In this year of 2018, the Europe Union, China, India, Brazil, Korea, Canada, and other countries are negotiating the details for implementation of the Paris Agreement, and are developing domestic policies to achieve their respective Nationally Determined Contributions under the Agreement. At the same time, the United States – under the leadership of President Donald Trump – has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as permitted (November, 2020), and has taken significant steps to immediately roll back domestic climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration. This may be a good time to place this quite deviant U.S. government behavior into historical context.
Where to Begin?
This blog is dedicated to an economic view of the environment, and my essays here typically feature analyses of existing or proposed policies, with a look to the future, particularly in the realm of global climate change. Today, however, I take a look back, with an examination of the early history of deliberations in the U.S. government about climate change.
Of course, the history of climate change science goes back at least to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist and chemist, who in 1896 calculated how increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect, a finding that was picked up many years later by Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and others. But my focus is not on the history of the science, but on a very specific dimension of the policy history, namely the history of discussions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and potential policy responses.
Some might think that the starting point would be the 1988 Congressional hearings – led by U.S. Senators Timothy Wirth and Albert Gore – which the New York Times covered in a long article. That was during the last year of the Reagan administration, but the story really begins more than two decades earlier – in 1965.
Before going further, I want to give credit to two people who have written about this – David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor for Shell, and Jairam Ramesh, formerly chief negotiator for India at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965
More than fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, pictured here.
Remarkably, the report included a 23-page discussion of the climatic effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and – interestingly enough – concluded with a proposal for research on a specific approach to responding, namely with what is now called “geoengineering.” Below is the table of contents of that section of the report – on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” and you can read that section of the report here.
In his introduction to the report, President Johnson emphasized that “we will need increased basic research in a variety of specific areas,” and then went on to state: “We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.” What a contrast with the anti-science approach of the current resident of the White House!
A Striking Nixon White House Memorandum – 1969
Daniel Patrick Moynihan – surely one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century – was a Harvard professor (1966-1969, 1971-1973 ), advisor to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970), U.S. Ambassador to India (1973-1975), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), and U.S. Senator (1977-2001). On September 17th, 1969, while he was working in the White House, Moynihan sent a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then a key Presidential assistant (who subsequently served 18 months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy). The original memorandum is in the Nixon Library, but you can also read it immediately below. It is well worth reading!
Historical Context and the Path Ahead
From the perspective of 2018, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration, it may – or may not – be comforting to recognize that scientific and even policy attention by the White House to climate change goes back more than five decades, to the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Since then, there have surely been ups and downs – through the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I), Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama, but the current administration is an outlier in its utter disdain for sound science and related hostility to sensible public policy (in this and other domains).
The list of Presidential administrations above should remind us that whether a single four-year term or the maximum eight years, administrations are relatively short-lived when judged in historical context. And they tend to swing back and forth between the two political parties.
All of which reminds me of a true story. In November, 2016, just days after the U.S. Presidential election, I was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual U.N. climate negotiations. I was speaking on a panel assembled by the government of China in their Pavilion. Those who preceded me voiced their dismay about the election and their very low expectations for the climate change policy that would likely be forthcoming from Donald Trump and his administration-to-be.
Our moderator from the Chinese government then introduced me to speak, and as I listened with headphones to the simultaneous translation, I heard him say, “And now Harvard’s Professor Stavins will bring us some good news from the United States.” I was dumbfounded. What could I possibly say? I walked to the lectern, sipped some water, took a deep breath, and said to the audience, “When you get to be my age, you recognize that four years is not a long time!”
That will have to suffice as an “optimistic” conclusion to today’s essay.