In our latest episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth, we talk with Nathaniel Rich who writes about the time we almost stopped climate change, in his new book, Losing Earth. The book is based on an article in The New York Times Magazine where Rich is a writer-at-large. His reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
An increasing number of Americans think climate change is a serious problem and it’s the driving issue behind policy prescriptions like the Green New Deal. But we’re still burning fossil fuels at a rate that, if left unabated, scientists warn will have disastrous impacts for decades to come.
It wasn’t always like this. Forty years ago, the United States government began to take climate change seriously and almost– almost–enacted carbon limits that would have altered the state of our planet and our climate. But this path was never taken. What happened? Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance? And more importantly, where does that leave us now?
LISTEN to the entire episode (and read an excerpt below):
Reid Frazier: You tell the story of what happened in climate policy roughly from the years 1979-89, and how the world almost did something to deal with climate change back then but didn’t. Why did you want to research this topic now?
Nathaniel Rich: Well on one hand, it’s the story of this deeply frustrating failure. But on the other hand, it’s the story of how a ragtag group of activists, bureaucrats and scientists rallied together and were able (at great personal risk) to bring an issue to the world stage. They brought us as close as we’ve gotten to serious global climate policy. Up to then, it had been entirely the domain of scientific literature.
The central figures are incredible heroic figures and their history deserves to be known. But also it was a way to move outside of what I feel is a very narrow construction of how we write and think and talk about climate change.
In many ways, we’re still stuck in 1989. That’s the year when industry adopted this position of just total obstruction to any kind of climate policy and they started to pay off scientists, politicians and, ultimately, the whole Republican Party. But before that, it was not a partisan issue; there was scientific and political consensus that something should be done. And so I thought by writing about this early period, it was also a way of writing about some of the larger questions that now face us and that rarely get asked.
Reid Frazier: There are two central protagonists in the book: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist; and James Hanesem, a former NASA scientist. Can you tell me why you centered a lot of the action around these two people?
Nathaniel Rich: They are sort of an unlikely pair of heroes. James Hansen became the face of climate science by the end of the 1980s. He spoke up before Congress and said global warming is here now and it’s time to act.
Rafe Pomerance is someone I had never heard of and who had rarely been in the press even. As soon as I started to conduct my research, I realized he was the person who, almost single handedly at times, was responsible for pushing the issue.
He came across the problem of global warming while reading an obscure government report from the EPA about coal and he said, “What is this existential crisis that I’ve never heard of?”
In 1979, Pomerance was sitting in the offices of Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization where he was a lobbyist. He came across the problem of global warming while reading an obscure government report from the EPA about coal and he said, “What is this existential crisis that I’ve never heard of?” It was already being expressed in those terms even in the dry print of this government pamphlet. And he started to ask questions and hold meetings with people at the highest levels of government. Soon he realized that it was up to him, as crazy as that seemed to him at the time, to try to bring this to the attention of the American public.
James Hansen at NASA was doing the science and he had a similar realization but came at it from a very different way. They joined forces and masterminded a way to get the message out to the world.
Reid Frazier: I just want to highlight for a moment even in the late 70s, when Rafe Pomerance first started to get knowledgeable about climate change, it was not a controversial statement to say that carbon dioxide emissions from human activities were going to warm the climate with potentially pretty serious damages to the Earth.
Nathaniel Rich: Right. The science was old science. It was already in textbooks. And the idea that man was warming up the atmosphere through fossil fuel emissions dates back to the 19th century.
The first sense that this might be a really bad thing comes in a bit later, but still, we’re talking mid-1950s. So when Rafe Pomerance comes across it, this is something scientists have been talking about for decades. What begins to change by the end of the 70s is you have a firming up of consensus over the details of that warming and the ramifications of it.
So by the end of 1979, you have a series of high-level reports. And they all came to an agreement on the exact amount of degrees that the world would warm once CO2 levels doubled; and when that would occur; and what kind of cataclysms that would lead to —sea level rise, migration problems, economic despair, agricultural crisis…everything we talk about now.
