The 1977 White House Climate Memo 

That Should Have Saved The World

By Emma Pattee
Tue 14 Jun 2022 03.30 EDT
Last modified on Tue 14 Jun 2022 09.04 EDT


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In 1977 Star Wars hit movie theaters, New York City had a blackout that lasted 25 hours, and the Apple II personal computer went up for sale. It was also the year that a remarkable one-page memo, written by Frank Press, was circulated at the very highest levels of US government. 

Years before the climate crisis was part of national discourse, this memo outlined what was known – and feared – about the crisis at the time. It was prescient in many ways. Did anyone listen?

It took mankind 100 years to ruin the Earth’s atmosphere with fossil fuel CO
2. Our global warming disaster is starting to release the frozen methane in the ground and under the seas. Methane contributes 80 times more greenhouse effect than CO2.

If we end fossil fuel use today, the Earth will take 1,000 years to clean up all the CO2. When the mess we made is finally cleared up, the year will be 3022.

So what happened? When Press’s memo made it to the president’s desk, Jim Schlesinger, America’s first secretary of energy, [screwed everything up by] attaching his own [devious] note [to help his friends in Big Oil continue to make money] in response:

“My view is that the policy implications of this issue
are still too uncertain to warrant
presidential involvement and policy initiatives.”

Hey Schlesinger!
Does it still seem “uncertain” to you?

Carter seems to have heeded this warning, and did not make much progress on climate crisis mitigation during his presidency. Yet he did sign some significant pieces of environmental legislation, including initiating the first federal toxic waste cleanups and creating the first fuel economy standards.

A significant challenge facing Carter was his own contradictory energy aims. Despite his goal of encouraging alternative energy, he also felt there was a national security interest in boosting US oil production in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

“We realized our dependence on foreign oil was dangerous and, very importantly, alternative energy was in its infancy,” Eizenstat said (Stu Eizenstat served as Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser from 1977 to 1981.) “So Carter was both doing conservation and still encouraging more domestic oil and gas as a way of reducing dependence on foreign oil,” said Eizenstat. “As with all policy, you have conflicting goals.”

Gas pump restricting gas purchases to 10 gallons 
during the first Oil Crisis of 1973.
August 1973, Denver, Colorado
Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

Still, it seems possible that if Carter had been re-elected, the world might have been in a better position regarding climate impacts today. 

One of the first things Reagan did after winning the election in 1981 was take down the White House solar panels. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry [Big Oil] whose scientists were already studying the ways that fossil fuels were changing the climate – started spending tens of millions of dollars sowing “doubt” about climate science.

Did the Press memo accomplish anything at all? For one person it was in fact a “transformational moment” – this was Eizenstat himself. He says it was instrumental in his own future work on the climate crisis, including his decision in 1997 to serve as the United States’s principal negotiator for the Kyoto global warming protocols.

Those protocols set the stage for the first international effort to tackle climate policy on a global level. So even if Press’s memo had a muted impact at the time, his warning wasn’t entirely ignored.