Early climate change warriors

WARNING: “It is now pretty clearly agreed that the C02 content will rise 25 per cent by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet,” Moynihan wrote in his 1969 memorandum. The picture, taken in 1999, shows a walrus perched on a melting iceshelf in the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Ocean.   | Photo Credit: GREENPEACE

It is generally believed that global warming is a concern that is of fairly recent origin. Indeed, the issue has become embedded in the public consciousness only in the past two decades. But actually there were early warning signals that were ignored and the world is paying a huge price for it. The worst culprit in this regard is the United States which cannot take the excuse “we didn’t know.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, essentially a social scientist, was unarguably one of the outstanding public intellectuals of the 20th century. He held many pivotal positions in the American academic and political establishment including a stint in India as U.S. Ambassador in the mid-1970s when our bilateral relations were, to put it mildly, very prickly on account of suspicious mindsets on both sides.

Now Moynihan can veritably lay claim to being perhaps the first person to alert an American President directly on global warming. Way back on September 17, 1969, he wrote a memorandum which has been published in Steve Weisman’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, a book that contains hugely interesting material on his turbulent India stint as well. The memorandum has not got the public attention it demands. It deserves to be quoted in full given the current global debates on the subject, particularly in the U.S. itself.

The memorandum

The White House


September 17, 1969


“As with so many of the more interesting environmental questions, we really don’t have very satisfactory measurements of the carbon dioxide problem. On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.

“The process is a simple one. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO 2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels. At the turn of the century, several persons raised the question whether this would change the temperature of the atmosphere. Over the years the hypothesis has been refined, and more evidence has come along to support it. It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO 2 content will rise 25 per cent by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.

“It is entirely possible that there will be countervailing effects. For example, an increase of dust in the atmosphere would tend to lower temperatures, and might offset the CO 2 effect. Similarly, it is possible to conceive fairly mammoth man-made efforts to countervail the CO 2 rise. (E.g., stop burning fossil fuels.)

“In any event, I would think this is a subject that the administration ought to get involved with. It is a natural for NATO. Perhaps the first order of business is to begin a worldwide monitoring system. At present, I believe only the United States is doing any serious monitoring, and we have only one or two stations.

“Hugh Heffner knows a great deal about this, as does the estimable Bob White, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau (Teddy White’s brother).

“The Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee reported at length on the subject in 1965. I attach their conclusions.”

This is an absolutely fascinating document and how Moynihan came to write it can only be speculated since he left no clues. The very first technical paper drawing the world’s attention to the impact of emissions of CO 2 on global climate was by the scientist Roger Revelle (and Hans Suess) in 1957 in the publication Tellus. It was this paper and Revelle’s persistence that led to the establishment of the world’s first and now-iconic CO 2 measuring station at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Revelle was then Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. He moved to Harvard in September 1964. Apart from other things, Revelle was to later work on issues relating to water resources in Pakistan and India. One of his teaching assistants in the 1970s was an Indian doctoral student in physics who later became an eminent environmental thinker himself, Ashok Khosla. Revelle and Mr. Khosla were, incidentally, tutors to a young Al Gore at Harvard. Mr. Khosla thinks that the close friendship that Revelle and Moynihan had could well have influenced the latter to write the memorandum on global warming. Mr. Weisman himself feels that the clue could lie in the last two lines of the memorandum since Moynihan was a close friend of the journalist and chronicler of Presidential election campaigns Teddy White, the brother of Robert White.

The Moynihan Memorandum refers to a 1965 report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee that was chaired by Revelle himself and that included C.D. Keeling, the scientist who ran the CO 2 monitoring station at Mauna Loa. Actually, even before Moynihan, the famous biologist-author Rachel Carson had, in her books published in the 1950s, drawn attention to the growing pattern of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels and their impacts on biodiversity. And in early 1963, the Conservation Foundation has issued a report which said that “a continuing rise in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is likely to be accompanied by a significant warming of the surface of the earth...The effects of a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide are worldwide... The consumption of fossil fuel has increased to such a pitch within the last half century that the total atmospheric consequences are matters of concern for the planet as a whole.”

Nixon’s environmental legacy

Richard Nixon is a controversial figure but other than his epochal China trip of February 1972, his greatest legacy is on environmental issues. It was during his tenure, for instance, that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), a favourite target of Republicans these days, was established. Why he chose to remain silent on Moynihan’s note remains a mystery. It is also puzzling why the very first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment held in June 1972 at Stockholm did not discuss climate change at all. That may well be because the conference never received political traction at the highest levels as such conclaves do these days. In fact, the only head of state to address the conference (other than the host Premier) was Indira Gandhi. Her speech changed the international environmental discourse completely by incorporating into it the hitherto missing dimension of economic development and growth. “Poverty is the worst pollutant,” she is very often quoted as having said there. What she really said was a little more nuanced though: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” She went to add: “The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development but between environment and the reckless exploitation of man and earth in the name of efficiency.” That message has great contemporary relevance both in India and elsewhere.

(Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha MP and former Union Minister.)

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 5:15:10 PM |

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