1959 Shell “The Earth’s Carbon Cycle” Article

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This article by Shell International Chemical Company’s Dr. M. A. Matthews, “The Earth’s Carbon Cycle,” was featured in the October 1959, Volume 6 Number 151 edition of the weekly publication The New Scientist. A rebuttal to Dr. Edward Teller’s 1957 address to the American Chemical Society, this piece shows the interest and attention the oil industry was paying to climate change and its associated potential impacts. Matthews’ awareness of the earth’s carbon cycle and nonchalance toward future fossil consumption is at odds with aspects of documents produced by Shell in the 1980’s and ’90’s.

With Teller’s warning of “the effects of the burning of coal and oil fuel on the atmosphere of the Earth” receiving attention and legitimacy, Matthews concedes that “[t]he simultaneous release into the atmosphere of the whole vast quantity of carbon previously stored in the Earth as coal and oil might conceivably change the climate.” Explaining the science of the greenhouse effect, Matthews lists “an appreciable part of the polar ice might melt” as a result of higher atmospheric temperatures which could “presage a new ice age.”

While recognizing aspects of climate science that would remain contentious for the next few decades, Matthews tempers Teller’s attribution of fossil fuels to warming temperatures: “By comparison with the immense quantities involved in these two major cycles, the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from the combustion of fuel makes only a small impact. During the whole of the time that mankind has burned coal, about 80 billion tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide has entered the atmosphere. If none of this additional carbon dioxide were dissolved in the sea it would raise the concentration from 0.03 per cent to 0.034. On the other hand, if the sea had time to reach equilibrium under the new conditions, the quantity of carbon dioxide in the air would be increased to only 0.0302 per cent.” Due to the ocean’s ability to absorb some of the carbon dioxide, even in the worst case scenario, any temperature change as a result of increased carbon emissions would “not likely … result in any great disturbance either of the ice pattern or the rate of growth of vegetation.”

As far as the future is concerned, Matthews is unfazed by potential climate impacts and more focused on depleting reserves. Optimistic that the natural result of earth’s processes would yield more fossil fuels deposits, Matthews concludes “that Man’s efforts in burning large quantities of fossil fuels are inevitably small compared with the magnitude of Nature’s carbon cycles …”

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