30 Years Ago: While Ferris Bueller Slept
June 13, 2016
Ferris Bueller just turned 30. Yes, the ultimate high school movie has officially outgrown its twenties. The Matthew Broderick-helmed ode to Chicago, charisma, and truancy was written, directed, and produced by John Hughes, the same man behind other ’80s teen favorites, including The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. In addition to effectively breaking the fourth wall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off became Hughes’s highest grossing domestic release of all time.
More importantly, it supplied a generation’s worth of ’80s kids with inspiring yearbook quotes and slacker inspiration.
Thirty years ago, on June 10 and 11 of 1986, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works commenced two days of hearings, convened by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), on the subject of “Ozone Depletion, the Greenhouse Effect, and Climate Change.”
“This is not a matter of Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling,” Chafee said at the hearing. “The scientific evidence … is telling us we have a problem, a serious problem.”
The hearings garnered considerable media coverage, including on the front page of The Washington Post.
“There is no longer any significant difference of opinion within the scientific community about the fact that the greenhouse effect is real and already occurring,” said newly elected Sen. Al Gore, who, as a congressman, had already held several House hearings on the matter. Gore cited the Villach Conference, a scientific meeting held in Austria the previous year (1985), which concluded that “as a result of the increasing greenhouse gases it is now believed that in the first half of the next century (21st century) a rise of global mean temperature could occur which is greater than in any man’s history.”
“They were the breakthrough hearings,” remembers Rafe Pomerance, then a staffer with the World Resources Institute, who helped suggest witnesses. “You never saw front-page coverage of this stuff.”
The scientists assembled included some of the voices that would be unmistakable and constant in coming decades. They included NASA’s James Hansen, who would go on to become the most visible scientist in the world on the topic, and Robert Watson, who would go on to chair the soon-to-be formed United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And what they said was clear: Human greenhouse gas emissions would cause a major warming trend, and sea level rise to boot.
Had the Senators queried scientists at Exxon Corporation, they could have had a complete briefing on the science much as we know it today.
“We knew in the ’70s what the problem was,” said George Woodwell, founding director of the Woods Hole Research Center, who also testified in 1986. “We knew there was a problem with sea level rise, all disruptions of climate. And the disruptions of climate are fundamental in that they undermine all the life on the Earth.”
Much of the formal understanding had been affirmed by a 1979 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, led by the celebrated atmospheric physicist Jule Charney of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That group famously assessed that if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were to double, the “most probable global warming” would amount to 3 degrees Celsius, with a range between 1.5 degrees and 4.5 degrees, a number quite similar to modern estimates.
“We have tried but have been unable to find any overlooked or underestimated physical effects that could reduce the currently estimated global warmings due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 to negligible proportions or reverse them altogether,” the scientists behind the report wrote.
Indeed, the fundamental understanding of the greenhouse effect, and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas because of its particular properties, dates back to the 19th century, when the Irish scientist John Tyndall conducted experiments to determine the radiative properties of gases.
And not just Exxon.
Peabody, the world’s biggest private sector publicly traded coal company, was long known as an outlier even among fossil fuel companies for its public rejection of climate science and action. But its funding of climate denial groups was only exposed in disclosures after the coal titan was forced to seek bankruptcy protection in April, under competition from cheap natural gas.
Environmental campaigners said they had not known for certain that the company was funding an array of climate denial groups – and that the breadth of that funding took them by surprise.
The company’s filings reveal funding for a range of organisations which have fought Barack Obama’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and denied the very existence of climate change.
“These groups collectively are the heart and soul of climate denial,” said Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigation Center, who has spent 20 years tracking funding for climate denial. “It’s the broadest list I have seen of one company funding so many nodes in the denial machine.”
Among Peabody’s beneficiaries, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change has insisted – wrongly – that carbon emissions are not a threat but “the elixir of life” while the American Legislative Exchange Council is trying to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules cutting emissions from power plants. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity campaigns against carbon pricing. The Oklahoma chapter was on the list.
Contrarian scientists such as Richard Lindzen and Willie Soon also feature on the bankruptcy list.