A Bit of History



I am sixty years old. As a now so-called ‘elder’, it would seem I could still be of use by doing what traditional elders do best: preserving a sense of history, of collective memory, and its possible lessons for younger generations. I was politicised in my twenties in the German student movement of the late 60s and 70s and have been socio-ecologically active since the mid-70s, the first oil crisis and the first wave of socio-ecological concern. The second wave, focussed on climate change, arose in the late 80s. (Some of the seminal Anglophone publications of these waves are listed below). The present wave is the third. If the first wave already proposed the then abstract limits of industrial growth, these limits have now become concretely visible in the phenomena of ongoing climate change (droughts, arctic and permafrost melting, food and water shortages, accelerated species shifts and losses etc) and the first signs of oil depletion.

This third wave of concern and activism could be the last under relatively benign conditions. It seems to be crunch time. If there is no radical change to capitalist business-as-usual and industrial growth in the over-developed countries, if there is no realisation of climate justice (equitable and sustainable resource consumption between the rich and poor within and between nations) and transition to post-fossil fuel economies, then it is most probable that the horrendous ecological and social catastrophes associated with outright climate collapse will eventuate. Never before has human civilisation’s fate been linked to the actions, or lack thereof, of a critical mass of people on the planet within the next five years, the timeframe within which global greenhouse gas emissions must start peaking in order to have a chance of staying under the probable critical threshold of 350 ppm.

It is by now a truism that we are running out of time. This overview intends to help clarify why we are now under such insane time pressure: forty years of opportunities have been missed mainly because of the conscious politics of denial, delaying and shifting the costs on the part of our ruling corporate and government elites. They had been repeatedly warned. They knew. The great industrial, capitalist, consumerist party is over and the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.


The First Wave: 1965-1987 (Highpoint 1972-3)


(Precursors: In the late 19th century Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius showed that CO2 released from fossil fuels could lead to climate change. In the 1930s British engineer Guy Callendar had compiled empirical evidence that this effect was already discernible. A few early publications were already warning of ecological catastrophe, especially in regard to soil degradation and destruction: Paul B. Sears, Deserts on the March 1935; Elyne Mitchell, Soil and Civilisation 1946; F. Osborn, Our Plundered Planet 1948; W. Vogt, Road to Survival 1948; E. Hyams, Soil and Civilisation 1952)


1962: Social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin raises question of greenhouse effect in his book Our Synthetic Environment. In the early 1960s US scientist C.D. Keeling demonstrates conclusively that global atmospheric levels of CO2 have been rising (based on measurements at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii).

1965: President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warns: ‘By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in our atmosphere than at present. 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.’ Johnson recognises this in a speech to Congress: ‘This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.’

1966: The US National Academy of Sciences Panel on Weather and Climate Modification concludes that increased carbon dioxide might lead to ‘inadvertent weather modification.’ In Amsterdam the anarchist Provos (and, later, Kabouters) declare war on cars, initiate the first free (white) bike plans and a ‘white chimney plan’ (This plan ‘accentuates fresh air as collective property and resists exploiting this collective property by big industry and automobilism. And these provocations are only the beginning; or should the provos accept without resistance the pollution of their food, of their soil and water?’)

 1968 ff: The global radical movements of students and young workers practically and theoretically raise the question of the limits to the various alienations of industrial society; they begin exploring the new cultural forms and sensibilities of a post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-imperialist society. Against Californian Governor Reagan’s use of armoured tanks and helicopters spraying tear gas, 35,000 demonstrate in Berkeley in 1969 against development and for a People’s Park. Empty houses are increasingly occupied by radical squatting movements in several countries. The US and European counter-culture gradually spawns a drop-out and back-to-the land movement based on renewable energies and ecological principles. In response to such radical questioning from below, advanced Italian ruling elites and the Ford Foundation form the Club of Rome in order to, for the first time, research the global trajectory of economic growth in industrial societies.

