Sat Sep 13th, 2008 at 03:58:54 AM EST
This originally was part of my essay, Europe becomes a magnet for brain power, but the section was really its own piece. So for clarity, here the essay is on its own.
Back in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter tried to shepherd Americans down a path that lead to energy independence, which would likely have made the negative impact of climate change less of a certainty. However, his forward thinking efforts were sabotaged by the man who defeated him in the 1980 presidental election, Ronald Reagan.
Last weekend, science historian Naoimi Oreskes and Dr. Jonathan Renouf, producer of BBC2's series Earth: The Climate Wars
, wrote a fascinating look at "Jason and the secret climate change war
" for The Sunday Times
. They wrote:
These reports involve a secret organisation of American scientists reporting to the US Department of Defense. At the highest levels of the American government, officials pondered whether global warming was a significant new threat to civilisation. They turned for advice to the elite special forces of the scientific world - a shadowy organisation known as Jason...
In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.
Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it's expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that's smack in the middle of today's predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true - last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.
Nor were the Jasons frightened of drawing the obvious conclusions for civilisation: the cause for concern was clear when one noted "the fragility of the world's crop-producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity".
As early as 1965, the President of the United States at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson warned his country about the dangers of climate change. In a "Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty", LBJ said:
Pollution destroys beauty and menaces health. It cuts down on efficiency, reduces property values and raises taxes.
The longer we wait to act, the greater the dangers and the larger the problem.
Large-scale pollution of air and waterways is no respecter of political boundaries, and its effects extend far beyond those who cause it.
Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
America has known about the dangers the world's industrialized nations were doing to the earth's climate, and aside from Carter, the country did little to change America's ways or provide real leadership in addressing the root causes of climate change. And as Oreskes and Renouf note in their essay in The Sunday Times, the new direction Carter had set the U.S. upon was undone by Reagan.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president. He was pro-business and pro-America. He knew the country was already in the environmental dog house because of acid rain. If global warming turned into a big issue, there was only going to be one bad guy. The US was by far the biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. If the president wasn't careful, global warming could become a stick to beat America with.
Reagan commissioned another report that concluded everyone needed to "calm down". The new report "emphasised the positive effects of climate change over the negative, the uncertainty surrounding predictions of future change rather than the emerging consensus and the low end of harmful impact estimates rather than the high end."
The scientific consensus was undermined and doubt was sewn to get America out of the "hot seat". Nearly 30 years later, we're still trying to undo the damage Reagan did back in 1980. In America, we speak of must win elections. Too bad for the earth, 1980 turned out to be the election that the Democrats could not lose.