far. They got a dedicated office in the Department of Energy. But elections in the US have consequences, and suddenly, and to the scientists, perhaps, rather arbitrarily, the money that they had that was funding this large-scaled organized climate change research effort was gone.

MAURA: Right. And not only was it gone, it was gone abruptly with no transfer of power or responsibility.

JUSTIN: So this brings together a lot of strains of 1980s government approaches to big projects. And I think it represents a pivot, right? We talked at the top of the episode about Nixon and how as much of an opportunist as he was, as much of an opportunist as he was and a member of the Republican party, right, this party that believes in restrained government, he did see that there was room for the government to do things. To coordinate policy, to implement new policy, to research alternatives, and that's what he did with the EPA and that's what he tried to do with the Department of Energy, which he never got, of course. They came two administrations later under Carter. But with Reagan, in the beginning of the 1980s you see a rejection of that idea. A rejection of the idea that government can conduct research on something as large and as complex as the climate. And CDERA is one of the victims of that approach to governing. And as David Burns wrote to Roger Revelle, and as Gore later reiterated during the Congressional hearing, this would be a huge setback for climate change research in the United States.

MAURA: So given its short lifespan, Justin, what did CDERA accomplish?

JUSTIN: Well, I think a few things. First of all, they had the publication of Part One. Right, this attempt to investigate, or set an agenda for investigating climate change. I think it's really significant in its formation, though. The extent to which people, leading figures in sort of this proto-climatalogical sciences, meteorologists, and atmospheric physicists, and atmospheric chemists, like Machta and McCracken and Elliot, the way they came together to try to figure out a research program. I think that was important, because at the top of the episode, in the late 60s and early 1970s, and as we talked about in the last episode, climate science was the domain of a handful of individuals. These really dogged scientists who were investigating, you know, kind of particular aspects of the climate. But because they were just humans, individual people working, they couldn't really get at the whole complexity of climate change. And CDERA represented an attempt to get around that issue by bringing scientists of different specialties together across a range of related research agendas. The way the scientists talk to the public is different than the way they talk to each other. The issue of climate change, as Elliot wrote, as McCracken wrote, as other wrote, was quite dire, or they thought it could be quite dire. 45 years ago. Almost 50 years ago, in the case of the initial letter from McCracken to Angleman. And I think that, we should pay attention to that, because it puts the contemporary questions about climate change into perspective. I think on the other side, what we see also is that this was a testing ground for some of the arguments that would later be deployed among non-scientists. Against climate change science in the interest of climate change denial. This is where the sort of ideological battle begins to take shape.

MAURA: Almost like a practice round.

JUSTIN: Right. And it also shows that ideology and policy, these things could shift really dramatically. Again, at the beginning of the decade you had Nixon, who was by all accounts a sort of restrained government politician, but even he thought maybe there's room for some basic research on energy. Or the federal government should play a more coordinated role in implementing policy. At the same time, though, administrations can be fickle, and the great success of the US signing on to the Paris Accords in 2015 was of course overturned in the next election. As Trump entered, the US withdrew from its Paris commitments and also withdrew from an international agreement. A sort of framework that had been drafted to address climate change and mitigate its worst effects. But that wasn't the first time that an election mattered in terms of climate policy. What we see is that this is also the case at the end of the 1970s. As Reagan slashed the budget of agencies like CDERA, and other programs that were focusing on study of the climate. In the words of David Burns, set back the agenda for climate change research in the country.

MAURA: And I also think it's important in the conclusion of this episode to talk about modern climate denial. We sort of touched on it previously, but it truly is this very vicious cycle of quality science with immense peer review, right, and people who have some sort of motivation to attack it. As we talked about in the previous episode, people sometimes thought that a change in climate could actually be beneficial. I think the government is this really slow-moving ship, and it makes turns and there's no doubt that Reagan shutting down CDERA really had long-term impacts on the environment, but the power of the bureaucracy during the Trump era kept the ship going in the right direction. You know, it did not turn everything around. If anything, the ship is moving too slowly. But I also think this is a story of good science happening and as long as good science continues to happen, we have a reason for optimism. Good science is happening today. There are so many people interested in climate science. There are so many good scientists working on it. There are so many tools and so many options for people to take a stance and make a change in their own personal lives, including voting. I don't think that this is a story that gives us a reason to give up. I think this is a story that proves that people do matter, and that talking about climate science is really important. Thanks so much for joining us today.


JUSTIN: To learn more about our discussion and find related photographs, blog posts, and transcripts for this episode, check out our website at AIP.org/InitialConditions or click the link in the episode description.

MAURA: Also a shout out today to our tour guide and the associate director of library collections and services, Allison Rein.

JUSTIN: This episode was created, researched, and written by Maura Shapiro and Justin Shapiro.

MAURA: Allison Rein is our executive producer, with audio production and editing by Kerry Thompson.

JUSTIN: And a special thanks to the wonderful staff of the Niels Bohr Library and Archives and Center for History of Physics for supporting us in all our research needs.

MAURA: Initial Conditions is generously sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

JUSTIN: I'm Justin Shapiro.

MAURA: And I'm Maura Shapiro.

JUSTIN: And you've been listening to Initial Conditions.

VOICEOVER: From the Niels Bohr Library and Archives at the American Institute of Physics.

Further Reading

Interview of Lester Machta by Spencer Weart with William Elliott on 1991 April 25, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31417

Like Elliott, Machta was closely involved in the formation and operation of CDERA. Soon after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, Machta and Elliott were asked to step away from the program. Here Machta describes the state of climate science in the 1960s-1980s.

Interview of William Elliott by Spencer Weart with Diane Gaffen on 1991 April 24, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5092 (accessed July 13th, 2022).

In this oral history Elliott describes his background and career. Pertinent to this episode, Elliott also provides a history of CDERA and its operation. Elliott was closely involved with the carbon dioxide research effort and his papers constituted most of the research material for this episode.

Visit the Digital Exhibit for this episode here.

Show notes

Kerry Thomspon of Thompson House Productions produced this show. Allison Rein is executive producer. Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast is generously sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.   

Sources and Collections Used

Weart, Spencer. The Discovery of Global Warming: A Hypertext History of How Scientists Came to (Partly) Understand the Problem of Climate Change. Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, https://history.aip.org/climate/index.htm (accessed June, 2022). 

William P. Elliott papers on carbon dioxide and climate change. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, College Park, MD 20740, USA.

About the Podcast Team