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How early did Australia’s fossil fuel industry know about the greenhouse effect? Thiel Studio/Wikimedia Commons

US firms knew about global warming in 1968 – what about Australia?

Earlier this month the satirical newspaper The Onion “reported” on the discovery in a Californian university’s archives of a dusty, yellowing report saying the time to act on climate change is now.

This week life imitated art, as it was revealed that there is indeed a decades-old report to be found in a Californian archive warning of climate impacts. The real report, as opposed to the satirical one, was written in 1968 by scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, who sent it to the American Petroleum Institute to warn of the possible impacts of carbon dioxide emissions.

That wasn’t even the start. A decade earlier, in 1959, a scientist working for oil giant Shell wrote in New Scientist about the idea of humans altering the climate, although he poured scorn on the idea.

By the early 1970s, the idea of the greenhouse effect was already in the air, if you’ll pardon the pun. It merited several pages in the Club of Rome’s landmark 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, and even got a mention in the dystopian classic 1973 film Soylent Green.

“A heatwave all year long, a greenhouse effect … everything’s burning up.”

Australian awareness

Australian climate awareness wasn’t far behind. In August 1972, English scientist John Maddox appeared on ABC television and was asked about the threat of climate change. Maddox, who was then the editor of leading science journal Nature and author of The Doomsday Syndrome, was sceptical, claiming that “there’s no reason at all to think that the gloomy calculations are right”.

The following year, ecologist Leonard Webb’s book Environmental Boomerang devoted a short section to the issue.

In 1974, the Australian Conservation Foundation established its Habitat magazine. An early issue included an article about global warming.

The following year, the economist and bureaucrat Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs persuaded the Whitlam government to commission research on the issue. This gave rise to an Australian Academy of Science (AAS) report that concluded it was too early to tell.

By the late 1970s, The Canberra Times began running prominent stories about the possibility of sea-level rise and other climate impacts. One that presumably caught the coal industry’s attention was a November 1977 article in which a US physicist warned that relying only on coal-fired power would flood US cities.

In 1981, the AAS followed up on its earlier work, releasing a report on “The CO₂-Climate Connection: A Global Problem from an Australian Perspective”. At this time, pro-nuclear Liberal politicians were invoking climate change as a reason for Australia to pursue nuclear energy.

The same year, the Office of National Assessment wrote a report for the Fraser government titled “Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect”. Clive Hamilton, who uncovered it, described how the report urged the government to consider moving away from fossil fuels, although “it might be possible for raw coal to be burned in central locations, such as power stations built close to the sea, where carbon dioxide can be chemically stripped from emissions and dissolved at depth in the oceans”. Carbon capture and storage was already on the table, even in the early 1980s.

That decade climate change slowly but surely climbed the political agenda, thanks largely to the work of then federal science minister Barry Jones. In 1987 his Commission for the Future worked with CSIRO under the banner of the “Greenhouse Project” to stage a series of workshops, to be followed – with exquisite timing – by conferences across Australia in late 1988.

Three decades after the first presentiments of danger, the moment had finally arrived. With drought in the United States, the Toronto conference on The Changing Atmosphere, a speech to Britain’s Royal Society by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous US congressional testimony, 1988 is widely seen as year zero for public awareness of climate change.

Who knew what when?

The Australian Mining Industry Council (now the Minerals Council of Australia) established an environment committee in 1972, which was mostly concerned with local environmental issues. BHP sponsored the ACF’s Habitat magazine with full-page adverts, so presumably got a supporter’s subscription as well and would have been aware of the issue.

It defies belief to imagine that senior resources industry figures were unaware of climate change decades ago. They may have dismissed it as another greenie scare, or a distant future issue which technology would resolve, but they would not have been oblivious.

According to a former coal industry figure I have interviewed for my PhD, they were aware of the issue by the mid-1980s at the latest, but believed that technological solutions would be easily implementable.

Perhaps tellingly, however, the first mention of climate change I found in the now-defunct Australian Journal of Mining was a November 1988 article titled “Physicist claims CO₂ will actually benefit biosphere”.

The sceptics

Only now is the issue really coming home to roost for fossil fuel firms, such as the world’s biggest private coal miner Peabody Energy, which this week filed for bankruptcy in the United States.

Peabody’s recently retired chief executive Greg Boyce has always been combative on the subject of climate change. He told the World Energy Congress in 2010 that:

“The greatest crisis society confronts is not a future environmental crisis predicted by computer models but a human crisis today that is fully within our power to solve – with coal.”

Its now-retired chief lobbyist Fred Palmer, in a 1997 documentary, happily and emphatically states:

“Every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO₂ in the air, you are doing the work of the Lord.”

The fallout

The New York attorney-general’s office is now demanding answers from Exxon over its response to the climate warnings of half-a-century ago.

Meanwhile, the attorney-general of the US Virgin Islands has subpoenaed the US think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a long-time ally of the fossil fuel industry, over its campaign to cast doubt on climate science.

While it is both interesting and frustrating to learn that the very companies that have worked hardest to obfuscate climate science actually knew about it before the wider public did, that knowledge doesn’t help us figure out how to deliver the sorts of deep emissions cuts that are needed now. We need to keep our eyes on the increasingly unlikely and battered prize of a habitable planet.

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