1982 Exxon speech “Inventing the Future: Energy and the CO2 ‘Greenhouse’ Effect”

This is a speech to a 1982 gathering of climate scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Geophysical Observatory by Dr. E. E. David, Jr., president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, regarding the “greenhouse effect,” i.e. climate change, and the importance of scientific research in figuring out how to respond to it – how to “invent the future.”

The speech was part of a substantial, largely secret research effort by Exxon in the 1970s and 1980s that documented an atmospheric build-up of CO2 caused principally by burning fossil fuels, and projected catastrophic effects. However, Exxon never stopped denying climate change publicly, and the research program was scrapped in the late 1980s and the denial campaign redoubled.

David notes a gathering consensus among scientists about the causes and effects of climate change. He warns that due to the long lag time between the build-up of CO2 and its effects, no reliable “feedback loop” exists to spur the world to act before it is too late to avert disaster. However, he notes that mankind is moving away from fossil fuels, which he acknowledges are “the heart of the energy and the CO2 problem.” The difficulty is de-coupling from these fuels without disrupting society, but market forces will probably be enough to accomplish this.

He states that it takes some 50 years for society to switch to a new energy source, and that at current rates, CO2 levels could double by the late 21st century, with “climatic changes” occurring by the middle of the century. Nevertheless, David offers more research and a search for “short and long-range technological options” as solutions. The latter consist of various synthetic fossil fuels, with a small niche for nuclear and solar energy.

Although he highlights the dangers of inaction, he claims there is still time to study the problem further without imposing “fatal Malthusian limits” on economic growth and condemns centralized plans in favor of market forces. He admits there is a “vast opportunity for conflict” as climate change produces more severe and different effects in different parts of the world, and that this may require an unprecedented degree of global cooperation – a course he simultaneously condemns as undesirable social engineering.

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