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Why We Didn’t Act on Climate When We Had the Chance – Sierra Magazine

In a major report published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers revealed new data about the melting rate of the Greenland ice sheet, and the findings make clear that we’re in big trouble.  

Starting in the 1980s, the natural variability of the earth’s climate started to transition as a result of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, leading to warmer temperatures, increased melting in Antarctica, Greenland, and other regions, and a steadily rising sea level. Greenland’s ice is melting six times faster than it did in the 1980s, when the transition started to occur. Nearly half of sea level rise since 1972 (14 millimeters) was caused by Greenland alone, according to the new report, and of that amount, half has occurred in just the last eight years. If Greenland’s entire ice sheet melted, it would raise sea levels by approximately 20 feet. Just two to three feet of sea level rise could have devastating consequences for coastal cities around the world, destroying millions of homes, with many low-lying communities becoming uninhabitable. 

As it turns out, that same decade during which this climate transition started to take place was also when scientists, political leaders, and industry executives knew everything they needed to know about global warming, and failed to act—a story Nathaniel Rich details with chilling lucidity in Losing Earth: A Recent History. “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979,” Rich writes. “It was, if anything, better understood.” 

Losing Earth is the book-length version of a 30,000-word article Rich published in The New York Times Magazine last year. The magazine dedicated an entire issue to Rich’s story, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”—the first time it had ever committed a whole issue to one piece (and to one subject). “Losing Earth” chronicles how during the 1980s, a clear scientific consensus was in place (the result of climate science research that had gone back decades) that human industry was heating up the planet by burning fossil fuels. Scientists, policy experts, and members of both the Republican and Democratic parties all believed in the science and that something needed to be done. There was no such thing as “climate denialism.” 

Some of the heroes that emerge in this story are familiar—people like James Hansen, whose 1988 congressional testimony about global warming is one of the most famous. But Rich’s story begins long before, when Rafe Pomerance, the head of Friends of the Earth from 1980 to 1984, and geophysicist Gordon MacDonald began what Rich calls the “Gordon and Rafe carbon dioxide road show.” The story of their efforts to rally successive administrations throughout the 1980s to act on climate, and the way in which those efforts ultimately failed, is a reminder that the reasons why we are fast approaching planetary catastrophe are a complex mix of corporate greed, missed opportunities, and a devil’s bargain with mass consumption and convenience—a bargain in which we are all implicated.  

“There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without an understanding of why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance,” Rich writes in Losing Earth. “For in the decade that ran between 1979 and 1989, we had an excellent chance.” 

I caught up with Nathaniel Rich during his book tour to talk about his research, the reaction to “Losing Earth,” and the complexities around who, and what, to hold accountable for what is quickly becoming an existential threat to humanity.

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Sierra: This book-length-edition comes on the heels of the tremendous response you got to last year’s New York Times Magazine article. What gaps in the story that you published then were you looking to fill with the book? 

Nathaniel Rich: By the time the article was published, I had been in it for two years almost, deep into the research and the writing and I’d lost all perspective on it. I had resigned myself to the idea that no one was really going to care. I think the first shock was when the Times put it across the front of the Sunday morning paper. They played it like it was a major story. 

The outpouring of interest and excitement was not something I had expected at all. I thought that my work on this was done once I filed my story, but then for the next three weeks after it came out, I was basically doing press full time. I realized it had struck a nerve in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. 

Most of the conversation upon publication was directed at a question that I hadn’t emphasized in the article, which is “What do we make of the history? What do we make of all this?” I sort of gestured at that a little bit in the original afterword, but I felt that with the book I would have the opportunity to be able to ask some of those questions more explicitly. I was also able to include a lot of material that I couldn’t include in the original pieces despite its length.  

So many of the books and articles coming out on global warming right now are about what kind of world we may be living in 30, 40, 50 years from now. Your investigation looks back at the world as it was, back to 1979, at a time when we knew global warming was real, there was consensus on the science, and everyone from scientists to political leaders knew what needed to be done about it. What do we gain by looking back at that story? 

First of all, it’s a great story—a story essentially of the birth of climate activism. It’s the story of the first people to grapple with this crisis not only on a political or policy level but on a personal level. The story begins when Rafe Pomerance is about to have a child. His wife is seven months pregnant and he asks himself whether it’s a good idea to bring a child into the world. That’s the kind of conversation we have today all the time. It’s the conversation I have with my wife, who is currently seven months pregnant. I thought that it was a way in to some of the larger human questions that arise when one tries to grapple with the scope and scale of problem. 

It’s also a history that I think many people seem to have totally forgotten, including many leading activists now. I don’t think people understand that this issue goes way back long before James Hansen testified in 1988 before Congress. That represented the end of a certain cycle of climate awareness and activism, not the beginning. The idea that this is a new problem is a symptom of the climate denialism perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry.  

