LBJ’s Climate Warning: A Milestone Reminds us, What We Knew, and When We Knew It.

February 9, 2015


Fifty years ago this this month President Johnson’s science advisors delivered the first warning about rising greenhouse gas emissions to a sitting president. On Feb. 8, he warned Congress about altering the atmosphere with carbon emissions. Above, climate scientist Roger Revelle shakes hands with Johnson in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy Roger Revelle Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego

Historians will marvel at how long it took civilization to react to the current crisis. The magnitude of this tragedy is all the more heartbreaking for those who know what we knew, and how long we’ve known it.

Daily Climate:

It is a key moment in climate change history that few remember: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first presidential mention of the environmental risk of carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a February 8, 1965 special message to Congress warned about build-up of the invisible air pollutant that scientists recognize today as the primary contributor to global warming.

“Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places,” said Johnson less than three weeks after his 1965 inauguration. “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.”

Los Angeles, showing change in air quality

The speech mainly focused on all-too-visible pollution of land and waterways, including roadside auto graveyards, strip mine sites, and soot pollution that had marred even the White House.

Within the year, Johnson would sign six new environmental laws during a period better remembered for the strife that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Johnson also that year established a dozen new national monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas; and submitted a draft nuclear non-proliferation treaty to the United Nations.

Carbon risk, of course, still stymies policymakers. But it was not ignored entirely in the wake of Johnson’s “Special Message to Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty.” In fact, the warnings and predictions given to Johnson from his science team proved remarkably prescient.

The science on carbon dioxide as known at the time, including forecasts of warming and sea level rise, was detailed in a chapter of a report on environmental pollution issued later that year by the president’s Science Advisory Committee. Pioneering climate scientist Roger Revelle chaired the sub-committee that wrote the chapter in the November 1965 report. While citing a need for better calculations with “large computers,” Revelle’s panel delivered a forecast on growing atmospheric carbon that proved on-target.

Coal, oil, and natural gas burning would lift atmospheric carbon dioxide between 14 percent and 30 percent by the year 2000, the panel estimated. In fact, CO2 increased 15.5 percent by 2000, and is 25 percent higher today than in 1965.

“Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment,” the report said, echoing language Revelle first had used in a 1957 scientific paper when he was at the University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Within a few generations, he is burning the fossil fuels that accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.”

Ken Caldeira, atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, said the exchanges between scientists and the White House 50 years ago have significance for climate discussions today.

“To the best of my knowledge, 1965 was the first time that a U.S. President was ever officially warned of environmental risks from the accumulation of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Caldeira said in an email. “This year will mark a half-century of Presidential knowledge of the risks of climate change. I wish I could say that there has been a half-century of concerted efforts to reduce these risks.

“The science of climate and the carbon-cycle that was reported to President Johnson in 1965 largely holds up today, demonstrating that climate science is a mature science,” Caldeira added. “Climate scientists are still arguing about the details, but knowledgeable people have agreed about the fundamentals for a long time.”

I mentioned Johnson’s warning about carbon in one of my earliest debunking videos, below.


6 Responses to “LBJ’s Climate Warning: A Milestone Reminds us, What We Knew, and When We Knew It.”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    “Historians will marvel at how long it took civilization to react to the current crisis. The magnitude of this tragedy is all the more heartbreaking for those who know what we knew, and how long we’ve known it”.

    As the saying goes, “Truer words were never spoken” (and they will likely continue to be ignored by the majority for many more years).

    Those of us who have been around since the beginning, understand the science, and have also studied political, social, and economic history are aware of exactly “how long it took civilization to react”. In actuality, civilization has barely begun to react, there are still many major obstacles in the way of progress, and the next 4 or 5 years may be all we have left before it’s too late. Heartbreaking indeed.

  2. fjohnx Says:

    Alexander Graham Bell noted the Global Warming implications of industrial emissions of CO2 based on an understanding of the Greenhouse Effect. He suggested a move away from coal as an energy source in 1917.

    Frank Johnston

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I’d love to see a link on this. had not heard before.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Looked a bit—-hard to find a primary source link.

        Issue #31 National Geographic 1917 has an article by Bell with lots of forward looking thoughts about AGW. He was big on alcohol as a fuel.

        • jimbills Says:

          The subject interested me, too, so I did some fact checking as well. My search led me to the same source.

          It was a commencement address that was reprinted in National Geographic in 1917. In it, Bell covers a history of technological changes in his lifetime, then speculates on future avenues of technological change. He mentions solar heating, insulation, efficiencies, experiments in air conditioning, hints at suburbanization as a solution to urban congestion, wireless technology, alcohol from corn as a replacement for fossil carbon, as well as several other topics. It’s a fascinating read, although he doesn’t mention AGW, carbon emissions, or even the greenhouse effect once. If he was concerned about that at the time, it would have been the perfect place to mention it, and it’s just not there.

          The article can be found here:

          Do “find on page”, search “Some of the Problems Awaiting Solution”, and go to the third instance.

          The full quote attributed to Bell about AGW is “Coal and oil are strictly limited in quantity. We can take coal out of a mine but we can never put it back. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil? The unchecked burning of fossil fuels would have a sort of greenhouse effect. The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.”

          The first three sentences are directly from the 1917 NG article. Bell was concerned about the finite supply of fossil carbon. However, the last two sentences are nowhere in the NG article.

          The last two sentences smack of a more modern vernacular made to sound like early AGW theory to me, too. Wikipedia at one time used the quote on Bell’s page, but has since removed it – suggesting a failure in sourcing. I cannot located a primary source for the last two sentences, either. It seems very probable that someone made it up at some point, and it has since been passed around to places like Wikiquotes.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yep, those last two sentences are not there. I accessed the actual magazine, and the ads alone made that worthwhile.

            I do remember seeing the full quote somewhere while searching, along with other “stuff” that led me to believe he had commented on AGW there. Did he actually speak to that anywhere? One source even credited him with coining the term “greenhouse effect”, A “failure in sourcing” indeed.

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