Fossil interests funded, knew about climate research in 1954, investigation reveals

Climate research in the 1950's eventually led to the famous Keeling Curve tracking human-made climate change.

Newly-discovered documents reveal that the early climate science conducted by Charles David Keeling between 1954 and 1956—which led to the famous Keeling Curve, described as “a key piece of evidence that climate change is human caused”—was sponsored by a group of industrialists and civic leaders who banded together in 1953 to tackle Los Angeles’ smog problem. LA Times file photo.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Feb. 6, 2024.

As early as 1954, carmakers and oil companies funded research into atmospheric carbon levels—work that eventually led to the famous Keeling Curve tracking human-made climate change, according to an investigative report by DeSmog.

“It’s important to know that the oil industry sponsored climate science research in the 1950s because it reveals a picture of a much more nuanced, closely connected world of science and the frontiers of scientific discovery than the oil industry has admitted to,” writes Climate Investigations Center research fellow Rebecca John, in a story for the climate journalism website.

Newly-discovered documents reveal that the early climate science conducted by Charles David Keeling at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) between 1954 and 1956—which led to the famous Keeling Curve, “a key piece of evidence that climate change is human caused”—was sponsored by a group of industrialists and civic leaders who banded together in 1953 to tackle Los Angeles’ smog problem, John writes. They formed the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation (APF), with a founding charter to hire technical staff and experts for research and awareness on air pollution in the region.

The Fossil Connection

The APF’s founders included several prominent fossil fuel and automotive companies that built its US$1.25-million fund for smog research. Another roughly one-third of its trustees came from industries “which are or may be contributors in some degree to air pollution,” noted the foundation’s own 1955 Statement of Policy.

“The principal reason for their membership on the Board, in addition to their recognized standing in the community, is to make certain that they will be parties to all facts and evidence brought to light on the problem so that they and their colleagues in like enterprises can continue to devote their best efforts toward the abatement of air pollution,” the statement continued.

Founding trustees included the presidents of Union Oil—now merged under Chevron—and the president of the Southern California Gas Company (SOCAL), along with other trustees who were top executives of Southern California Edison Co., Western Airlines, North American Aviation, Southern Pacific Railroad, Western Consolidated Steel, and Chrysler. Other documents indicate close connections between APF and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as the Western Oil & Gas Association (now the Western States Petroleum Association).

The link between APF representatives and Keeling’s early research is important because it shows that fossil fuel interests were at least passingly aware of their industries’ climate effects nearly 70 years before major companies would publicly consider language calling for a transition away from fossil fuels. It is not yet known how closely individual trustees read the reports shared with them, but DeSmog says they would have been acquainted with “all facts and evidence” as expected by the statement of policy.

“These documents talk about carbon dioxide emissions having planetary implications, meaning this industry understood extraordinarily early on that fossil fuel combustion was profound on a planetary scale,” Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told the Guardian. “There is overwhelming evidence the oil and gas industry has been misleading the public and regulators around the climate risks of their product for 70 years.”

But “trusting them to be part of the solutions is foolhardy,” Muffett added. “We’ve now moved into an era of accountability.”

Keeling’s Research

In a proposal for the project Keeling would work on, his Caltech research director Samuel Epstein emphasized the potential impact on Earth’s climate of burning coal and petroleum, and the prospect of using a new carbon isotope analysis developed 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 civilization,” Epstein wrote at the time.

“Epstein’s research proposal for the Air Pollution Foundation left no doubt about the potential significance of this research,” John writes for DeSmog. APF approved funding of $13,814 (approximately $158,000 today) toward Keeling’s investigations.

“These never-before-seen documents from the Caltech Archives and the United States National Archives, along with material from the Charles David Keeling papers at the University of California, San Diego, and local Los Angeles newspapers from the 1950s, establish the Air Pollution Foundation’s sponsorship of Keeling’s research at Caltech as the earliest-known instance of climate science funded by the fossil fuel industry,” explains John. “It’s possible it was also the first time that the oil industry was directly informed about CO2-induced climate change.”

The documents “contain smoking gun proof that by at least 1954, the fossil fuel industry was on notice about the potential for its products to disrupt Earth’s climate on a scale significant to human civilization,” said Geoffrey Supran, an expert in historic climate disinformation at the University of Miami.

“These findings are a startling confirmation that Big Oil has had its finger on the pulse of academic climate science for 70 years—for twice my lifetime—and a reminder that it continues to do so to this day. They make a mockery of the oil industry’s denial of basic climate science decades later.”

The full investigative report, elaborating on Keeling’s journey from the fall of 1956, when he sent the APF a research update, to his later work measuring CO2 at an observatory on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, to his depiction of a rising annual trend of CO2 that would come to be known as the Keeling Curve, is available at deSmog.com.

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