1970: Building on and attempting to co-opt the counter-cultural impetus, the first top-down official Earth Day in the US. Corporations are on the back foot. Due to the grassroots wave of dissent, protest and pressure that began with the civil rights and radical youth/student movements, in the period 1969-71 US business ‘experienced a series of political setbacks without parallel in the post-war period. In the space of only four years, Congress enacted a significant tax-reform bill, four major environmental laws, an occupational safety and health act, and a series of additional consumer-protection statutes.’ Global ruling elite gatherings like the Trilateral Commission start talking about the general threat of ‘ungovernability’. G.R. Taylor publishes The Doomsday Book. Mankind Can Survive!  R. Disch (ed), The Ecological Conscience. Values for Survival. B. Weisberg, Beyond Repair. The Ecology of Capitalism (1971). 

 1972: The First UN Conference in Stockholm on the global environment. International direct action and environmental lobby groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are formed. The Club of Rome publishes The Limits to Growth based on the first computer world models of systems scientist Jay Forrester. All model scenarios point to global collapse within decades unless industrial growth is abandoned. The corporate media furiously attack the study as complete nonsense, politicians ignore it. However some like Sicco Mansholt, then President of the EEC, suggests ‘Gross National Quality of Life’ replace GNP, a shift to ‘clean and recycled goods’ (CCR) in Europe and tariffs on non-CCR imports. He also recognises that ‘these tasks will not be achievable within existing society based on capitalism and profit-making.’ E. Goldsmith and the British Ecologist group publish a similar study in Britain, A Blueprint for Survival, advocating a radically decentralised conserver society based on ecological principles. The counter-culturally spawned alternative technology and society movement takes off, especially in the US (The New Alchemist Institute, The Whole Earth Catalogue) and Britain (Undercurrents, Centre for Alternative Technology): wind rotors, solar energy, simpler living, food growing etc. The back-to-the land movement also begins in Australia (Nimbin). Ecologist R.F. Dasmann publishes Planet in Peril?

1973: first oil crisis after OPEC embargo. Global recession, end of post-war long economic boom. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger consider invading Middle Eastern oil fields to eliminate OPEC and directly control oil flows. Economist E.F. Schumacher of the Intermediate Technology Group publishes the influential Small is Beautiful. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich publishes The End of Affluence (1974).

1975 ff: German anti-nuclear movement begins with farmers’/wine growers’ occupation of a proposed reactor site; urban green ‘citizens’ initiatives’ engage in many local direct actions all over Germany, often successfully. Also spawned by the student movement and counter-culture (e.g. La Geule Ouverte, Le Sauvage), the French grassroots green movement begins with the occupation of a proposed military site in Le Larzac and uses it for cooperative goat cheese production. First founding of local electoral ‘Greens’ movement (Les Verts) in France. Wilson Clark’s book Energy for Survival. The Alternative to Extinction outlines the limits to energy growth and renewable energy options (strongly praised by Senator Edward Kennedy and Ralph Nader). D. Morris and K. Hess publish Neighbourhood Power. The New Localism. E. Callenbach publishes his utopian novel Ecotopia (set on US west coast in 1999).

1976: CSIRO discusses issue of carbon dioxide and greenhouse effect. Researchers stress need for more data, also on feedback effects like melting polar ice caps (Ecos No.7). It also shows that Australia could produce half its requirements for liquid fuels by 2000 from renewable sources wood ethanol, plant waste pyrolysis, bacterial methane fermentation (Ecos No. 9). Newly elected President Jimmy Carter calls for a national effort at energy saving (‘the moral equivalent of war’); it is ignored. First local electoral green groups in Germany. Australian ecologist Charles Birch publishes Confronting the Future. P. Harper and G. Boyle (eds) publish a primer on local renewable technologies, Radical Technology .

