Climate Histories: Environmental Bilateral – An Agreement to Study Global Change Between U.S. and U.S.S.R.

In the mid-1970s, the evidence about the greenhouse effect and its effect to climate change was growing. Data showed that during the twentieth century, there has been a steady increase of CO2, at a rate of 25 times the historical average. Warming in the climate system was clear and since the 1950s many unprecedented changes had been observed throughout the climate system. The scientists were becoming more convinced that human influence had been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-century. They had also discovered that the biological productivity of the oceans was an important regulator of the way the CO2 built up in the atmosphere, and that the water vapour which had been found to be an important factor in the formation of clouds, could also play a role in the modulation of weather and climate.

Despite the progress, or maybe because of that, the questions about the causes of global warming multiplied, and with them, the concerns about global climate change.   The scientists were starting to realise that only an international interdisciplinary research programme could provide the answers to these questions.

As early as October, 1970, at a conference on “Technological Changes and the Human Environment” at the California Institute of Technology, Thomas Malone, founding Secretary General of International Council of Scientific Unions’s (ICSU) Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, asked, in his keynote address, for an “intensive study” of the “greenhouse effect” which is generated by the combustion of fossil fuels. In 1977, Roger Revelle highlighted the same issue in the Geophysics Study Committee  report. More specifically, in his report, Revelle indicated that the industrial civilisation,

“may face a major decision over the next few decades – whether to continue reliance on fossil fuels as principal sources of energy or to invest the research and engineering effort, and the capital, that will make it possible to substitute other energy sources for fossil fuels within the next 50 years”.

In the meantime, other environmental issues, like deforestation and desertification, the degradation of environmental quality accompanied by an increase in the overall volume of pollution, and a rapid population growth, grabbed the attention of the scientists and alarmed citizens, environmental groups, legislators, and diplomats alike.  A series of natural disasters across the world, such as droughts and famine in Africa, the collapse of the Soviet grain harvest, and extreme winter and summer weather in the U.S., made headiness all over the world and draw the attention of environmental groups. Both in the West and the East the public opposed the degradation of the environment and the introduction of serious pollutants into lakes and rivers.



Connecting and understanding the various ways that human actions can contribute to global environmental changes was vital. So, by 1970, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. enacted sweeping new statutes to try to deal with the situation, and in 1972, during a global “Conference on the Human Environment” convened by the United Nations at Stockholm, recognising the significance of climate change to earth’s viability,  both the U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., Leonid I. Brezhnev,  agreed to inaugurate a bilateral programme to address, what scientists come to call “Global Change”. On 23 May, 1972, at a Summit Meeting in Moscow, the Soviet and American heads of state signed the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection, generally known as the “Environmental Bilateral”. Furthermore, a Working Group was formed (Working Group VIII) to deal with the human influence on climate. Its activities included the study and the monitoring of the changing levels of atmospheric constituents that might modify climate, the study of the effects of contamination of the upper atmosphere on climate and the development of climate modelling. One of the Group’s scientific priorities was the study on the climate of the late Pleistocene and Holocene eras, as a way to understand natural climate variability.

The “Environmental Bilateral”, is considered to be the most successful of the several cooperation agreements between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. In a report which was published both in English and Russian, after a workshop which was held in Leningrad (now Petersburg), between 13 and 21 June 1981, the Working Group VIII, concluded that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is gradually increasing as more and more fossil fuels are burned. By studying climate models, the Group showed that that as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, global temperatures will rise too, and they warned that such warming could have important consequences on the biosphere, agricultural and other economic activities. They added that in order “to anticipate these consequences in useful detail” it was necessary to understand climate and that required “the full effort of the international scientific community”.

As weather satellites and highly sophisticated space and data management technologies were the most technologically advanced tools to use, the Group proposed the development of a ring of five geosynchronous satellites that would be monitored through international cooperation. It was an ambitious proposal, but the technology was already there and the increased computer power had made possible to process the data from space-based observations. For the first time, the scientists would be able to simultaneously  observe and study all the parts that affected the earth system and their interactions, the atmosphere, the oceans and the solid earth, the plants and the animals,  and the impact of human activities to climate.

Sources and further reading:

D. Kennedy, “The U.S. Government and Global Environmental Change Research: Ideas and Agendas”, Case C16-92-1121.0, (John F. Kennedy School of Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1992):2

Thomas. F. Malone, “Reflections on the Human Prospect”, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 20, (November 1995), 16

National Research Council (NRC), ‘Energy and Climate’ Geophysics Study Committee, (Washington, DC: National Academy Sciences,1977),5

W. Henry. Lambright and Rosemary. O’Leary, “Governing Global Climate Change. Can We learn From the Past in Designing the Future?’, Policy Studies Journal 19:2, (1991): 54-55

Eugene W. Bierly & John A. Mirabito, “The US-USSR Agreement on Protection of the Environment and its relationship to the US National Climate Program” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 65(1) (January 1984): 17