On its hundredth birthday in 1959, Edward Teller warned the oil industry about global warming?

Or so sez the Graun. The substance of this comes from some long-lost words from Energy and Man: A Symposium, held in 1959, apparently published in 1960. It looks like it would cost me $25 to actually read this, and my guess is that it will be a flash in the pan, so I'll have to reply on quotes from the Graun and one customer review from Amazon. That helpfully provides some context, so I'll quote from it:

the third speech beginning on page 53 in the middle of the book is of particular note. It was given by the real-life Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Edward Teller of thermonuclear bomb fame. His title was to be "Energy Patterns of the Future" and he spent most of his speech extolling the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and begging the public to allow nuclear research to continue until a truly clean fusion energy could be developed. He also foresaw the possibility of using readily-available nuclear explosives for large earth-moving jobs like canal and harbor creation, and underground explosions to break up or make impermeable rock formations to redirect water flows below the surface, and even considered mining the residual heat of deep underground nuclear explosions as geothermal energy. On pages 67-68 he even suggested using nuclear explosions for strip-mining oil shales or tar sands, and for underground fracking operations to release tight oil! But it was on pages 56-58 at the beginning of his speech that was most impressive/distressing. There, he clearly presented global warming, then newly researched by the Scripps Institute, as the main reason that nuclear research needed to progress.

So, this was Teller. Oddly enough, his main interest was in pushing nukes. He did present something about CO2 but - and I'm slightly guessing here - only because it pushed his favourite button, the big red one. Oddly enough the Graun's author Benjamin Franta, a PhD student in history of science at Stanford University doesn't consider that little detail worth mentioning.

OK, enough of that, "what did Teller actually warn us about CO2?", I hear you cry. And the answer is:

It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York

Pretty devastating, huh? The Graun, as you'd expect, then segues into the usual "but the oil companies didn't listen, you know". Though for some odd reason they manage to avoid #exxonknew (I put it here for my own purposes so that searches will work). But, there are two obvious problems. The first is that although the Graun carefully sets this up as breathlessly secret stuff revealed only to the Oil industry, of course it wasn't: the symposium report was published publically. And of course wherever Teller got his wacky numbers from was probably public too: the Amazon review says Scripps.

But more importantly, he was wrong. +10% CO2 isn't enough to submerge New York or melt "the icecap" (whatever he meant by "the icecap". Greenland? Antarctica? Who knows). At least, not within a plausible timeframe. We're already at most of a 50% increase, and even that isn't enough - well, not yet. What should governments and oil companies have done when faced with new information that appeared to indicate a potential problem? Well, what you obviously shouldn't do is to rush to action in a panic because some famous and eminent person in a scientific field not particularly closely related to the issue at hand tells you to. Any more than you should pay much attention to Freeman Dyson when off on one of his rants about GW. Instead, you should consider the issue and if warranted start proper study of the issue (this starts to go wrong about following IPCC One, when the results start coming in but the policy doesn't; but that is all in the future at this point).

It is useful to be aware of, say, Spencer Weart / the AIP's "discovery of global warming" timeline.


* Update: 2018/11: Early oil industry knowledge of CO2 and global warming - by Franta, in Nature; via Twitter.


Tom said...

Teller's comments certainly influence a scientist working in the field of nuclear technology. Said scientist left the field and turned to history, becoming apparently the first historian of climate science. Her signature paper showed she was more historian than scientist and she later performed a spectacular shark jumping display by calling Barack Obama a denier.

Naomi, what did Edward tell you?

William M. Connolley said...

By odd coincidence I was reading some old posts and came across this from 2004 in which I talk about Oreskes's Science article, but without ever caring about her name.

> the first historian of climate science

The rather less flashy Spencer Weart preceded her.

David B. Benson said...

Except that Edward Teller didn't invent the H-bomb; Stan Ulam did. My mother worked for Stan as a computer programmer at what was then called Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. I had an opportunity to meet him at a Friday-drinks-after-work hosted by mother; his superior intellect shown. He certainly passed it to his daughter, but she was 4 grades behind me, so I never attempted to ask her for a date, more's the pity. Well, not the story here.

