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Global Environment > America's Blindfold Media

Americans were alerted about
greenhouse-gas emissions in the 1970s

By Harlan Cleveland
Commenting from Washington, D.C.

Global warming is happening, and we humans are making it happen!” I vividly remember what Walter Orr Roberts told me in the 1970s. Roberts, a world-class atmospheric scientist, had helped start the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

We were discussing plans for a seminar at the Aspen Institute, on how nonscientists like me should think about the long-range human impacts of what scientists like Roberts already knew but hadn’t told us about. He thought global warming would be a good case study. “Global warming?” I remember replying. “Tell me more.”

Walt Roberts was that special kind of scientist who could explain something he understood without implying that you were stupid not to have known about it. So he explained: The carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in our trucks and cars, homes and factories were already warming up the world’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and some other gases, too, remain in the atmosphere, trapping some of the earth’s heat. They act like the ceiling and walls of a greenhouse—letting the sun’s heat in, but letting less and less of it escape.

This “greenhouse effect” would have all sorts of nasty effects on human lives. The US Midwest, which I had grown up thinking was the world’s “North American Granary,” could turn into a parched dust bowl. The Russians could be cultivating the Siberian tundra. And when land-based ice (Roberts did not say if but when), such as that covering Greenland and Antarctica, began to melt and break off, the level of the world’s oceans would rise, flooding low-lying lands from The Netherlands to Bangladesh.

It sounded like a scenario from science fiction. We discussed it at Aspen anyway, during the 1970s. It seemed an interesting if still academic topic back then. But when I moved to the University of Minnesota in 1980 to help start a new public-affairs graduate school, it was still on my mind. So I conspired with scientists on our faculty to use some university funds to launch a major research project on global warming.
Professor Dean Abrahamson, who led the research, quickly learned two things. One was that the potential damage to agriculture, to river systems and to low-lying shorelines was even greater, and maybe happening sooner, than anyone was talking about. The other was that large and powerful interests were determined to keep this uncomfortable subject off the government’s policy agenda.

Half or more of the “greenhouse effect” is produced by emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. If you’re in the business of extracting, refining, transporting or marketing oil, coal or natural gas, you clearly see how attractive alternative fuels could suddenly become—unless you can cast doubt on the very idea that the globe is warming.

There was plenty of doubt to work with. What might be the world’s prime environmental danger wasn’t even on the agenda of our biggest environmental organizations. I happened to be on the board of a New York philanthropy, the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation, which was already funding a few small environmental initiatives. We decided in 1987 to call a meeting of some movers and shakers in the environmental movement to talk about global warming.

“It’s a mind-twisting problem,” said John Adams, the long-time executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the largest environmental research-and-lobbying organization. “This is clearly one of the most serious problems facing this world.” Yet, he added, it’s also “a solvable problem.” Fred Krupp, executive director of Environmental Defense, suggested that it had to be tackled internationally; there was already some progress on getting an international agreement on CFCs (the chlorofluorocarbons that destroy the ozone layer).

The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation had in its short history made some strikingly novel investments. Its founder Robert Gilmore had helped finance the famous nongovernmental “ping-pong” exchange that helped both the Chinese and American governments break the ice and establish diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. It had also taken the initiative that led to “global perspectives” becoming a mainstream theme in elementary and secondary public schools.

So tackling a new subject was no mystery to Larry Condon, who was leading the Foundation in the 1980s—and still is today. All a foundation has is money; the question is how to use it imaginatively. If global warming is to be put on the environmental agenda, his board decided, then let’s set aside some funds specifically for programs related to global warming. Within a year all the main environmental organizations had much more intensive programs for global-warming studies—partly funded by the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation.

Those of us who have long felt the need for sensible attention to this gigantic threat to our civilization heartily welcome modern enthusiasts such as Ross Gelbspan, whose persuasive prose on global warming is featured in this issue of The WorldPaper. I only hope that the history of this crusade takes note that prescient pioneers like Walter Orr Roberts tagged global warming as a global threat a long generation ago.

Harlan Cleveland is an associate editor-at-large for The WorldPaper. He is a former US Assistant Secretary of State and US ambassador to NATO and past president of the World Academy of Art and Science.