Monday, August 8, 2011

The Nixon Administration and Climate Change

Last week, I spent some time in the Nixon Library reviewing documents produced by the Nixon Administration relevant to the beginnings of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act.  In doing so, I found many interesting documents that relate to my research.  I ran across one document, however, that I did not expect to find: a memo from White House Counsel (and later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussing climate change.  The memo was addressed to John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs.  The memo in part reads as follows:

As with so many of the more interesting environmental questions, we really don't have very satisfactory measurements of the carbon dioxide problem.  On the other hand, this very clearly is a problem, and, perhaps most particularly, is one that can seize the imagination of persons normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.

The process is a simple one. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels. At the turn of the century several persons raised the question whether this would change the temperature of the atmosphere. Over the years the hypothesis has been refined, and more evidence has come along to support it. It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth's surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by I0 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.

It is entirely possible that there will be countervailing effects, for example, an increase of dust in the atmosphere would tend to lower temperatures, and might offset the CO2 effect. Similarly, it is possible to conceive fairly mammoth man-made efforts to countervail the CO2 rise. (E.g., stop burning fossil fuels.)

In any event, I would think this is a subject that the Administration ought to get involved with...

I often had wondered what might have happened had the Nixon Administration identified climate change as a problem.  (Or as the bumper stickers sold in the Presidential Library ask "WWND--What Would Nixon Do?")  After all, during the Nixon Administration, Congress and the President worked dilligently to address a wide array of environmental issues.  To my surprise, climate change was at least recognized as a problem by those working on environmental policy within the administration.  Unfortunately, not so much unlike the Administrations that followed, for the Nixon Administration it was a problem that was acknowledged by some but left unaddressed.

If anyone is interested in getting a pdf of the memo, feel free to contact me.

-- Brigham Daniels

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