 1977: 50 US scientists begin planning research program on the CO2 issue at meeting organised by US government Energy Research and Development Administration. Amory B. Lovins publishes his seminal anti-nuclear book Soft Energy Paths. Towards a Durable Peace. Denis Hayes of the US Worldwatch Institute publishes Rays of Hope. The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World.

1978: R.M. White, the first administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns: ‘We now understand that industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society.’  Holmgren and Mollison publish Permaculture One, the first ecological and holistic design system for sustainable food growing, housing and settlement patterns, based on energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energies. Permaculture movement is born among ‘creatives’, hippies, drop-outs, ‘early adopters’. US Friends of the Earth publish Sun! A Handbook for the Solar Decade. J. Robertson, The Sane Alternative. R. Higgins, The Seventh Enemy. The Human Factor in the Global Crisis.

1979: The Jason Committee, a reclusive group of top-rank scientists that annually gathers to advise the US government, warns that atmospheric carbon dioxide might double by 2035, resulting in mean global temperature increases of 2-3 degrees Celsius and 10-12 degrees at the poles. An official report to President Carter concludes that humanity ‘is setting in motion a series of events that seem certain to cause significant warming of world climates over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately. […] Enlightened policies in the management of fossil fuels and forests can delay or avoid these changes but the time for implementing the policies is fast passing.’ The second OPEC oil crisis and skyrocketing oil prices: the ‘end of the (energy-intensive) American Dream’ looms in the US with queues and conflict at petrol stations, truckers’ strikes and protests, government limits on air-conditioning and heating settings, inflation and high unemployment: all lead to political crisis, calls for US invasion of Middle Eastern oil fields and President Carter’s crash in popularity (from 67% on election to 26%). Three Mile Island nuclear near-meltdown stimulates the forming of a powerful US anti-nuclear movement. German Green Party forms on the back of the anti-nuclear, local green electoral groups and direct action citizens’ initiatives movements. The party initially advocates immediately closing down nuclear reactors, a switch to renewable energy, direct democracy, social justice, non-violence and the dissolution of both NATO and Warsaw Pact. Hefty debates about whether to enter parliament or remain integrated within direct-action grassroots movement, later throughout 80s between left ‘fundies’ and neo-liberal ‘realos’ (with victory of the latter after exclusive parliamentary focus). US Friends of the Earth publish their empirical study of an alternative soft energy path for the US in Pathways to Energy Sufficiency. The 2050 Study (achievable 64% reduction from 1975 per capita energy use in the US by 2050 without fall in living standards). K. Hess publishes Community Technology.

1980s: emergence of global computer modelling which begins predicting unprecedented global warming in the decades to come. The five hottest years in recorded history are noted. The neo-liberal Reagan administration hugely cuts funding for energy efficiency and renewables and taxes on the rich and hugely increases military spending and corporate deregulation. The neo-liberal era of ‘greed is good’, sinking real incomes, rising inequality and renewed energy profligacy begins.

1981: President Reagan’s new Department of Energy, headed by a crony and former dentist, rejects a proposal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a comprehensive climate change study. Lester R. Brown, publishes Building a Sustainable Society; I. Pausacker and J. Andrews, Living Better with Less.

1983: The neo-liberal ALP Hawke government reneges on its pre-electoral anti-uranium mining stance and allows three uranium mines to operate in Australia. Deudney and Flavin of the US Worldwatch Institute publish a detailed plan of possible sustainable energy policy action: Renewable Energy. The Power to Choose. Ted Trainer publishes Abandon Affluence (1985).

1986: After years of grassroots resistance to nuclear power in many countries, the Chernobyl melt-down disaster sinks any global expansion of nuclear power and viable uranium mining for the time being and sets the stage for the demise of the Soviet empire. Large areas of western, southern and eastern Europe are contaminated.

1987: CSIRO reports on consolidation of evidence pointing to a general global warming trend (‘Prepare now for climate change, scientists warn’, Ecos No. 53). The UN Brundtland Report Our Common Future advocates the new buzzword of ‘sustainable development’ but still sees this as compatible with economic growth; it also notes: ‘We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations.’


