01/20/2015 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Tragedy of Climate Change Reports


In a return to global climate change coverage not seen since Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, both the New York Times and the Washington Post carried front-page stories on January 17 that showed a full-color NOAA graph of global land and ocean temperatures from 1880 until the end of 2014. 2015-01-19-RCC.HuffPost.NOAA.globaltemps18802014.png

Source: NOAA

The Times added a startlingly deep red and pink NASA map of the earth that revealed variations of up to 7.2° F above the 1951-1980 average. Only a few parts of the map, such as eastern North America, were blue, showing temperatures below average. What is significant about these visuals from the two leading U.S. agencies tracking climate change is that they make clear for even the most stubborn climate change deniers that there is no widely touted climate change "pause." The visually compelling trend in global temperature over the past 134 years is strongly upward. And it escalates sharply from the 1960s on.

What is not clear from the charts is the tragedy of successful delay and denial, despite official warnings, pursued by corporate polluters and their conservative political allies. Had Americans listened to scientists and environmentalists two generations ago, the bright red maps of today might have been significantly bluer. Even a slight change in American politics and presidents could have led to early, effective, and less expensive efforts to stave off climate change.

By the Kennedy Administration in 1963, a host of respected scientific and political figures, including Rachel Carson and her friend and colleague, the pioneering oceanographer Roger Revelle, were aware of and concerned about the recently documented rise in global CO2 concentrations. Revelle and Carson had worked together monitoring the biological effects of the first U.S. atomic bomb tests in 1946 at Bikini Atoll. Carson opposed them and maintained steady opposition to nuclear weapons and waste until she died. In fact, Carson saw a number of mankind's assaults on the planet and on human health as linked -- pesticides and other toxic chemicals, radiation from nuclear fallout, factory farming of animals, and more.

Rachel Carson did not write openly about global warming. But she was aware of the most influential early warnings about climate change. Carson's friend Roger Revelle, who taught Al Gore at Harvard in 1966, had already written in 1957 about the dangers of rising CO2 and the need to carefully study it. He was then able to get government funds to build a facility on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii to measure CO2. He chose a talented young scientist named Charles Keeling to build and run it. Keeling's meticulous measurements and record keeping indeed soon showed rising CO2 levels. But Federal budget cuts were putting the entire project at risk.

Thus, in 1963, the Conservation Foundation issued a report, Implications of Rising Carbon Dioxide Content in the Atmosphere that called for continued funding and warned boldly of the dangers of global climate change. Drawn up by Revelle and other experts, this report was widely known in scientific and government circles. Though painful in retrospect, it is worth quoting from.

It is known that the carbon dioxide situation, as it has been observed within the last century, is one which might have considerable biological, geographical and economic consequences within the not too distant future... It is estimated that a doubling of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere would produce an average atmospheric temperature rise of 3.8 degrees (Celsius)... enough to bring about and immense flooding of the lower portions of the world's land surface, resulting from increased melting of glaciers.

This prophetic scientific report saved funding for CO2 monitoring and led in 1965, even after the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Rachel Carson, to the first White House official report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, that recognized and warned about the dangers of global warming. The Carter Administration, too, gave official attention to global climate change as temperatures and CO2 concentrations continued to rise. Congressman Al Gore held hearings in 1981 and again, as a Senator, with Tim Wirth in 1988, following record heat and media attention that led to the endangered planet's place on the cover of Time magazine. In 1983, The National Research Council again warned in Changing Climate: Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee. But the Reagan Administration chose to ignore all this. It was not until Bill Clinton reached the White House in 1993, with Al Gore at his side, that climate change again got serious attention. But deniers and delayers have prevented action ever since. Now, only toward the end of the Obama Administration, prodded by environmental activists and scientists, is the pendulum of concern about massive CO2 emissions and rising global temperatures swinging again. Despite a reactionary and anti-science Congress and continuing disinformation from wealthy fossil fuels interests, global and national action to prevent the very worst of climate change may yet be possible.

The bright red maps from NOAA and NASA on the front pages of major media are unmistakable stop signs for the fossil fuel age. But since the days of Roger Revelle, Rachel Carson, and John F. Kennedy, atmospheric CO2 has gone from 308 parts per million to over 400. Global temperatures have risen about 1.2° F. We have now had official studies and warnings from our own government for fifty years. It is tragic, unless there is even broader public outcry and political participation, that despite impressive scientific reports and warnings, Americans may yet look back and say "we should have known. The evidence, the truth, the warnings were all there. How could they have gone unheeded?"