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The Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP)

Two very unusual conferences played a significant role in making the problem of climate change visible: the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP) in 1970 and the Study of Man’s Impact on the Climate (SMIC) in 1971. These conferences were initiated and organized by Carroll Louis Wilson, professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an extraordinary personality. Wilson was a man of action and an outstanding organizer. Born in 1910, he had made a remarkable career as an administrator, businessman and university professor with excellent contacts and ties to the worlds of politics and business.

(Louis Wilson 1947, photograph: MIT Archive)

The Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP) for the first time highlighted potential changes of climate as an environmental problem. It was a study conference lasting over the whole month of July 1970. Its approximately seventy participants came from universities, corporations, laboratories, and federal agencies in the USA. These participants embraced a panoply of disciplines: meteorology, atmospheric chemistry, oceanography, biology, ecology, physics, engineering, economics, the social sciences, and law. They had the task to discuss and synthesize the state of knowledge on four topics: 1) Climatic Effects, 2) Ecological Effects, 3) Monitoring and 4) Implications of Change. William Kellogg chaired the work group on Climatic Effects.

The study report emphasized that participants “acted as individuals, not as representatives of the agencies or organizations with which they were affiliated” (SCEP 1970, p. xiv). This autonomy helped to relieve the participants from consideration of official narratives and duties. Likewise, it allowed Carroll Wilson to shape the event and its major product, the SCEP report, according to his ambitions. The SCEP report was published very quickly in October 1970. It provided a comprehensive assessment of environmental problems. The report suggested the adoption of the principle of precaution and included calls for “corrective action.” A language of concern set the tone from the outset. The conference was concluded with a press conference. In addition, a comprehensive volume of SCEP background papers was published in spring 1971 (Matthews et al. 1971).

Helmut Landsberg on the 1971 edited volume of background papers:

“This is a collection that most meteorologists should read, especially those concerned with environmental problems.” (Landsberg 1972, p. 163).

Estimate of future CO2 concentrations in the SCEP Report (p. 54):

The caption reads: „Note: This table is not a projection or a prediction. These calculations have been developed to provide insight into the nature of problems that may exist over the next several decades”. According to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration the actual CO2 concentrations in the year 2000 were established to be 369,55 ppm (see: ftp://aftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/products/trends/co2/co2_annmean_mlo.txt). The estimate in the SCEP report was hence 2,5% higher than the actual CO2 concentration.

Science article on SCEP Report: Luther Carter, The Global Environment: M.I.T. Looks for Danger Signs, Science 169 (14 Aug. 1970), pp. 660-662:


Landsberg, Helmut E. 1972. Review of Kellogg et al. Man’s Impact on Climate, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 53:2, pp. 162-163.

Matthews, William H., William W. Kellogg, G. D. Robinson (eds.). 1971. Man’s impact on the climate. Collected background papers of SCEP (Cambridge: MIT Press).SCEP (Study of Critical Environmental Problems). 1970. Man’s Impact on the Global Environment: Assessment and Recommendation for Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

SCEP (Study of Critical Environmental Problems). 1970. Man’s Impact on the Global Environment: Assessment and Recommendation for Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).