So, yeah, this wasn’t new but it was still relatively obscure outside of scientific circles and the intelligence agencies which had been studying it more closely for a long time as well. And, I should say, the oil and gas industry.
Reid Frazier: So walk us through the path that Rafe Pomerance and Jim Hansen take to bring this issue into the public consciousness. What were the tactics that they used?
Nathaniel Rich: What’s fascinating to me about their story is they essentially are confronted with this information just as we are today. Any thinking person, once we understand the issue, we go through a number of responses. And you see them going through these just decades earlier.
So the first response is Rafe’s response which is essentially, “holy s**it. I can’t believe this is happening. Why has nobody dealt with this if we’ve known about it for so long? Surely if we communicate the issue to people in power in this country, out of prudence and just common sense, they will take certain actions right away.”
He’s uniquely able to act on that because he’s very well connected on the Hill. So he goes around D.C. with a scientist, Gordon McDonald, who is essentially the chief scientist for the CIA, meeting with people at EPA, State Department, Energy Department and, ultimately, to the president’s science adviser, Frank Press.
They lay out the problem, giving basically a two-hour lecture on the history of climate change and what’s going to happen next. And they figure that this will be enough. And it isn’t.
Hansen goes through the same process within the scientific realm where he publishes his papers about the dangers that are coming. He figures if he publishes them in major journals like Nature and Science, smart people will act. That doesn’t work. That’s sort of the end of the first act.
Reid Frazier: So having looked into this deep history of this specific period of time, what lessons can we take from this attempt to face climate change?
Nathaniel Rich: The lesson I take is that an appeal to rationality is not sufficient to motivate the level of transformational change that’s required. Now the level of change that’s required in 2019 is very different from the level of change that’s required in 1979. But even so, I think folks like Hansen and Pomerance did what we all would do in the first scene of the disaster movie when you’re given the information you tell the president, right? And they did that. And I think they found that there were limitations to how far that would go.
I think where we have had major change on major social issues in our history, one uniting factor is that the rational appeal is joined by a much more urgent moral appeal.
I think where we have had major change on major social issues in our history, one uniting factor is that the rational appeal is joined by a much more urgent moral appeal. And that wasn’t really present during that time. And it really hasn’t been present, at least in a major way, in the public conversation until the last few months.
There’s been a turn. And I think you now see leaders of this new movement for climate action making that kind of argument. They’re no longer saying, ‘the science is real, we need to act.’ I mean, of course, they’re saying that, too. But they’re also saying, “your inaction is robbing our future away from us. You are killing us. You are destroying our dreams of a safe and healthy life for ourselves and our children. And failure to act is wrong.”
And that’s a different kind of argument. And I think it’s ultimately a more powerful argument than simply ‘we’re stupid not to act.’ Of course, you can make both of the arguments at the same time, needless to say.
Reid Frazier: Was there anything in your reporting that really surprised you?
Nathaniel Rich: There’s literally nothing we’re talking about today related to climate change that wasn’t being discussed verbatim in 1979. Not just how much warming will there be by what year and how much sea level rise, but also how much money should we invest in decarbonization? What should we do about developing countries who are trying to escape poverty and disease and need to consume more energy? All of these conversations are there at the highest levels of government by the early 80s. So that’s a bit depressing.
Every form of social injustice is exacerbated by the climate crisis. And that is where the conversation has to go more forcefully in the years to come.
But I think when you understand that history, it gives you the license to move beyond it more forcefully. That’s something you’ve seen with this youth movement that’s going on right now. They’re not stuck in this false idea of proving that this is real. They understand the issue as a social justice issue, and it unites every other issue. There can be no stable civil society without a stable environment. Every form of social injustice is exacerbated by the climate crisis. And that is where the conversation has to go more forcefully in the years to come.