The main obstacles we have now—the fossil fuel industry, its multidecade propaganda influence-peddling operation, the Republican Party’s politicization of the issue—none of that was present during the 1980s, and yet we still struggled to deal with the issue. That shows the additional level of complexity of the problem.  

“This history shows the limitation of the appeal to reason that I think is at the heart of the activist argument.”

I also think, maybe most importantly in terms of practical policy, that this history shows the limitation of the appeal to reason that I think is at the heart of the activist argument—the one that we see first formulated by Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen in the late ’70s and early ’80s—which is to say, the science is real, we know it’s going to happen, and we better act now before it’s too late. Of course that’s all true. But I think that argument only gets you so far politically. The effects of that appeal seem diminished, especially now, when we have an entire political party, the Republican Party, committed to fighting against every respected institution that we have in this country, not just scientific but also journalistic, historical, legal, and all the rest. I think it shows the limits to how far you can go with that appeal, and I think it’s been the central appeal of the activist movement really until about six months ago. You see it throughout the ’80s. You see it in An Inconvenient Truth. You still see it I think in much of the old guard. The logic is teachable, but it’s also not enough. 

If we think about the years since 1989 and how long it’s taken for the world’s societies to unite on climate and how long it’s still taking for that to happen, there does seem to be this intractable political paralysis we can’t seem to break.  It strikes me that your book is in part trying to show people that this paralysis is not the outcome of a reasoned debate between two sides—those who believe in climate change and those who don’t. It’s the result of a conspiracy to take what had been a settled matter—global warming is real, it’s happening now, and we have to act before it’s too late—and obfuscate the issue or cover it up to the point where no one knew what to believe anymore. 

Yes, the main reason for the paralysis from essentially 1989 on is the industry’s efforts and the Republican Party’s efforts to sow ignorance and misinformation and all the rest. But it’s not enough simply to overcome that. There’s more to overcome beyond the antagonism and the antagonists. Even if we had show trials for Exxon and API [American Petroleum Institute], and we sent all of their executives to jail or prison camps, even if we had reparations and so on, I don’t know if that would be sufficient to solve the problem. It would be a good start, and of course there’s a number of outcomes available to society if we were ever to hold these companies responsible. But even if we did, we also need to transform our economy. Even if you have the head of API in a prison cell, that doesn’t get you there. 

What was one aspect of the history you recount in Losing Earth that truly surprised you? 

One of the shocking things to me about the research was that the environmental organizations had done so much and had made such huge gains through the ‘60s and ‘70s, but failed to coalesce around this issue during the ‘80s. I think global warming posed a terrible difficulty for the environmental movement, because it was at odds with the basic model that was used at the time, which tended to focus on incidents of extreme environmental degradation, pollution, immediately observable disasters, whether it was Love Canal or deathly smog over Los Angeles. 

I think the idea of a crisis that was existential and global, but also invisible and not yet detectable, posed a terrible challenge to environmental activists. It’s something that Rafe struggled with, and it cost him personally I think. He was at Friends of the Earth, David Brower’s organization, at the beginning of the decade. It’s not to say that he wasn’t supported. He was. But it was a struggle to try to convince other environmentalists during the decade that this was an issue that they should really rally behind. There was no fundraising model that made sense for it and so forth. That’s not to cast blame on the environmental movement, but I think it is to show the difficulty that this issue raised. And of course the movement figured out how to understand it and address it and fight for climate policy by the end of that decade. 

“I think global warming posed a terrible difficulty for the environmental movement, because it was at odds with the basic model that was used at the time.”

It’s incredibly tragic that after all that work, during this period in which the political capital was there to act, you have this extraordinary effort by the oil-and-gas industry, by API, to buy off scientists, to shift the narrative away from the science of climate to the denial of it.

 Yeah absolutely, and it had never been reported as far as I know, this story of how the industry developed its strategy that later metastasized into climate denialism, but began as a kind of effort to deal with emphasizing uncertainty in the science, which of course is an old tactic in the industry, and trying to resist any kind of regulation that went beyond what was merited by the science.  

I talked to the head of the API environmental office, who was one of my main sources, and he explained how they came to those determinations. I think the success of the doubt campaign, the PR campaign, which sort of began at the time in a kind of low-budget way, became the overriding strategy, the political strategy, from the industry, and I think the success of that strategy even surprised him. 

That’s how easily they were able to change the public dialogue, by just having a few industry-supported scientists tell reporters that the science around climate change was uncertain, and all of a sudden an issue that had one side had two sides. They also started paying scientists $2,000 to write op-eds supporting the view that the science around climate was uncertain.  

He spoke about it freely with me and freely admitted to this kind of behavior. 

How does he reckon with that history, with API’s role in it, with what we know about climate today? I mean, as a human being, how does he explain it to himself? Does he stand by it?  

