An Important Letter Sent to the President about the Danger of Climate Change

An important conference was held in January at Brown University:  “The Present Interglacial, How and When Will it End?”   (The October issue of Science had a summary of the it)  As a result, the following letter was sent to the President.  The media has not reported this, but you should be aware of the letter and its significance.

Dear Mr. President:

Aware of your deep concern with the future of the world, we feel obliged to inform you on the results of the scientific conference held here recently. The conference dealt with the past and future changes of climate and was attended by 42 top American and European investigators. We enclose the summary report published in Science and further publications are forthcoming in Quaternary Research.

The main conclusion of the meeting was that a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experience by civilized mankind, is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon.

The cooling has natural cause and falls within the rank of processes which produced the last ice age. This is a surprising result based largely on recent studies of deep sea sediments.

Existing data still do not allow forecast of the precise timing of the predicted development, nor the assessment of the man’s interference with the natural trends. It could not be excluded however that the cooling now under way in the Northern Hemisphere is the start of the expected shift. The present rate of the cooling seems fast enough to bring glacial temperatures in about a century, if continuing at the present pace.

The practical consequences which might be brought by such developments to existing social institution are among others:

(1) Substantially lowered food production due to the shorter growing seasons and changed rain distribution in the main grain producing belts of the world, with Eastern Europe and Central Asia to be first affected.

(2) Increased frequency and amplitude of extreme weather anomalies such as those bringing floods, snowstorms, killing frosts, etc.

With the efficient help of the world leaders, the research …

With best regards,

George J. Kukla (Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory)

R. K. Matthews (Chairman, Dept of Geological Sciences, Brown U)

Important details about this letter:

  • It was sent to President Nixon, not Obama.
  •  The date of the letter:  3 December 1972.
  • The text is from “The Origins of a ‘diagnostics climate center“, Robert W. Reeves and Daphne Gemmill (NOAA), posted at the NOAA website, 20 October 2004 — Slide 6. It did not include the text of the penultimate paragraph.  The last paragraph warned about Soviet science in this area.
  • The October 1972 Science article about the conference was “The Present Interglacial, How and When Will it End?”.

The remaining sections of this post

  1. What happened next, after the President got the letter?
  2. The conclusion of the story, results of the letter
  3. A timeline listing 47 articles before 1980 about climate change (showing the diversity of opinion)
  4. Links to more recent articles and other sources of information
  5. An afterword

(1)  Excerpt

To learn what happened afterwards, we turn to “”Global Cooling and the Cold War – And a Chilly Beginning for the United States’ Climate Analysis Center?“  By Robert W. Reeves, Daphne Gemmill, Robert E. Livezey, and James Laver (all of NOAA), and presented at The International Commission on History of Meteorology Conference in Weilheim Germany, 5-9 July 2004 (posted at the website of the International Commission on History of Meteorology).


The White House assigned the Kukla-Mathews letter to the Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs of the State Department who circulated it to the Interdepartmental Committee for Atmospheric Sciences (ICAS) for “review and appropriate action”, the highest level interagency body within the U.S. Government concerned with the atmospheric sciences. The ICAS then established an ad hoc Panel on the Present Interglacial to respond to the Kukla/Mathews letter, with an anticipated target submission date of September 30, 1973. (The formal publication date of their report was August 1974)

The report of the Ad Hoc Panel is listed on the US government website as “no electronic version available.”

The period following the establishment of the ad hoc Panel in early ’73 to the official publication of the report saw a flurry of activity by the various agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NOAA were particularly active. The NSF had formed a Climate Dynamics Group in the spring of 1974 with Joseph O. Fletcher in the lead, and ably assisted by Uwe Radok. There was also a considerable amount of Washington “hardball” during that period as individuals and agencies competed for the lead. The ad hoc Panel decided that the topic was of such paramount importance that they should go beyond simply reporting their findings, and include a recommendation. This they did with a companion document that was a call for a national climate program to begin addressing the climate issues. Fletcher was instrumental in the companion report’s preparation and had envisioned NSF in the lead. NOAA had other ideas.

On August 1, 1974 the White House wrote to Secretary of Commerce Frederick Dent:

“Changes in climate in recent years have resulted in unanticipated impacts on key national programs and policies. Concern has been expressed that recent changes may presage others. In order to assess the problem and to determine what concerted action ought to be undertaken, I have decided to establish a subcommittee on Climate Change.”

