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The “Carbon Dioxide Problem”: Nixon’s Inner Circle Debates the Climate Crisis

A collection of records from the Nixon Presidential Library and other sources on the internal debates Nixon advisors were having about climate change and environment.

Amid various environmental initiatives, Nixon’s advisors believed that global warming, specifically, was a “subject that the Administration ought to get involved with.” Seven months before the first Earth Day, Moynihan wrote to Ehrlichman warning of the potential dangers “of the carbon dioxide problem,” mentioning topics that persist in the discussion about climate change impacts today. These included extreme temperatures and sea-level rise, which he said would mean: “Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.” Moynihan said that the “burning of fossil fuels” was one of the main causes of increased atmospheric “instability” and pressed for the creation of a worldwide system to monitor carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something that would not become part of the public conversation on climate change for decades. (Document 1) At the end of the memo, Moynihan attached a 1965 report by the Environmental Pollution Panel of President Lyndon Johnon’s Science Advisory committee, which summarized the risks of rising carbon pollution. (Document 2)[9]

Several months later, Hubert Heffner, Deputy Director of the Nixon administration’s Office of Science and Technology, responded to Moynihan, acknowledging that atmospheric temperature rise was an issue that should be looked at. “The more I get into this, the more I find two classes of doom-sayers, with, of course, the silent majority in between,” he wrote. “One group says we will turn into snow-tripping mastodons because of the atmospheric dust and the other says we will have to grow gills to survive the increased ocean level due to temperature rise.” (Document 3)

Within the White House Office of Science and Technology, under the authority of Office Director Edward E. David, a sub-initiative was proposed to evaluate the impacts of “climate change caused by man and nature” and to create additional global baseline monitoring stations to “assess current and future impacts of natural climatic changes, provide alerts to potential catastrophic trends, and gain new environmental insight and understanding.” (Document 4) Similar to Moynihan’s first memo to Ehrlichman, the newly published sub-initiative outlined several topics that have particular relevance to today’s climatic discourse, including the linkage of land and air travel to air pollution and climate change to potential natural disasters. The authors observed that the benefits of one of the proposed “remote sensing” initiatives were “immense but not quantifiable since the element contributes to ensuring man’s survival.”