On February 12, 1958, the popular, educational Bell Science Series aired a new film on prime-time television. The program warned that CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel use could warm the Earth to a degree that melts the polar ice caps and creates a catastrophic rise in sea levels.
As the late William Rivers Pitt wrote in the Truthout article They Knew, They Lied: ExxonMobil and Climate Change:
Between 1956 and 1964, Bell Laboratories produced a number of television specials titled “The Bell Laboratories Science Series.” [. . .] Even 30 years later, schools all across the US were still showing these Bell Labs films to students.
In 1958, a chapter in this series titled “The Unchained Goddess” was broadcast. The topic was the weather, and it starred Richard Carlson and a USC professor named Dr. Frank C. Baxter. At one point in the program, Carlson asked Dr. Baxter, “What would happen if we could change the course of the Gulf Stream, or the other great ocean currents, or warm up Hudson Bay with atomic furnaces?” The “atomic furnaces” bit is a quaint throwback to the atom-crazy 1950s, but the response given by Dr. Baxter is what makes this particular film notable.
“Extremely dangerous questions,” replied Dr. Baxter, “because with our present knowledge we have no idea what would happen. Even now, Man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release, through factories and automobiles every year, of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide – which helps air absorb heat from the Sun – our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer. It’s been calculated that a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps, and if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.” Read more.
For general audiences in 1958, this was new information. That these climate concerns were raised more than 60 years ago and so little has been done to reduce fossil fuel use shows the power and greed of those who continue to profit from extraction and practices that damage the Earth.
See the Bell Science Series clip on global warming below, or watch the full episode.
This event is included on the Zinn Education Project’s Climate Crisis Timeline.