Losing Earth

“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.”

Nathaniel Rich

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.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Forty years ago the world population was 4.4 billion, today it is 7.7 billion and is estimated that by 2100 it will be 11.2 billion.
    Forty years ago America’s population was 220 million, today it is 330 million.
    How are we going to feed and shelter those numbers?
    We cull animals when there are too many, maybe AGW is culling humans because there are too many.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      And we still procreate with abandon.

    • Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

      Good point, Bruce. The solution also needs to include drastically curbing – and reversing – population growth. Fascist corporate capitalists (who want a steady supply of excess labor to lower wages, fill the ranks of the imperialist military, and produce billions of dollars in products and services through slave labor in U.S. prisons) are heavily backing organized religion, which is the main culprit promoting uncontrolled population growth. If we could somehow do away with organized religion and its influence, maybe we could get down to the business of making effective free/low-cost birth control much more readily available, and removing the stigma and other obstacles to early abortion.

      • Avatar Doug Cook says:

        Patricia, Population growth peaked in the 60’s. “There is a significant fall in the population growth rate, particularly in the second half of the 21st century. global population growth reached a peak in 1962 and 1963 with an annual growth rate of 2.2%; but since then, world population growth has halved. Although the world population is still rising, it’s doing so very slowly. We would therefore expect growth to come to an end very soon after 2100.” So no…we do not have ‘uncontrolled population growth. This is from “our World in Data”. So perhaps we don’t need to encourage more abortions to curb population growth. Good grief. The U.S. birthrate keeps falling too, In 2018 it was the lowest number of births in 32 years,

        • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

          According to the live World Population clock,
          7.7 billion population
          72 million births so far this year
          28 million deaths so far this year
          At that rate world population will hit 8 billion sometime in 2021.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Population growth in America is driven by the Democrats free welfare system. More babies means more welfare money.

        • Avatar Larry Winter says:

          According to the stats Doug provided, population rates started to decline about the same time the welfare program was initiated. I guess I could make a general statement that is the opposite of what you say.

          • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

            Not really. He said last 32 years and that would be primarily due to women moving into college and workplace. The welfare system in the poor inner cities drives more babies, more money. In fact some inner cities black pastors claim abortion is ethnic cleansing of poor blacks.

  2. Frank Treadway Frank Treadway says:

    Support family planning through your local Planned Parenthood.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Thank you, Frank. When the Susan Komen group pulled their funding from Planned Parenthood, I pulled my donations to it.

  3. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    One issue I have not seen presented vis a vis immigration (legal and illegal) from Latin America is the population growth in some of those countries. I was born in November of ’49 so pulled up the following figures from 1950 and 2018 for the following countries:

    1950 2018

    El Salvador 2,199,897 6,427,495

    Honduras 1,487,234 9,489,792

    Guatemala 3,146,073 17,245,346

    Mexico 28,485,180 130,759,074

  4. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    Sorry the format did not space the numbers as intended. Will try again.

    1950 2018

    El Salvador 2,199,897 6,427,495

    Honduras 1,487,234 9,489,792

    Guatemala 3,146,073 17,245,346

    Mexico 28,485,180 130,759,074

    • Avatar Richard Christoph says:

      No luck with proper spacing after posting. Sorry.

      • Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

        Richard,

        The countries you listed are primary Catholic (which means their inhabitants have been brainwashed and terrorized to believe that using birth control and getting abortions will consign them to an eternity in Hell). That’s combined with the fact that rape is basically institutionalized in at least some of those countries, and ignored by government.

        • Avatar Richard Christoph says:

          Patrecia,

          Of course you are correct. I had intentionally omitted the controversial conclusion of my comment, but since you have now broached the subject, here it is:

          “Note that all the above are predominantly Roman Catholic nations, and also that the Pope is one of the most outspoken critics of human rights abuses and of the immigration policies of the U.S.

          I submit that the Pope and the Vatican would do well to look to their own policies on contraception and the direct relationship between a population explosion and the pressure on a country’s natural resources that are largely responsible for emigration. The U.S. simply cannot solve all of the problems of the rest of the world.

          I’ve not heard much from either Democrats or Republicans on this topic and eagerly await a candid and fact-based discussion. I’m not holding my breath.”

  5. Avatar Elizabeth Andrade says:

    The people having 10 kids are usually not born in the US. How are you going to preach planned parenthood to third world countries who are churning out the babies? Most young Americans are only parents to dogs and cats. This country has become much less friendly to families.

    • Avatar Anita Brady says:

      As Patricia says above, religion is a strong motivator for population to continue expanding. Also, the US is now restricting funds (driven by the “righteous” in our government) to countries that could possibly use it for birth control/abortion financing. So, it is being left up to NGOs to do what they can. Good Luck with that.

  6. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.
    As for sending money or aid to other countries I am for sending less because it doesn’t get to the people who need it. We can’t even get some of our own states to use the money for what it is supposed to be used for, how do we get other countries to use it properly. Look at Redding, a tax that would be used to deal with the homeless is questioned because it may not be used for the best way to help the homeless.