 The Second Wave: 1988-97 (Highpoint 1992)

1988: An international scientists’ conference in Toronto speaks of effects ‘second only to nuclear war’ if humankind does not mobilize to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The UN thus sets up the IPCC of global experts to advise world leaders on climate change. The CSIRO and ABC hold the first public meetings in Australia on the greenhouse effect. Senior officials in the Department of Primary Industry and Energy remove a chapter on greenhouse policy from the Hawke government’s draft national energy policy. Amid heat waves, drought and forest fires, the greenhouse effect emerges from academia to become part of popular culture in the US and elsewhere. Economist Hazel Henderson publishes The Politics of the Solar Age.

1989: Senator Al Gore discovers that the new Bush administration falsified NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony on global warming to a Senate Committee hearing so as to water down his conclusions. The Greenhouse Effect Conference with climate scientist Ann Henderson-Sellers (The Greenhouse Effect. Living in a Warmer Australia. NSWU Press) at Sutton Forest leads to the formation of local action group Canopy Southern Highlands committed to ‘thinking globally, acting locally’, fighting against energy-intensive, unsustainable development and for local ecologically sustainable development. Publications: Ian Lowe, Living in the Greenhouse (Scribe). J. Falk & A. Brownlow, The Greenhouse Challenge. What’s To Be Done? (Penguin Australia).  F. Pearce, Turning Up the Heat.

1990: The IPCC’s first report on climate change: ‘We are certain that emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases…These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the earth’s surface.’ Threatened, the corporate world hits back: ‘scientific faddism’, unreliability of ‘global warming models of various agency bureaucrats’, ‘we hope the President hangs tough on this one’ (Wall Street Journal). Oil, coal, gas, mining, auto, aluminium, cement and other energy-intensive corporations begin their massive covert funding of climate-denial think tanks, lobbying and public disinformation campaigns focussed on purported economic costs and the old PR tactic of fostering the impression of severe doubt among experts. The Australian Federal and State Governments commit to general motherhood statement on the new buzzword: ‘ecologically sustainable development.’ For electoral purposes even the Peacock Liberal Party ‘commits’ to reducing greenhouse emissions by 20% by 2000. The US Bush administration leads a massive bombing war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (200,000 dead Iraqis) after the latter invades Kuweit and then betrays Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against the regime. Publications: J. Leggett (ed), Global Warming. The Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press). S. Schneider, Global Warming. Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century? (Vintage). D. Suzuki & A. Gordon, It’s a Matter of Survival (Allen & Unwin). E. Goldsmith et al, 5000 Days Left to Save the Planet. J. Porritt, Save the Earth (1991).

1992: The second UN Conference on the Global Environment in Rio is organised and hijacked by Maurice Stone and the Business Roundtable on the Environment. The ‘Global Climate Coalition’, a front group of 50 major oil, coal, auto and chemical corporations successfully lobbies Washington to ensure no mandatory targets are included in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change passed at this conference. Industrialised countries, including Australia, make totally non-binding pledges to ‘stabilize’ emissions at 1990 levels. Discussion on mandatory emissions reductions, global ecological and social justice and questioning capitalism and consumerism are avoided and environmental activists deflected into Local Agenda 21, the powerless attempt to work on limited sustainability projects merely on a local government level.

 1995: The IPCC issues a landmark statement representing a level of consensus not previously achieved on global warming: ‘the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’ and climatic instability is likely to cause ‘widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century.’ The CSIRO predicts that NSW may be between 1 and 5 degrees warmer by 2070 and this will cause havoc. Gavin Gilchrist publishes The Big Switch. Clean Energy for the twenty-first century. (Allen & Unwin Australia 1994). Brian J. Fleay publishes The Decline of the Age of Oil. Petrol Politics: Australia’s Road Ahead. (Pluto Press), the first Peak Oil study in Australia.

