Many are up in arms to learn that Exxon has known since 1977 that burning fossil fuels would eventually endanger humanity. But Exxon was not alone.

Our own U.S. government has known far more, and for far longer, about the danger to our climate system from the burning of fossil fuels and of solutions to the problem of climate change.  However, our own federal government did little with this knowledge, except to largely bury it from the public eye. 

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Fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House released “Restoring the Quality of our Environment”, a report that described the impacts of climate change, and foretold dramatic Antarctic ice sheet loss, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.  That 1965 White House report stated:

 

“Carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at the rate of 6 billion tons a year. By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more CO2 in our atmosphere than present.”

Catastrophically, on the 50th anniversary of the White House report, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are indeed at 399 ppm: 25 percent over 1965 levels, exactly as predicted 50 years ago. Science.

The 1965 White House report went on to detail the federal government’s extensive understanding of the urgency and dire impacts of climate change.  The report warned:

“This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur. Possibilities of bringing about countervailing changes by deliberately modifying other processes that affect climate may then be very important.”

Remarkably, instead of taking affirmative steps to combat the climate change it knew was coming, our federal government became the primary contributor to climate change in the U.S., both by extensively burning fossil fuels itself and by encouraging and enabling the extensive development of fossil fuels over the last 50 years. 

The 1965 White House report recommended that “[t]he public should come to recognize individual rights to quality of living, as expressed by the absence of pollution, as it has come to recognize rights to education, to economic advance, and to public recreation.”

Sadly, the 1965 White House report garnered scant attention since its November 5, 1965 release, though it did not immediately fade away. Four years later, a top advisor to President Richard Nixon and later Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would attach the 1965 Report’s climate change findings to a memo sent to White House Counsel John Ehrlichman. Moynihan wrote:

It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25 percent by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the Earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.

That was 1969! 

Yet Moynihan’s memo was the last known government mention of the 1965 report up until, well . . . it hasn’t been mentioned again.

As a result of 50 years of governmental inaction, our society is at a climate precipice.   Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon non-profit, is supporting 21 youth plaintiffs and Dr. James Hansen, as “guardian for Future Generations,” to secure those very individual rights suggested by the Johnson White House and to bring about the science-based climate recovery action our government has long known it must implement.  Those 21 youth and Dr. Hansen filed a federal lawsuit in August against the United States, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump takes credit for passing veterans bill that passed under Obama Orlando Sentinel declines to endorse Trump in 2020 Progressive activist: Democratic nominee will 'need to ride a little bit to the center' MORE, and several federal agencies seeking redress for our federal government’s complicity in the degradation of our shared atmospheric resource and the resulting denigration of our rights to life, liberty and property. 

Many Americans, especially young Americans and climate scientists, know that current federal policies and plans to address climate change are too little, too late.  Indeed, the 1965 White House report suggests the current efforts are 50 years too late.  It’s time for the federal government to fulfill President Johnson’s vision. Courageous judges imposing orders in these young people’s case may be our last hope.   That is what turned around government segregation policies and other civil rights violations. 

A response to the youth’s climate change lawsuit is expected from President Obama and the other government defendants by Nov. 13, and we hope that response will reflect a Johnson-esque understanding of the government’s responsibility to address, rather than exacerbate the problem of climate change.

Olson is the executive director & chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization based in the United States advocating for governments to adopt and implement enforceable science-based Climate Recovery Plans. Morrison is a former law clerk with Our Children’s Trust, and Whittier Law School J.D. candidate with Environmental Law Concentration (expected graduation May 2016).