Edward Teller had earlier left Los Alamos to establish the Lawrence Livermore Scientific Laboratory. In those days it existed to bring the Teller-Ulam fusion reaction to reality as an H-bomb. The Los Alamos crowd did not talk about him in my youthful presence, but I sensed that they were not that impressed by his intellect.

So I surmise that Teller wouldn't have bothered to do any study before his "10%" pronouncement. Don't blame that on the Scripps Institute of Oceanography folk. My mother later went to work for them so I had a chance to meet them. As good as Stan Ulam and ready enough to state that more research was required rather than go out on a limb.

Summarizing, I infer that Edward Teller needed ego boosts. His big bangs maybe provided that.

Andrew said...

Ahh, for the 1950s, when Men were Men and Nukes were the answer to everything.. (As opposed to power generation, where they are just fine).

I just wish they'd got Project Orion off the ground.


The meltdown conundrum invites a variation on one of the better Teller jokes:

After Teller delivers his stock speech on the tremendous power of thermonuclear explosives, a man in the audience raises his hand and asks :
" Doctor Teller, where would you like to be if an H-Bomb went off ?

Without batting an eyebrow, the good doctor replies :
"Standing next to someone who says : 'What was that ?'

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@DBB - Ulam was brilliant indeed, but he came up with only part of the Teller-Ulam prescription, using an fission bomb to compress the fusion material. His idea was to use the hydrodynamic pressure of the bomb, but it doesn't work. Teller's contribution was using the radiation pressure of X-rays produced to do the compression.

Teller was brilliant, at least before he became a reviled crank. Prankster Feynman, talking about a great prank he pulled on Teller, wrote that the problem with pulling such a prank on somebody as smart as Teller was that the time between discovery and figuring out exactly how it worked was too short to give one any satisfaction. (Feynman had figure out how to steal top secret papers from Tellers desk without opening the drawers.)

David B. Benson said...

As for the contribution of Ulam and later Teller, I beg to differ. You should consider what J. Carson Mark had to say about this matter.

But then I only knew the Ulam/Mark view that Ulam did it and Teller only later added "engineering" details.

Whatever, Stan went on to other things while Teller stuck with his "Super".

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@DBB - So what did Mark say (link please). I had never heard anything except that the x-ray compression idea was due to Teller. Has Ulam claimed otherwise?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Here is Wikipedia -

The issue is controversial. Bethe in his “Memorandum on the History of the Thermonuclear Program” (1952) cited Teller as the discoverer of an “entirely new approach to thermonuclear reactions,” which “was a matter of inspiration” and was “therefore, unpredictable” and “largely accidental.”[4] At the Oppenheimer hearing, in 1954, Bethe spoke of Teller’s “stroke of genius” in the invention of the H-bomb.[5] And finally in 1997 Bethe stated that “the crucial invention was made in 1951, by Teller.” [6]

Other scientists (antagonistic to Teller, such as J. Carson Mark) have claimed that Teller would have never gotten any closer without the idea of Ulam. The nuclear weapons designer Ted Taylor was clear about assigning credit for the basic staging and compression ideas to Ulam, while giving Teller the credit for recognizing the critical role of radiation as opposed to hydrodynamic pressure.[7]

Which essentially is the same as what I wrote (and got mainly from Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes).

I did see Teller on TV once where he said that when they conceived the key idea for the H-bomb, they knew it was so surprising that no one else would ever think of it - but Russian scientists did the very next year. That would be Sakharov. Teller was arguing that secrecy was pointless except for tactical details like the position of submarines.


At the extreme margin, temperature and pressure are one .

John Bowles said...

My biggest problem with these in my opinion nonsensical explanations is that they require belief that we used to inhabit a perfect magic optimum.

Theory of the magic perfect optimum – any deviation from pristine pre-industrial goodness leads to colder winters.

This theory falls apart with any kind of close examination. Pre-industrial winters, especially during the Little Ice Age, were often brutally cold.

The current trend to colder winters could simply be a fluctuation of natural forcings. But if natural forcings can so easily overwhelm the alleged anthropogenic CO2 climate control knob, is the CO2 forcing really that powerful? Questions might be asked about whether the science really is as settled as proponents claim.

So climate explainers try to relate every unexpected temperature excursion back to our sinful industrial emissions.

If winters continue to cool, as they have cooled for the last 25 years, my guess is climate explainers will have to work ever harder to maintain the confidence of their dwindling audience of true believers.


