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Physicist Edward Teller pointing at a blueprint on a blackboard on 22 May 1968. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty Images

It was a archetypal November day in New York City. The year: 1959. Robert Dunlop, 50 years old and photographed after as clean-shaven, beard anxiously parted, his ardent face donning horn-rimmed glasses, anesthetized beneath the Ionian columns of Columbia University’s iconic Low Library. He was a bedfellow of account for a admirable occasion: the bazaar of the American oil industry.

Over 300 government officials, economists, historians, scientists, and industry admiral were present for the Activity and Man appointment – organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business – and Dunlop was to abode the absolute aggregation on the “prime mover” of the aftermost aeon – activity – and its above source: oil. As President of the Sun Oil Company, he new the business well, and as a administrator of the American Petroleum Institute – the industry’s better and oldest barter affiliation in the acreage of Uncle Sam – he was amenable for apery the interests of all those abounding oilmen aggregate about him.

Four others abutting Dunlop at the belvedere that day, one of whom had fabricated the adventure from California – and Hungary afore that. The nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller had, by 1959, become abandoned by the accurate association for betraying his aide J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he retained the embrace of industry and government. Teller’s assignment that November fourth was to abode the army on “energy patterns of the future,” and his words agitated an abrupt warning:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am to allocution to you about activity in the future. I will alpha by cogent you why I accept that the activity assets of the accomplished charge be supplemented. Aboriginal of all, these activity assets will run abbreviate as we use added and added of the deposit fuels. But I would […] like to acknowledgment addition acumen why we apparently accept to attending for added ammunition supplies. And this, strangely, is the catechism of communicable the atmosphere. [….] Whenever you bake accepted fuel, you actualize carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t aroma it, it is not alarming to health, so why should one anguish about it?

Carbon dioxide has a aberrant property. It transmits arresting ablaze but it absorbs the bittersweet radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its attendance in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse aftereffect [….] It has been affected that a temperature acceleration agnate to a 10 per cent access in carbon dioxide will be acceptable to cook the berg and deluge New York. All the littoral cities would be covered, and back a ample allotment of the animal chase lives in littoral regions, I anticipate that this actinic contagion is added austere than best bodies tend to believe.

How, precisely, Mr. Dunlop and the blow of the admirers reacted is unknown, but it’s adamantine to brainstorm this actuality acceptable news. After his talk, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the crisis from added carbon dioxide agreeable in the atmosphere in this century.” The physicist, as if because a after admiration problem, responded:

At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be conceivably 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent [about 360 genitalia per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we accumulate on with our exponential acceleration in the use of absolutely accepted fuels. By that time, there will be a austere added impediment for the radiation abrogation the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is adamantine to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or alone one or 5.

But back the temperature does acceleration by a few degrees over the accomplished globe, there is a achievability that the icecaps will alpha melting and the akin of the oceans will activate to rise. Well, I don’t apperceive whether they will awning the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can account it by attractive at the map and acquainted that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are conceivably bristles thousand anxiety thick.

And so, at its hundredth altogether party, American oil was warned of its civilization-destroying potential.

Talk about a buzzkill.

How did the petroleum industry respond? Eight years later, on a cold, bright day in March, Robert Dunlop absolved the halls of the U.S. Congress. The 1967 oil embargo was weeks away, and the Senate was investigating the abeyant of electric vehicles. Dunlop, testifying now as the Chairman of the Board of the American Petroleum Institute, airish the question, “tomorrow’s car: electric or gasoline powered?” His adopted acknowledgment was the latter:

We in the petroleum industry are assertive that by the time a activated electric car can be banal and marketed, it will not adore any allusive advantage from an air abuse standpoint. Emissions from internal-combustion engines will accept continued back been controlled.

Dunlop went on to call advance in authoritative carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbon emissions from automobiles. Absent from his list? The pollutant he had been warned of years before: carbon dioxide.

We ability assumption that the odorless gas artlessly anesthetized beneath Robert Dunlop’s adenoids unnoticed. But beneath than a year later, the American Petroleum Institute agilely accustomed a address on air abuse it had commissioned from the Stanford Analysis Institute, and its admonishing on carbon dioxide was direct:

Significant temperature changes are about assertive to action by the year 2000, and these could accompany about acute changes. […] there seems to be no agnosticism that the abeyant accident to our ambiance could be severe. […] pollutants which we about avoid because they accept little bounded effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the account of austere all-embracing ecology changes.

Thus, by 1968, American oil captivated in its easily yet addition apprehension of its products’ world-altering ancillary effects, one acknowledging that all-around abating was not aloof account for analysis and concern, but a absoluteness defective antidotal action: “Past and present studies of CO2 are detailed,” the Stanford Analysis Institute advised. “What is lacking, however, is […] assignment against systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought beneath control.”

This aboriginal history illuminates the American petroleum industry’s long-running acquaintance of the all-embracing abating acquired by its products. Teller’s warning, appear in affidavit I begin while analytic archives, is addition brick in a growing bank of evidence.

In the closing canicule of those optimistic 1950s, Robert Dunlop may accept been one of the aboriginal oilmen to be warned of the tragedy now looming afore us. By the time he ancient this apple in 1995, the American Petroleum Institute he already led was abstinent the altitude science it had been abreast of decades before, advancing the Intergovernmental Panel on Altitude Change, and angry altitude behavior wherever they arose.

This is a history of choices made, paths not taken, and the abatement from adroitness of one of the greatest enterprises – oil, the “prime mover” – anytime to footstep the earth. Whether it’s additionally a history of redemption, about partial, charcoal to be seen.

American oil’s acquaintance of all-around abating – and its cabal of silence, deceit, and obstruction – goes added than any one company. It extends above (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is active to its amount by the history of its better representative, the American Petroleum Institute.

It is now too backward to stop a abundant accord of change to our planet’s altitude and its all-around burden of disease, destruction, and death. But we can action to arrest altitude change as bound as possible, and we can bare the history of how we got here. There are acquaint to be learned, and there is amends to be served.

Benjamin Franta (@BenFranta) is a PhD apprentice in history of science at Stanford University who studies the history of altitude change science and politics. He has a PhD in activated physics from Harvard University and is a above analysis adolescent at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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