It Wasn't Just The Oil Giants Who Knew About Climate Change Decades Ago

Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, burns brightly in the Arizona night. arthurgphotography/Shutterstock

It’s clear that ExxonMobil, the multinational oil and gas corporation, knew about human-driven climate change and the dangers of burning fossil fuels as early as the 1970s, yet actively worked to downplay the warnings from their scientists.

But it turns out, it wasn't just the oil giants who knew; the coal industry was aware of the problem even earlier. 

A rediscovered article has revealed that influential figures in the coal industry were aware of their role in climate change and air pollution as early as the mid-1960s.

Chris Cherry, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has unearthed a 1966 copy of the Mining Congress Journal and found an article written by James Garvey, then president of Bituminous Coal Research Inc. 

In the 53-year-old article, Garvey writes: “There is evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is increasing rapidly as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels. If the future rate of increase continues as it is at the present, it has been predicted that, because the CO2 envelope reduces radiation, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere will increase and that vast changes in the climates of the earth will result.

“Such changes in temperature will cause melting of the polar icecaps, which, in turn, would result in the inundation of many coastal cities, including New York and London.”

Speaking to HuffPost, who first broke the story, Cherry explained: “It pretty well described a version of what we know today as climate change. Increases in average air temperatures, melting of polar ice caps, rising of sea levels. It’s all in there.” 

In response to Garvey's article, a combustion engineer from Peabody Coal, James Jones, acknowledged that the coal industry is contributing to air pollution, but remained quiet on the issue of climate change. Nevertheless, he noted we are “buying time” when it comes to addressing the problem, describing the situation as "urgent".

The question is: how far did this warning permeate into the coal industry? Was Garvey brushed off as a lone crank? Or were the influential man’s warnings swept under the rug? 

It's hard to know for sure. However, Garvey's article suggests these ideas of climate change were starting to circulate between science and big business. Furthermore, as Jones from Peabody Coal notes, anyone with a vested interest in the coal industry who heard his warning must at least have investigated the claims, even if it was out of profit-driven self-preservation. 

It's also worth considering Peabody Coal went on to become Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world with a long track record of active climate change denial. The company’s official stance today is: “Peabody recognizes that climate change is occurring and that human activity, including the use of fossil fuels, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.”

[H/T: HuffPost]

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