William M. Connolley said...

> If winters continue to cool, as they have cooled for the last 25 years

Have they? https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/temp-and-precip/state-temps/ doesn't support it.

crandles said...

Was that 'continue to cool' meant to be not warm as much as summer?

If so, "could simply be a fluctuation of natural forcings"

well maybe it could. Or it could be due to several things like increased water in atmosphere causing increased precipitation as snow and thus increasing snow cover in northern locations changing albedo. There is also jet stream potentially becoming wavier causing more polar vortex deviations causing more extremes of both high and low temperatures. Probably many more effects.

Who says the forcings overwhelming AGW signal are natural? Seems an odd conclusion when there are so many effects deriving from AGW.

>Questions might be asked about whether the science really is as settled as proponents claim.

Or maybe people might query whether people coming by with drive by comments intended to undermine AGW might not understand all the AGW effects.

David B. Benson said...

AFAIR I never met Carson Mark. However, a different Wikipedia page explains how Carson took Stan's conception to Teller, as Ulam and Teller "never cared for each other much".

The original workable design was due to Ulam. Teller just noticed a 'small' detail, one which 'anyone would have'. Anyone, meaning any highly gifted atomic physicist, as the Russians demonstrated.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@DBB The "small detail" was that Ulam's idea of hydrodynamic compression doesn't work. The bomb blows apart without sufficient compression of the fusion fuel. Radiation pressure does work, provided that you do it right, but the calculation of the details is hard.

Kip Thorne (2017 Nobel winner in Physics) tells the story of how he was trying to do a difficult calculation in radiation pressure in stellar structure. He mentioned it while talking to Russian astrophysicist (and bomb designer) Novikov, saying that he thought the configuration was unstable. Novikov said no, it's been calculated and it's stable, but that he couldn't remember the reference. Later, talking to American astrophysicist (and bomb designer) Sterling Colgate, he had an almost exactly parallel conversation, including the can't remember part. At that point, wrote Thorne, he realized he knew the secret of the H-bomb.

David B. Benson said...

Irrespective of what Wikipedia and other sources might claim, Ulam recognized that sufficient compression was required. The details were in focusing the compression on the fusionables. Neither Ulam nor Teller worked those details out; it required what was in those days massive computing to determine workable configurations. Enter programmers like my mother.

Incidentally, Kip Thorne and I were friends and classmates as undergraduates at CalTech.

David B. Benson said...

Go find what Carson Mark had to say about the controversy. It is on Wikipedia somewhere, but searching and especially copying and linking is difficult using this mobile device.

John Bowles said...

Can anyone please direct me to your source, a graph i presume, of how much it has warmed in the last 20 years?

William M. Connolley said...

You're not very good at this, are you? The obvious place is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming, if you're interested in Global Warming. Or you can read the Primer on sources.


Back in 1959, two thirds of the studies of CO2 doubling sensitivity now extant had yet to appear, and the range had not yet converged on the present ~ 3 C average.

With several ~ 9C outliers, an after dinner speech might stretch the precautionary principle to :

"It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York"


I wish has I read WC's 2004 piece before Naomi's dork side book became a Hollywood franchise.

The funny bit is the inversion of causality in morphing the tobacco wars into the climate wars
The must recent round of PBS cameo appeances includes PR legend Bill Novelli, who achieved fame as an anti-smoking Mad Man by forcing cigarette ads off the air.

As the end of TV cigarette commercials in 1969 put paid to his PR firm's main line of foundation sponsorship, he seized on Earth Day to reinvent Porter-Novelli as the Precautionary Principle based environmental advertising firm we see today.

William M. Connolley said...

Hmm, that's a novel perspective on tobacco indeed. But now you mention it, not entirely implausible. Though 1969 to start-of-professional-GW-denial is a fair length of time, no?


A length of time fair enough to raise the question of why Naomi's movie interweaves black and white images of actors playing doctors in lab coats swearing Camels are good for you while the voiceover drops a decade from its narrative arc to elide Nierenberg & Co's energy policy, climate modeling, and national security views with the history of tobacco advertising.

It's a slick way to pitch a broken narrative.

William M. Connolley said...

Speaking of novel perspectives on tobacco, since Tom mentions it, I thought I'd link to his post there.