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60 Years Ago, Edward Teller Warned Oil Industry About Global Warming


Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist immigrant to The United States in the early 1940`s entered the Manhattan Project, a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons.  Later, in November 1959 he was guest of honor in New York City, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the oil industry in America hosted by The American Petroleum Institute, an influential trade association supporting nearly 8% of the US economy.

At this important gathering, the scientist had the following message to deliver hardly expected by an audience of three-hundred people, according to a transcript reprinted by The Guardian,

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am to talk to you about energy in the future. I will start by telling you why I believe that the energy resources of the past must be supplemented. First of all, these energy resources will run short as we use more and more of the fossil fuels. But I would […] like to mention another reason why we probably have to look for additional fuel supplies. And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere. [….] Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it?

“Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [….] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 percent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”

There are however discordant views nowadays from people such as Scott Pruitt, the new US EPA agency head, who claims CO2 is not a pollutant necessarily subject to government regulations. In marked contrast, at the mentioned API event, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century.” To which he answered:

“At present, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 percent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 percent, by 1980, 8 percent, by 1990, 16 percent [about 360 parts per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment to the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5.

“But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don’t know whether they will cover the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it by looking at the map and noting that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are perhaps five thousand feet thick.”

As disturbing as Teller´s reply are the CO2 levels today, recorded as high as 420 ppm and climbing. Global average temperatures have already risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit and the polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. Sea level rise of 6 feet or more could occur by the end of this century.

Currently, at the center of this argument are the lawsuits of the attorney generals of the states of Massachusetts and New York against ExxonMobil (Maura Healey and Eric Schneiderman, respectively), for concealing knowledge of global warming and CO2 emissions for forty years and lying to the public and the courts about it. The oil giant has been fighting these claims obsessively, maybe fearing that confirmations would likely shut their operations down.

Reminiscent of these lawsuits are the legal actions taken by many states against the tobacco companies a few years ago.  And a curious similitude is seen of the people covering up ExxonMobil with the use of the same tactics, a subject depicted by the documentary Merchants of Doubt, movie that examines how soulless people will place the lives and health of others in grave danger for money.

Robert Dunlop, one of the attendants at the 1959 API meeting, as president of that organization said ten years after to a Congressional committee on the topic,  “We in the petroleum industry are convinced that by the time a practical electric car can be mass-produced and marketed, it will not enjoy any meaningful advantage from an air pollution standpoint. Emissions from internal combustion engines will have long since been controlled.” The list of pollutants he referred to did not include carbon dioxide.

Soon after, an API commissioned study performed by the Stanford Research Institute read, “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes. […] there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe. […] pollutants which we generally ignore because they have a little local effect, CO2, and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious worldwide environmental changes.” Those “submicron particles” we now call particulates and we know they can transfer directly into the bloodstream of human beings in the lungs, leading to pulmonary, respiratory, and other diseases.

The Guardian article referenced above was written by Benjamin Franta, a researcher of climate change and  Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard, and a research fellow at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  He summarizes his research into what ExxonMobil knew and when it knew it as follows:

“This is a history of choices made, paths not taken, and the fall from grace of one of the greatest enterprises … ever to tread the earth. American oil’s awareness of global warming — and its conspiracy of silence, deceit, and obstruction — goes further than any one company. It extends beyond (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is implicated to its core by the history of its largest representative, the American Petroleum Institute.

“It is now too late to stop a great deal of change to our planet’s climate and its global payload of disease, destruction, and death. But we can fight to halt climate change as quickly as possible, and we can uncover the history of how we got here. There are lessons to be learned, and there is justice to be served.”

It is thanks to the efforts of people like Maura Healey, Eric Schneiderman, and Benjamin Franta that an eventual stop can be put to air pollution from oil companies.

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  1. About a decade earlier, Teller had given another warning, but this one was heeded:

    … But reactors that are both water-cooled and graphite-moderated can have a particularly dangerous flaw. The Hanford reactors that were built during the war … contained so much graphite that water had no further effect in slowing the neutrons. Therefore, loss of water in the cooling system of the wartime Hanford reactors resulted in the capture of fewer neutrons and thereby increased the fission process. In such a reactor, if one pipe loses water, the neighbouring pipes overheat, which converts the cooling water to steam, thereby forming a void in the cooling system, which in turn increases the fission, thus producing more heat and more steam–a situation that continues until the reactor explodes [2] …

    … [2] The RSC recognized that danger, called a positive void coefficient, before 1949, and information about that design flaw was disseminated throughout the world by 1955.

    (“Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics”, Shoolery and Teller)

    Heeded, that is, everywhere except the former Soviet Union. He was a Hungarian emigre, a provincial, a clodhopper.


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