A 1977 Memo to President Carter Predicted Climate Catastrophe
In 1977, a memo reached the desk of President Jimmy Carter with the subject line "Release of Fossil CO2 and the Possibility of a Catastrophic Climate Change.” Written by Frank Press, Carter’s chief scientific advisor, the memo warned of the imminent threat of global warming and an urgent need to address it by cutting emissions.
"Because of the 'greenhouse effect’ of atmospheric CO2 the increased concentration will induce a global climatic warming of anywhere from 0.5 to 5 degrees C,” Press writes. "The potential effect on the environment of a climatic fluctuation of such rapidity could be catastrophic and calls for an impact assessment of unprecedented importance and difficulty.”
Reuters: World could see 1.5C of warming in next five years, May 10, 2022.
Carter had taken office seven months before, promising to "develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century.” Despite the memo’s foresight and calling for urgent action, Press’s words were largely ignored, and the fossil fuel industry gained ample time to sow the seeds of scientific doubt.
NYU Environmental Studies: The Long Game | How Big Oil Delayed Climate Action For Four Decades (with Ben Franta), November 11, 2021.
350 Silicon Valley: Exxon Exposed | A Conversation with Geoffrey Supran and Ben Franta, August 5, 2021.
CBS: Huge carbon emissions cuts needed, UN climate report finds, April 4, 2022.
Why This Matters
Today, a vast body of scientific work reveals that Press was correct in his predictions for the future. Press’s memo is also eerily prescient:
The urgency of the problem derives from our inability to shift rapidly to non-fossil fuel sources once the climatic effects become evident not long after the year 2000; the situation could grow out of control before alternate energy sources and other remedial actions become effective.
With carbon levels at an all-time high, the need for immediate climate action is even more pressing now than in 1977. In line with Press’s assertions, numerous scientists have called for an end to drilling based on mounting research. Still, the biggest oil and gas companies are pursuing 195 new projects, putting $1.4 trillion in private assets at risk, and knowingly jeopardizing the chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
EuroNews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.
IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.
The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 7, 2021.
What’s The Delay?
Press’s memo warned of a fast-approaching catastrophe, but even Carter, known as a climate-focused president, took no immediate action. Much like today, climate policy that passed in the mid-20th century, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, was primarily focused on immediate solutions and less on future possibilities. When it comes to climate, uncertainty often equates to no action at all.
Indeed, renewable energy development took a backseat to national energy security in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Stu Eizenstat, Carter’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor from 1977 to 1981, summarizes the perspective many, including the president, held during the period:
We realized our dependence on foreign oil was dangerous and, very importantly, alternative energy was still in its infancy. So Carter was both doing conservation and still encouraging more domestic oil and gas as a way of reducing dependence on foreign oil. As with all policy, you have conflicting goals.
Denial, Doubt, Delay
A new docuseries The Power of Big Oil on PBS digs into the industry and its strategy to promote denial and progress its agenda. Viewers are offered a close examination of all sides of the campaigns and intentional manipulation of oil giants. Watch Part I: Denial here, Part II: Doubt here, and Part III: Delay here.
Democracy Now: Bill McKibben | Latest IPCC Climate Report Underscores "Fossil Fuel Is at the Root of Our Problems," April 7, 2022.
DW: Banks increase funding for fossil fuels despite 'net zero' pledges, February 15, 2022.
Consensus Digital Media: Texas Oil Wells Hold a Renewable Energy Solution | American Innovators, June 1, 2022.
Bloomberg: Scaling Up Renewable Energy Usage, March 16, 2022.