Friday, July 2, 2021

The physicist Edward Teller emigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 1930s and played an integral role in the Manhattan Project. He later derived the principles behind the hydrogen bombs that make up much of our present nuclear arsenal. Teller was also known for his irascible personality and political conservatism, and his testimony was a major factor in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s fall from grace within the U.S. government. For these reasons, he was hated and ostracized by many in science and politics.

Photos of Oppenheimer and Teller
Oppenheimer (L) and Teller (R).

I recently came across a three-year-old article about Teller and global warming. In 1959, he was the guest of honor at the Energy and Man symposium that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the oil industry. He surprised the audience of oil industry executives and other VIPs with these words: “Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [….] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it? Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.”

Proceeding on, Teller said, “At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent, if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5. But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise.”

Movie still from the film Casablanca

I know that right now, your inner Paul Harvey is telling you that you know the rest of the story: the oil industry went on their merry way making bank, and now it’s 108 in Seattle and 114 in Portland as I write this. Even with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance, the industry acted in its own self-interest, and, wait for it…..FAILED TO REGULATE ITSELF. (Cue the Captain Renault “I’m shocked” meme).

Perhaps stating the obvious, the thing to like about physicists is that they look at life from the perspective of physics. Do you like people that respect “THE LAW”?  Hey, then a physicist is your person. They love laws. Teller looked at the carbon-oxygen double bond of CO2 and was like, dudes, shit’s gonna get real in a few decades. This was not a complicated problem to him. Teller was just stating the obvious, as anyone that paid attention in Physics 101 knows.

They didn’t care.


As you know, I do water quality and about the only law we have in this gig is, don’t upset agriculture’s fragile psyche. They’re sensitive, and might lash out. The original environmentalists, as characterized by Ag giant Syngenta, don’t like us to talk about our water here in Iowa. Being the habitual offender that I am, however, I can’t help myself sometimes. As Edward Teller’s good friend Ronald Reagan would say, here I go again.

I probably shouldn’t beat a dead carp since I wrote about it once already, but for crying out loud, Lake Darling. Last week, the Washington County Lake had the ignominy of being the only place in Iowa with both E. coli and microcystin (toxins from blue green algae, otherwise known as cyanobacteria) advisories. In 2014, the state used $16 million of your tax dollars to restore the lake, named after what some others (probably not Syngenta though) would say was Iowa’s first environmentalist, Ding Darling. And Lake Darling isn’t the county’s only offender. Crooked Creek, which flows through the northern part of the county, is one of the highest nitrate streams in Iowa.

Graph showing nitrate in Crooked Creek
Current nitrate levels in West Fork Crooked Creek in Washington County.

This story might be curious to some since Washington County, home to the Darling nutrient cauldron, is the undisputed soil health and cover crop champion of Iowa. Celebrity farmers can be routinely heard belting songs from the soil health hymnal, which of course they know by heart. And cover crop coverage may be as high as 15% of the crop acres, about three times higher than the state average. These practices are supposed to improve water quality. Curious, indeed.

What gives? After all, we’re being force-fed the message that we need to invest in a new holy grail, this one filled with the soil health elixir that will solve both climate change and water quality. Let me guess, works on stains too, I’ll bet. This is where I queue my inner Edward Teller and say, hey, did you guys notice those hogs? According to USDA data for 2017 (latest available), the county of Washington has more hogs than any other in Iowa, 1.3 million. It comprises 1% of Iowa land but is home to 6% of the state’s oinkers. Call me crazy, but it seems like there might be a connection between the swine and the swill that is Lake Darling.

Yes, I know we’re hoping the industry will regulate itself and do the right thing by us, and in the by and by, we’ll all sing Beautiful River together, in communion with our wormy soils, winter rye and triticale. But seriously folks, we have a problem of scale here that no amount of cover crop preaching and soil health proselyting, however well-intentioned, is going to overcome. If Washington County is our model, holy moly. And like those oil executives back in 1959, the industry is going to keep on keepin’ on, at least until somebody comes along with the courage to talk about scale. At least somebody more important than me.


Side note: the biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, is a very enjoyable book that explores all aspects of Oppenheimer’s life, including his relationship with Edward Teller.