Lost opportunity: We could’ve started fighting climate change in 1971

President Nixon on the phone in the Oval Office
Enlarge / A newly revealed research proposal from 1971 shows that Richard Nixon’s science advisors embarked on an extensive analysis of the potential risks of climate change.

Oliver Atkins/National Archives

In 1971, President Richard Nixon’s science advisers proposed a multimillion dollar climate change research project with benefits they said were too “immense” to be quantified, since they involved “ensuring man’s survival,” according to a White House document newly obtained by the nonprofit National Security Archive and shared exclusively with Inside Climate News.

The plan would have established six global and 10 regional monitoring stations in remote locations to collect data on carbon dioxide, solar radiation, aerosols and other factors that exert influence on the atmosphere. It would have engaged five government agencies in a six-year initiative, with spending of $23 million in the project’s peak year of 1974—the equivalent of $172 million in today’s dollars. It would have used then-cutting-edge technology, some of which is only now being widely implemented in carbon monitoring more than 50 years later.

But it stands as yet another lost opportunity early on the road to the climate crisis. Researchers at the National Security Archive, based at the George Washington University, could find no documentation of what happened to the proposal, and it was never implemented.

“Who knows what would have happened if we had some kind of concerted effort, just even on the monitoring side of things?” asked Rachel Santarsiero, an analyst who directs the National Security Archive’s Climate Change Transparency Project.

It turns out that the monitoring proposal, which was authorized by the head of Nixon’s White House Office of Science and Technology, Edward E. David Jr., did get a second life in another form. After leaving the Nixon administration, David joined the oil giant Exxon, and as president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company from 1977 to 1986, he signed off on a groundbreaking Exxon project that used one of its oil tankers to gather atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide samples, beginning in 1979. That research, which was first reported by Inside Climate News in 2015, confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming. It also showed the oil industry knew the harm of its products and is now a key piece of evidence in lawsuits by states and cities across the country seeking compensation from the oil industry for climate damages.

The National Security Archive relies on the Freedom of Information Act to obtain such historical documents, and it currently maintains one of the largest non-governmental archives of declassified government documents—many relating to military and security issues. In the past year, the Archive has launched a project specifically to compile the historical record of the US government’s reckoning with climate change. On Friday, to mark Earth Week, the group released a briefing book detailing climate change discussions in the Nixon White House, including the new document.

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