The Guardian • Issue #2086

GREEN NOTES

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2086

Since it was first publicly debated in the 1980s, cover-ups and lies about the causes and even existence of climate change have continued. Recently uncovered correspondence from the 1950s between California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the US’s Air Pollution Foundation (APF) shows that the potential climate impact of fossil-fuel-generated CO2 emissions was communicated to the Foundation in November 1954 – 70 years ago!

Caltech scientist Charles Keeling carried out research funded by the APF, a coalition of oil and car manufacturing companies, measuring smog and CO2 levels across western US in 1954. “These new documents provide important evidence that the fossil fuel industry has been intricately connected to climate science from its earliest beginnings – not only as a driver of the greenhouse effect behind climate change, but also as a contributor to the scientific discoveries that would transform our understanding of humanity’s relationship with the Earth and its atmosphere.”

In this correspondence Keeling’s research director at Caltech, Samuel Epstein, emphasised both the potential impact on Earth’s climate of burning coal and petroleum, and the prospect of using a newly developed carbon isotope analysis at Caltech to identify “changes in the atmosphere.” The “possible consequences of a changing concentration of the CO2 in the atmosphere with reference to climate … may ultimately prove of considerable significance to civilisation,” Keeling wrote to Epstein.

The research was made possible by the discovery of carbon isotopes in the 1940s and early ‘50s. As a result, scientists could measure the ratios of different carbon isotopes (carbon fingerprint) in materials to determine the age of ancient objects (carbon dating) and also to identify whether the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees had been produced naturally through photosynthesis or as a result of burning fossil fuels.

Studying the isotopes of trees of various ages, enabled scientists to estimate how far CO2 concentrations had risen since the Industrial Revolution as a result of burning fossil fuels. The research revealed that since 1840, there had been an increase in a particular carbon isotope (C12/C13) which could be explained by the burning of C12-enriched coal and petroleum.

The aim of the research was not for humanitarian or environmental purposes. It was to be able to make provisions for possible regulations in the future that might impact their production. In other words, it was about profits. These companies make huge investments in projects that they anticipate will churn out massive profits over 50 or more years. They hid the findings of Keeling’s research for decades while their dirty operations continued to spit out CO2 in increasing volumes while accelerating climate warming.

Their lobby groups remain powerful, buying off governments with political donations. Forty years on from the first public debates around climate change, governments are still stalling on taking decisive and necessary action to phase out fossil fuels while handing out billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the most profitable and dirty corporations. It is time to clean up the system of political donations. Woodside, Santos, Fortescue, Hancock Prospecting and the Minerals Council, the industry lobby group, and the like all make regular and substantial donations to the major parties.

These donations can be more than compensated through government subsidies. This must end. So must the ‘dark’ money paid into these parties’ vehicles for anonymous donations.

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