  7. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    As far as combating AGW I look to future discoveries. Coral reefs are dying but off the coast of Florida NOAA divers are injecting antibiotics into Reefs with modest success in bringing them back to life. A controversial method that was unheard of ten years ago much less forty years ago. I feel that science will find ways in the future to save our planet. There are those who will look for scientific ways to save the Earth while others will just blame someone else.

  8. Avatar Julie Driver says:

    Doug,
    KIXE is hosting a community screening and discussion of “Bill Nye the Science Guy”, about his work to promote scientific thinking when dealing with changing climate. Would you like to come and facilitate the discussion? Thursday, June 20th 6PM at the Redding Library. jdriver@kixe.org

  9. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    May I be really un-PC and insulting? One friend called the Pope “an obscene old bastard.” I was going to write that in my comment above about procreating with abandon, but decided not to bring religion into the conversation. However, with all the comments that point out that Catholicism is a major factor in overpopulation, I added it. To all the Catholic viewers, perhaps you can change church doctrine from within. Can a Pope be impeached? Maybe a female Pope – Pope-ette? Pope-ess? – would be a voice of reason.

    • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

      Beverly, something that I see happening in Arizona and saw in Wyoming and Colorado is that when those procreating with abandon Catholic immigrants enter America they don’t procreate as much. They don’t change their religion, they just have access to all the advantages of a modern, or do I dare say progressive, civilization. As proof, are there any Catholics, or any religion, in Redding procreating with abandon?

  10. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Africa is becoming the leading country of fleeing immigrants. Population increase is leading the cause of diminished resources. Some may call religion as the cause but I believe a line Bruce Willis said in Tears of The Sun, “God left Africa a long time ago” is more appropriate. My daughter when she was in the Army did a tour in Rwanda. She said it looked like it was once a beautiful country but now was all bombed out. That was twenty years ago.

    • Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

      Bruce,

      International right-wing evangelical mega-churches and organizations now have a huge presence in Africa. Unfortunately that mainly takes the form of scams that exploit and harm children and families in those countries, but that’s another story.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Is Oprah a right wing evangelist?
        And as far as scam artist that proves my point, God left Africa long ago.
        And I would not call ISIS, who kidnaps children, a right wing evangelist organization.
        If that’s another story why don’t you write that story for ANews. I, and I am sure others, would like to read a story rather than a blanket comment. I am sure ANews would print it. Am I right ANews?

  11. Avatar Patricia Barrett says:

    For the life of me I can’t figure out what Oprah (who I know absolutely nothing about) or ISIS has to do with all the fundamentalist religious organizations that have been operating lucrative “non-profits” in Africa in recent years. Your comment seems more like a failed straw man argument than anything else.

  12. Avatar Randy Compton says:

    Over population is an obvious problem that needs to be addressed and if we fail to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels in the very short period of time we have to left to accomplish this the population problem will be solved much the same way as drought, famine and war has reduces populations in Africa .

  13. Avatar Carla DeLauder says:

    I don’t know how to do life without my hands in crude. It seems to be everywhere. We don’t buy toilet paper and instead use cloth, but even something so seemingly benign as that has an oil industry footprint.

    To save our home when my husband lost his job, I started day trading stocks. I’ve made money from the oil and gas industry and pharmaceuticals. I’ve also made money from pot stocks.

    We try to add balance, but to what avail.

  14. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    One gent of the Morman faith has 24 wives and 149 children. Jon Krakauer’s book “Under the Banner of Heaven” discusses this very issue. More people is more cars and more homes and more traffic. I think we’re trending in the direction of Medieval times in which the majority of wealth was in the hands of a few who could hire armies of low paid peasants to do the manual labor around the castle and farm lands and be happy to have a job, by golly. If they, the peasants, were lucky, a poacher in their hamlet could augment their diet of porridge, and luckier still if one of the family was in service at the big house and could bring back table scraps discrarded after 5 course meals. The era of a middle class in any country is not long.

  15. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Wonderful article Doug. Thank you so much.

  16. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    I grew up in Salt Lake City and while I benefited from the Mormon Churches help even as a non-Mormon I did learn all the dirty truths about the Church.
    While religion has and is causing problems for centuries the general public is left uninformed. This is caused because religion is not allowed to be taught in public schools. This is why young adults are joining cults, because they are denied knowledge in public school and seek out more information which comes from cults eagerly accepting them.

  17. Avatar Randy Compton says:

    While many of us struggle with how to make the drastic personal changes required to fully address the climate crisis we should not lose site of the glaring fact that our congressional representative, Doug “Corporate Welfare King” LaMalfa is one of the primary supporters of climate ignorance and deception. Possibly one of the greatest personal acts we could do to address the climate crisis is to encourage family, friends and neighbors to replace LaMalfa with someone that is science literate.