1996: Australian Government report warns that only 14 years of oil supplies left in Australia. NSW government launches inquiry into State’s transport needs prompted by Campbell and Laherrere’s assessment of world’s oil resources slowing from 2000. Scientists note that northern hemisphere spring is arriving a week earlier and plants growing 20-40% more. In order to delay government action, the ‘Global Climate Coalition’ fossil fuel lobby continues to sow doubt about climate change in multi-million advertising campaigns although their own scientific and technical experts advise them that the science of global warming cannot be refuted. Ted Trainer publishes Towards a Sustainable Economy.

1997: Kyoto Protocol. US representative Vice-President Gore threatens to walk away unless the Protocol includes considerably reduced mandatory emissions reductions and a business-friendly, market-based carbon trading/offset system. (The Howard government had also made the inclusion of carbon trading a pre-condition to Australia considering the Kyoto Protocol). Industry groups like Enron, an energy trader, view Kyoto as their victory promising ‘immediate business opportunities’ when such a system is included. Most nations ‘commit’ to reducing their carbon emissions by 5-8% below 1990 levels. Senator Hill negotiates an allowed rise in emissions for Australia of 8% (the only industrialised nation beside Iceland granted a rise) and is applauded by the Howard cabinet on his return. (Ten years later Kyoto had produced no demonstrable reduction in global emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.) The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network lobbyists (the ‘greenhouse mafia’ as they call themselves, the country’s biggest polluters), frequently former Federal bureaucrats and ministerial staffers, embed themselves in Howard government committees, departments, ABARE and CSIRO, and even write ministerial cabinet submissions and briefings on energy and climate change issues in their own commercial interests over the next decade or so.

1999: The alternative globalisation movement is born on the streets of Seattle in massive demonstrations against the WTO conference. It manages to redefine the parameters of the public debate about capitalist globalisation, ‘free markets’ and global justice (and thus, by implication, climate justice).

2000: Oilman George W. Bush narrowly and controversially beats nascent carbon trader Al Gore to be elected as President heading an administration made up directly of many oil and energy industry executives. The next year Bush refuses to endorse the Kyoto Protocol. Gore soon sets up his own multi-billion dollar carbon trading company. Bush’s ‘neo-cons’ prepare plans to invade resource-rich and geo-strategically important Iraq and await a suitable pretext.

2001: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and against the provisions of the UN Charter and international law, UN-sanctioned and US-led bombing, invasion and occupation of Afghanistan on the pretext of eliminating terrorist Al Qaida and Bin Laden (never found). US puppet and ex-oilman Karzai is made President, ruling government in alliance with various criminal warlords and opium growers. First direct US military foothold in resource-rich Central Asia/Middle East bordering Russian and Chinese imperial rivals.

2002: PM Howard publicly backs the climate change sceptics.

2003: Again against UN Charter and international law, US-led bombing, invasion and occupation of Iraq on pretext of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. By 2006 over a million Iraqis dead due to war of aggression and sanctions since first US-NATO Iraq War of 1990/91. No WMDs are found. The pretext is retrospectively changed to ‘removing Saddam’ and ‘democratisation’.

2004: Howard’s Energy White Paper effectively achieves ‘almost all of the items on the greenhouse mafia’s wish-list: no Kyoto ratification, no targets contemplated post-Kyoto, no emissions trading in Australia ahead of effective global action, generous subsidies for fossil fuel companies for research and development.’


 The Third Wave: from 2006 to present

2006: The combination of prolonged drought, water restrictions, Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and Nicolas Stern’s economic report on Climate Change produce a second wave of popular concern about climate change in Australia. Neo-liberal Greens senator Milne urges Howard government to introduce a carbon trading scheme. Howard appoints a taskforce stacked with big polluters to examine an emissions trading system; his own department seconds the head of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network. Four Corners reports on the ‘greenhouse mafia’s’ connections with the Howard government and the repeated gagging and censoring of senior greenhouse scientists at the CSIRO.

