Documents hint at warming’s effects since 1965

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 14, 2019

In the winter of 1986, a group of senators expressed their concern about the “altered planet” in a letter to John Gibbons, director of the Office of Technology Assessment, which helped Congress on complex scientific topics.

After three days of hearings on the “greenhouse effect,” they were alarmed.

“The testimony convincingly portrayed a fundamentally altered planet, with shifts in ocean circulation and climate zones,” they wrote, describing abnormal “precipitation and storm patterns” and more “frequent and extreme weather events such as droughts, monsoons, and lowland floods” as future likelihoods.

Experts who spoke at the hearings had told them Earth is “now committed” to substantial and damaging warming.

The letter is one of many government records on file in a federal climate change lawsuit that show how officials in government and science began noticing the effects of climate change decades ago.

The plaintiffs, a group of 21 children and young adults, sued the government in 2015 for violating their constitutional rights to live in a safe climate. They’re not asking for money. They want something bigger: a court order requiring the federal government to create a science-based plan to phase out fossil fuels.

Government attorneys under the Obama and Trump administrations fought to get the case dismissed, and it is currently pending at an appeals court in San Francisco. It’s named Juliana v. United States.

The plaintiffs set out to document how and when U.S. officials learned about climate change and its damages. Their lawyers and researchers found a trove of material — amounting to 600 exhibits.

Below are passages from seven revealing documents. They show a steady evolution in thought among scientists, from reluctance about admitting humans’ role to acceptance.

1965

Under President Lyndon Johnson, federal researchers churned out a massive report on environmental welfare. It warned in stark terms that rising levels of carbon dioxide could lead to the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, rising ocean levels and acidic fresh water.

The authors noted that the melting might be imperceptible to the human eye.

1968

In 1968, J.O. Fletcher, a RAND Corp. researcher, asked a question in a report on human activity and Earth.

“IS MAN INADVERTENTLY INFLUENCING GLOBAL CLIMATE?” Fletcher wrote in a passage about carbon dioxide, smog and heat pollution.

Later, Fletcher recounted stories of what may have been the knock-on effects of climate change: massive losses in sea ice in Iceland and gluts of wheat in Europe, Asia and India.

1975

Michael MacCracken, who would go on to become a well-known climate scientist, wrote to an official at the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration. He foreshadowed some of warming’s biggest impacts.

Studies at the time signaled that a doubling of CO2 levels in the atmosphere — from 300 to 600 parts per million — would have a sweeping effect on global temperatures.

“What has not been done is to interpret the effects of these changes on man in terms of agriculture, life-style, ocean level, polar melting, etc.,” MacCracken wrote.

1977

The Fraser fir was at risk of vanishing from existence, the Great Smoky Mountains were under strain from climate change and plains-state farmers had become convinced that a “permanent” warming trend was hurting their crops, according to an article from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The excerpt might have escaped notice if Bob Wilson, a Republican congressman from California, had not submitted it to the congressional record.

It describes bleak conditions for wheat farmers: “They have become persuaded that the cyclic droughts of recent years are part of a permanent trend to warming and drying, not a series of temporary aberrations, so they are preparing for a migration.”

1983

Leading scientists from government, the private sector and academia gathered in 1983 to produce a climate report. Called the “Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee,” the group determined that humans were warming the planet.

They cited the expansion of certain dry terrain in the country — “steppe and desert climates” — as repercussions of “increased CO2.”

1985

Experts in ice and water traveled to Seattle for a three-day workshop.

Ocean levels had likely been rising globally since the turn of the century and had accelerated since the 1930s, they said. Melting glaciers comprised a large portion of the increase.

In particular, about a third of what melting glaciers had contributed to rising water levels was from mountains that border Alaska, in Central Asia and in the Andes in South America.

1986

After hearing grim conclusions during a climate hearing, a group of senators askeda technical office that assisted Congress to quickly study what it would take to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are deeply troubled by the prospect of such a rapid and unprecedented change in the composition of the atmosphere and its implications for the human and natural worlds,” they wrote.