Posted:March 28, 2016

Withstanding the Test of Time

AI3 PulseLong-lost Global Warming Paper is Still Pretty Good

My first professional job was being assistant director and then project director for a fifty-year look at the future of coal use by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The effort, called the Coal Technology Assessment (CTA), was started under the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, and then completed after Reagan took office in 1981. That era also spawned the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Trying to understand and forecast technological change was a big deal at that time.

 We produced many, many reports from the CTA program, some of which were never published because of politics and whether they were at odds or not with official policies of one or the other administration. Nonetheless, we did publish quite a few reports. Perhaps it is the sweetness of memory, but I also recollect we did a pretty good job. Now that more than 35 years have passed, it is possible to see whether we did a good job or not in our half-century forecasts.

The CTA program was the first to publish an official position of EPA on global warming [1], which we also backed up with a more formal academic paper [2]. I have thought much of that paper on occasion over the years, but I did not have a copy myself and only had a memory, but not hard copy, of the paper.

Last week, however, I was contacted by a post-doctoral researcher in Europe trying to track down early findings and recollections of some of the earliest efforts on global climate change. She had a copy of our early paper and was kind enough to send me a copy. I have since been able to find other copies online [2].

In reading over the paper again, I am struck by two things. First, the paper is pretty good, and still captures (IMO) the uncertainty of the science and how to conduct meaningful policy in the face of that uncertainty. And, second, but less positive, is the sense of how little truly has gotten done in the intervening decades. This same sense of déjà vu all over again applies to many of the advanced energy technologies — such as fuel cells, photovoltaics, and passive solar construction — we were touting at that time.

Of course, my own career has moved substantially from energy technologies and policy to a different one of knowledge representation and artificial intelligence. But, it is kind of cool to look back on the passions of youth, and to see that my efforts were not totally silly. It is also kind of depressing to see how little has really changed in nearly four decades.

[1] M.K. Bergman, 1980. “Atmospheric Pollution: Carbon Dioxide,” Environmental Outlook — 1980, Strategic Analysis Group, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 600/8 80 003, July 1980, pp. 225-261.
[1] Kan Chen, Richard C. Winter, and Michael K. Bergman, 1980. “Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels: Adapting to uncertainty.” Energy Policy 8, no. 4 (1980): 318-330. Markup

Withstanding the Test of Time

Long-lost Global Warming Paper is Still Pretty Good



The author looks back on a paper published more than 35 years ago to assess how accurate they were at the time regarding global climate change from fossil fuels, and what, if anything, has changed over the intervening years.

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