“Once it becomes possible to disregard the welfare of future generations, or those now vulnerable to flooding or drought or wildfire – once it becomes possible to abandon the constraints of human empathy – any monstrosity committed in the name of self-interest is permissible.”
Many people would be surprised to learn that 40 years ago, climate scientists were well aware that our climate was changing as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels. In his book, “Losing Earth, A Recent History”, Nathaniel Rich tells the story most of us don’t know; how “a handful of scientists, politicians, and strategists, led by two unlikely heroes, risked their careers in a desperate, escalating campaign to convince the world to act before it was too late.”
Originally, this story filled an entire issue of “The New York Times Magazine” titled “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” and chronicled how “we had a chance to save the planet.” In the decade from 1979 to 1989, the science had become clear enough that the governments of the world were on the verge of taking action. The only thing that stood in our way was ourselves. And that was the problem. That continues to be the problem.
Rich is the author of the novels “King Zeno, Odds Against Tomorrow” and “The Mayor’s Tongue” and is a writer at large for “The New York Times Magazine” and a regular contributor to “The Atlantic” and “The New York Review of Books”.
And on Tuesday, June 18 at 4 PM on KKRN 88.5FM (kkrn.org) you can listen to my interview of Rich and come to an understanding of how close we came to putting our nation and the world on track toward solving the most significant challenge of our time.
The story of our failure to solve this crisis has its heroes and villains. Among the heroes, we find Rafe Pomerance, an American environmentalist and current Chairman of Arctic 21, a network of organizations focused on communicating issues of Arctic climate change to policy-makers and the general public. And in the spring of 1979, Pomerance first became aware that humanity was well on its way toward “destroying the conditions necessary for its own survival.”
It was in an EPA publication focused on coal that Pomerance first learned that our “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” And so began one man’s quest to work with the top climate scientists in the nation along with several presidents, countless congressmen and a myriad of public officials to fashion a global agreement to stem the climate catastrophe that he knew would come if he failed.
Another hero was the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for space studies, Dr. James Hansen who in June 1988, testified before Congress and stated, “…global warming is now large enough that we can describe with a high degree of confidence, a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.”
The greenhouse effect was what scientists were calling the process whereby adding CO2 to the atmosphere thickened the carbon blanket between the troposphere and stratosphere and forced the surface of the Earth and the oceans to grow hotter. Hansen stated, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
Even then, the good guys knew who the enemy was. Senator Dale Bumpers, a Democrat from Arkansas said, “Nobody wants to take on any of the industries that produce the things that we throw up into the atmosphere. But what you have are all these competing interests pitted against our very survival.”
Think about that for a moment. The interests of the fossil fuel lobby were and still are aggressively pitted against the survival of the human species and other life forms on Earth. In the name of obscene profits. And still we dither.
Which brings me to the villains like, President George H. W. Bush and his Chief of Staff John Sununu, who more than any two individuals played a critical role in ensuring the world failed to act when it still could. In the summer of 1988, approximately one-third of Americans were worried “a great deal,” about global warming and Bush, the Republican presidential candidate was greener than Michael Dukakis, the Democrat who was running against him.
Bush described himself as “an environmentalist” and said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect, are forgetting about the White House effect.” Of course, he didn’t mean any of this and never had any intention of taking action to prevent the climate emergency that now grips the world.
On May 11, 1989 Sununu sent a telegram to American representatives in Geneva who were negotiating a possible global climate treaty with the other governments of the world as part of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the telegram, Sununu directed negotiators “to develop full international consensus on necessary steps to prepare for a formal treaty-negotiating process. The scope and importance of this issue are so great that it is essential for the US to exercise leadership.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. It was a lie.
By November of that year, at the first major diplomatic summit on global warming, in the Dutch resort town of Noordwijk, Sununu directed officials to join with Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union “to abandon any commitment to freeze emissions,” which was clearly understood as the only practical way to prevent an eventual climate disaster.
In his afterword, Rich writes, “Everyone knew – and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t sharply reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization.”
Rich continues, “We also know that the coming changes will be worse for our children, worse yet, for their children, and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.”
Rich writes, “We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans, in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species.”
And Rich ask questions no one can answer: “How does a sentient person alive now…live with the knowledge that the future will be far less hospitable than the present? Should we obsess over it, ignore it, find some tense middle territory? What do our failures say about our substance as a people, as a society, as a democracy? Will future generations be satisfied with the answers we offer for inaction? How do we make sense of our own complicity, however, reluctant, in this nightmare? I know that I’m complicit; my hands drip crude. Hell is murky.”
Please tune in to KKRN, 88.5 FM, Tuesday, June 18 at 4:00 PM and spend an hour with a great writer, one of the many climate Cassandras who hopes, like I do, that it’s not too late.