 2007-08: Howard toys with nuclear power and also promises to introduce a market-based carbon trading system. Rudd Labor uses climate issue in PR campaign to sideline the Liberal Howard government in the election campaign by promising to sign the Kyoto protocol, avoid nuclear power, push for ‘clean coal’ and introduce a ‘cap-and-trade’ scheme. Thousands of industry lobbyists plead for and get billions of dollars of public subsidies for carbon polluting industries and ‘clean coal’ research within the Rudd emissions trading scheme. The dirtier the industry, the higher the compensation promised: some would get 60%, some 90% of their pollution permits free. Taxpayers and consumers would be footing the bill for big Business. The purchase of ‘offsets’ in poorer countries allows actual emissions in Australia to rise into the future. Instead of the needed 25-40%, the scheme promises only a unilateral 5% cut of national emissions by 2020 on 2005 levels. In Rudd’s first budget, for every dollar spent on greenhouse programs, fifteen dollars are spent on subsiding fossil fuels.

 2009: 2,340 industry lobbyists work in Washington with a majority of them pushing to weaken environmental controls on business. The Obama administration’s proposed carbon emissions trading act is so weak that US companies can avoid actually reducing emissions until 2026. Scores of cowboy ‘carbon traders’ descend on Papua New Guinea and Indonesia trying to sign up landowners to not yet agreed ‘forest offset’ schemes trading in phantom ‘avoided emissions’ and allowing major industrial polluters to continue to pollute: allegations of corruption and fraud already surface. As of September 75% of ‘offset credits’ being traded have nothing to do with actual CO2 reductions. Emissions continue to rise as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has seen no overall reductions in greenhouse gases or a restructuring of energy-intensive industries; what it has seen is business-as-usual and vast windfall profits for some of Europe’s most carbon-intensive industries. Grassroots direct action campaigns succeed in gaining de facto moratoria on new coal power stations in the US and UK. The UN Copenhagen Conference on climate change, the successor to Kyoto, ends in complete failure to come to a binding agreement on emissions reductions; a non-mandatory ‘accord’ negotiated only between five nations (the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa) locks out the majority of poor countries from discussions and locks in emissions growth and a global temperature rise of at least 3-4 degrees by 2050 (i.e. the certainty of tipping points and climate chaos, collapse and the ongoing death and displacement of millions). The, at least more democratic and legally binding, UN and Kyoto processes are effectively ditched by the powerful states, including the EU and Australia. The neo-liberal Australian Greens continue to urge the Rudd government to introduce carbon trading.

[Main sources: ‘Der Traum von Freiheit wird zum Alptraum’, Der Spiegel No. 25, 1979; N. Oreskes, ‘The Long Consensus on Climate Change’, Washington Post 1/2/2007; ‘Welcome to Copenhagen. The Great Climate Sale’, New Internationalist No. 428, December 2009; A.C. Revkin, ‘Industry ignored its scientists on climate’, The New York Times 24/4/2009; T. Dick, ‘Scientific love-in on climate does not prove a pointy-head job’, SMH 17-18/10/2009; M. England, ‘Still spinning wheels after three decades’, SMH 4/12/2009; S.H. Schneider, Global Warming. Vintage Books 1990; S. Beder, Global Spin. Scribe Publications 2000; C. Hamilton, Scorcher. Black Inc. Agenda 2007; G. Pearse, High and Dry. Viking/Penguin 2007; G. Pearse, ‘Quarry Vision’. Quarterly Essay Issue 33, 2009]


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 7, 2010.

2 Responses to “A Bit of History”

  1. Thank you so much for your very truthful and comprehensive history of climate change. Your writing has helped me to feel somewhat more sane. Although there seems to be no solution, I do believe that somehow social justice can prevail if we keep getting the information out to the citizens of the world.
    Very best wishes and thank you again for your efforts,
    Laara WilliamSen

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