It’s complicated. The one API source is now a green consultant for businesses. He considers himself an environmentalist. To be clear, he’s not the same person who was pushing for denialism. By 1989, it was clear that some kind of regulation policy was inevitable. He felt he was only doing the right thing by saying that politicians shouldn’t go beyond what was merited by the science, which out of context might have seemed to him like a reasonable thing to say. I think he feels that industry was doing what it does with every health and environmental problem, which is to engage in the policy and protect the interests of the industry. I do think he felt that they were being good scientists and that they were being responsible. Of course, I think you and I would disagree.  

Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about human nature for a second, because I think you were trying to get at this a little bit earlier when you were troubling that binary point of view of looking at global warming as just about heroes and villains. You’ve made the argument that to understand global warming we have to come into a conscious understanding of how human nature has played a role, and the way in which we may be sleepwalking around this issue.  

I think to understand the issue honestly and in moral terms means that we all have to take responsibility for it. That doesn’t mean leveling the moral plane between an environmental activist and the CEO of Exxon. But I do feel that,—in the same way that I think with other major social issues like race or gender inequality or economic inequality— in the same way that any responsible citizen feels that when we see in our own lives evidence of injustice—we feel some responsibility to address it however we can to the best of our ability. I think we need to develop the same consciousness around climate change and to understand it furthermore as the great crises of our time, and a crisis that exacerbates every form of inequality in our society. 

We should certainly do everything we can to hold the villains responsible for their crimes, and we should do everything we can to push policy forward and vote for the right people. And we should also do everything we can in our own lives to come to terms with it. 

I think it’s really hard to look at it squarely. I don’t think you can take yourself off the hook even if you eat vegan and ride a bike. We have to understand that carbon emissions are baked into every aspect of our life. Until we can look clearly at the size of the problem, I worry that we won’t be able to muster the level of transformation that is required.  

That’s what I was trying to get at, to understand that the problem is basically part of the fabric of our whole existence now, and that it needs to be understood as touching every aspect of our of our lives, of our economy, and also our humanity. There are of course people who see it that way, but I don’t think that on a public level, that’s understood clearly enough. 

“The ‘hope vs. fear’ framing is a kind of childish way to look at the issue. What people like Greta Thunberg are doing now is more sophisticated than that.”

That point resonates I think with what young climate activists like Greta Thunberg are trying to achieve by shifting the rhetoric of the conversation around global warming from climate hope to climate emergency, and troubling this whole simplistic rhetorical framing of hope vs fear. I think the message there is, to finally move towards the kind of transformational change we need to respond to global warming, we have to neutralize binary framing around the issue.  

I think the “hope vs. fear” framing is a kind of childish way to look at the issue. What people like Greta Thunberg are doing now is more sophisticated than that. When she says that if we don’t act there will be blood on our hands, she’s saying yes, that it’s an emergency, but she’s also saying that if we fail to act, we are betraying the very basic precepts of our society, the very fundamental values that we claim as the basis for a civilized society. We can’t even pretend to imagine that we are striving to live in an equal or just world if we don’t address this issue. The failure to act exposes a dark hypocrisy in any faith we might have in equality, justice, fraternity, and all the rest. That’s a moral argument, and it’s even more profound than just saying of course it’s an emergency, absolutely, but it’s also a threat to our humanity. That’s another level that’s more sophisticated and more honest.

You had mentioned earlier that you have a baby on the way. I can’t help but ask you: You’re talking about the threats to humanity, and a lot of your work is about sharpening up the conversation we’re having around those threats, making it more precise, making it more honest. How does this risk to humanity land on you as a human being, as a man, as a father?  

Yeah, and also I should say as a resident of New Orleans! Where the sea is rising faster than almost anywhere else in the planet. 

I think that, in some ways, is exactly the question that I’m trying to write about, which is to say: How does this vast public existential crisis touch our private lives? 

I think that like anyone else, I have my moments of despair and I have my moments of optimism and I have my rationalizations of why it’s OK to do what I want to do. And yet, of course it leaves you with an uneasiness that I think is with us to stay. It’s the same kind of uneasiness one feels when you take an airplane or you take an unnecessary car ride or you forget to turn out the lights or you have a cheeseburger, from the most mundane things to the most sinful. As I write in the book, I’m not virtuous. 

I think I have more questions than answers about all of that. These are questions that each of us has to sort out for oneself. Does one dedicate one’s life to being an activist, do you put this fear out of your mind entirely? Where in the middle do you land? These are personal decisions, and I think these are questions that literature can help with, to help us examine and to struggle through, which is not to say that there are clear answers. I think that’s true of all the most difficult things in life, that there aren’t clear answers and not necessarily a single right answer, and that’s why I turned to literature, both as a writer and as a reader, to try to sort through those questions myself.  

That’s how I’ve directed my energies, and that’s where I feel like I can make a contribution. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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