The memorandum further requested the Department of Commerce to take the lead and chair the subcommittee. Secretary Dent responded on August 16, naming Robert M. White, Administrator of NOAA, as chair of the subcommittee. John Townshend, White’s Deputy, asked William Sprigg to convene a series of interagency meetings to assemble the “United States Climate Program”.

In a related effort, Sprigg, in an undated, unpublished (probably 1974) document entitled “A Climate Diagnostics Center”, began assembling some of NOAA’s concepts for such an organization, including estimated computer costs. In late 1974 Don Gilman prepared a draft Diagnostic Center Budget and Personnel for 1976 and 1977 at the request of Fred Shuman. Gilman sketched out a plan that included 24 positions in 1976 with a budget of $1.4M, increasing by 8 positions and $700K in 1977. A subsequent draft (12/30/74) by Gilman outlined 3 Diagnostic Center Functions:

  • Data Acquisition
  • Data Analysis and Synthesis
  • Prediction

In December 1974, the subcommittee produced their report “A United States Climate Program” in which it spelled out the needs for a climate program with 10 points. One of the Actions and Milestones in that report was Establish a Climate Diagnostics Center in 1976. …

About the principal author

Robert Reeves has a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences … and works as a Climate Specialist at the Climate Services Division at NWS Headquarters.

(2)  Conclusion of the story – result of the letter

The Climate Analysis Center (CAC) was finally opened in Spring 1979.    From the last slide the Reeves and Gemmill presentation about NOAA’s origin:  “{the} Kukla-Mathews letter initiated {a} response at the highest national level and energized the science agencies.”  The rest is history, as the CAC has grown to become a valuable part of both NOAA and the global science infrastructure.

It’s hidden history in a literal sense, conflicting with current dogma and so seldom mentioned.

(3)  A timeline of articles about climate change

Climate changes have shaped human history since our earliest days.  During the past century these fears have spurred research.  The two constants in this process, both results of human nature:

  • overconfident predictions, based on exaggerated confidence in what we know
  • broader and deeper knowledge with each passing year.

The following is from the FM reference page Science & Nature – the history of fears about the climate.  It’s a list of articles I have found in my research and bothered to bookmark, with no claims to be comprehensive.  It gives a flavor for the process, and a starting point for those who would like to learn more about these issues.

This shows that there was no consensus in the 1970’s on global climate trends.  There were areas of broad agreement, esp within sub-disciplines.  That’s how science works (esp seen in term of Thomas Kuhn’s theory).  And this is true today, as shown by the articles listed here, although the area of agreement has grown far broader after 27 years of research.  From another perspective, the division lines have grown deeper, for example between those studying solar influences on earth and those studying AGW — both of which have developed so far since 1972.

Some place to start your reading:

A timeline of articles:

  1. Prospects of another glacial period; Geologists Think the World May Be Frozen Up Again“, New York Times, 24 February 1895
  2. “Fifth Ice Age Is on the Way”, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 1912
  3. Sees Glacial Era Coming: Prof. Schmidt Warns Us of an Encroaching Ice Age”, New York Times, 7 October 1912
  4. “Mac Millian Reports Signs of New Ice Age”, New York Times, 18 September 1924
  5. “America in Longest Warm Spell Since 1776; Temperature Line Records a 25-Year Rise”, New York Times, 27 March 1933
  6. “A warmer Earth evident at poles”, Gladwin Hills, New York Times, 30 May 1947 — “A mysterious warming of the climate is slowly manifesting itself in the Arctic, engendering a “serious international problem,” Dr. Hans Ahlmann, noted Swedish geophysicist, said today.”
  7. “Is the World Getting Warmer?”, Albert Abarbenel and Thomas McCluskey, Saturday Evening Post, 1 July 1950
  8. “Our Changing Climate … the world has been getting warmer in the last half century”, New York Times, 10 August 1952
  9. “Climate – the Heat May be Off”, Fortune,  Francis Bello, August 1954 — “Despite all you may have read, heard or imagined, it’s been growing cooler – not warmer since the Thirties”
  10. The Coming Ice Age“, Betty Friedan, Harper’s Magazine, September 1958 — “A true scientific detective story”
  11. “A Warmer Earth Evident At Poles”, New York Times, 15 February 1959
  12. Carbon Dioxide and Climate“, Scientific America, July 1959
  13. “Atmospheric Aerosols: Increased Concentrations during the Last Decade”, James T. Peterson and Reid A. Bryson, Science, 4 October 1968
  14. “Expert Says Arctic Ocean Will Soon Be Open Sea”, New York Times, 20 February 1969
  15. “Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age”, Washington Post, 22 April 1970
  16. Climate Modification and National Security“, R R Rap, RAND, October 1970
  17. Inadvertent Climate Modification: Report of the Study of Man’s Impact on Climate, MIT Press, 1971
  18. “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate”, Rasool and Schneider, Science, 9 July 1971
  19. The Effect of Atmospheric Aerosols on Climate with Special Reference to Temperature near the Earth’s Surface“, J. Murray Mitchell Jr., Journal of Applied Meteorology,August 1971
  20. “The Present Interglacial, How and When Will it End?”, Science, October 1972 — Summary of conference held in January 1972 at Brown U.
  21. “Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age”, Science Digest, February 1973
  22. “Ominous Changes in the World’s Weather”, Tom Alexander, Fortune, February 1974
  23. “A Perspective on Climatic Change”, Reid A. Bryson, Science, 17 May 1974
  24. Another Ice Age?“, Time, 24 June 1974
  25. “Report of the Ad Hoc Panel on the Present Interglacial”, the panel was created by the US government’s Interdepartmental Committee for Atmospheric Sciences, August 1974
  26. “A study of climatological research as it pertains to intelligence problems”, CIA, August 1974 (36 pages)
  27. “Potential Implications of Trends in Population Growth, Food Production, and Climate”, CIA, August 1974
  28. “Climate Changes Endanger World’s Food Output”, New York Times, 8 August 1974 – Picture of article.
  29. A Reassessment of Atmospheric Pollution as a Cause of Long-Term Changes of Global Temperature“, J. Murray, Mitchell Jr., in Global Effects of Environmental Pollution, edited by S. Fred Singer. Dordrecht: Reidel. (1975).
  30. “Understanding Climate Change: A Program for Action”, National Academy of Science, 1975 (I cannot find a copy)
  31. “Climate Changes Called Ominous”, New York Times, 19 January 1975 — Picture of article.
  32. “A change in the weather”, George F. Will, op-ed in the Washington Post, 24 January 1975
  33. Climate Change:  Chilling Possibilities“, John F. Douglas, Science News, 1 March 1975
  34. “The Cooling World”, Newsweek, 28 April 1975 (posted with permission at the Washington Times here; or read this image)
  35. Scientists Ask Why World Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead”, The New York Times, 21 May 1975
  36. “In the Grip of a New Ice Age”, Nigel Calder (was editor of New Scientist), International Wildlife, July 1975
  37. “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”, Wallace S. Broecker, Science, 8 August 1975 (abstract)
  38. The Cooling, Lowell Ponte (Prentice Hall, 1976)
  39. Interview with Professor Reid Bryson in Mother Earth News, March/April 1976 — Wikipedia entry for Bryson.
  40. “The world’s climate is getting worse”, BusinessWeek, 2 August 1976
  41. “Global Cooling?”, P E Damon and S M Kunen, Science, 6 August 1976 (abstract)
  42. “What’s Happening to Our Climate”, Samuel W. Matthews, National Geographic, November 1976 (text; image)
  43. The Weather Conspiracy:  The Coming of the New Ice Age, (Ballantine Books, 1977)
  44. Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment“, National Academy of Science, July 1979
  45. The Ice Age Cometh?“, Time, 31 January 1994
  46. “The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea”, Lloyd D. Keigwin, Science, 29 November 1996
  47. “The end of the present interglacial”, W.S. Broecker, Quaternary Science Reviews, 1 August 1998

(4)  To see more recent articles and other sources of information

Esp note My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to “An Important Letter Sent to the President about the Danger of Climate Change”

CHRIS DAVISOctober 25th, 2009 at 2:37 am

A passing knowledge of the effects of both the eleven- and fifteen-hundred-year sunspot cycles would be a start.

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