Losing Earth: A Recent History

Our boots-on-the-ground response, or lack thereof, to the stakes of climate change—the coming of the four modern horsemen of the apocalypse: flood, pestilence, famine, and wildfire—takes shape amidst perfect economic disorder, writes Nathaniel Rich in his shimmering recent history of global warming, Losing Earth. That disorder can be summed up in one word: mañana. The benefit of a short-term gain—the continued reliance on fossil fuel for our energy needs—dwarfs the cost of a long-term risk: climate catastrophe.

This lack of response is also an existential disorder, Rich suggests: “If human beings really were able to take the long view…we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time.” In other words, we don’t like to think about our death. Which in turn makes the lack of response a moral disorder. We care more about our own immediate convenience and comfort than we do of future generations.

These failings of the human project have been known to us for years. “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979.” The main point was clear: human beings had altered the global climate through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The more carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, the warmer the atmosphere grows. By the turn of the twentieth century it even had a name: the greenhouse effect.

And monsters live in that greenhouse, which Rich draws with verve. Climate scientist James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, calls a 2-degree Celsius increase in global warming “a prescription for long-term disaster” — Rich reminds us that we are now at the point where long-term disaster is the “best case scenario.” A 3-degree warming will find the abandonment of coastal cities and mass starvation; 4 degrees and we can expect permanent drought and massive desertification; 5 degrees brings the “fall of human civilization.”

This is the background to Rich’s story, which reads at times like Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, except here we are talking about the weather and not the Ebola virus. Still, climate science can be just as thrilling and/or terrifying. But in the forefront of Losing Earth are all the lost opportunities to do something about climate change. Particularly from 1979 to 1989, the years of primary focus in the book, there were so many moments when something hard might have been established, instead of—at best—paper promises.

As a spur to action, “the major missing issue in all this,” said Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and one of the protagonists who help move the story along, “is leadership. It needs to come from the political community.” He bearded Senator Al Gore: “You are the ones who are going to have to make that decision”—to shape political policy around the climate juggernaut. “Don’t rely on the scientists. It’s not their job.”

There were plenty of members of Congress lining up to express concern about global warming, and no shortage of congressional hearings were held to discuss the matter—often featuring the aforementioned Hansen, the book’s other protagonist. Yet U.S. legislators failed to pass any policy measures to address the problem. They were too busy thinking in two year, four year, and six year bites to tie their political capital up in an issue that had to be thought of in decades, and numerous decades at that.

Even when climate change was on a roll, writes Rich, when it was in the headlines, or at the convening of international panels, or at environmental summits, there was never a sense of political urgency. “Though the U.S. delegation endorsed the Kyoto Protocol—committing its parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in about two decades by an average of 5 percent—it was never submitted to Congress for ratification.” The energy lobby is just too poisonously effective; indeed, since Kyoto in 1997, “there has not been another serious effort to negotiate a binding global climate agreement.” Twenty-two years—a period of time in which we have jacked more carbon into the atmosphere than in all the years proceeding.

Rich delivers this failure of imagination and political will with a sharp stick. “From a technology and economics standpoint, Jim Hansen told me, it is still readily possible to stay under two degrees Celsius.” The problem is human behavior. “We have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, fret about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds.” But human behavior, rather than political, or economic or legal considerations, is also the answer, writes Rich. When popular movements have managed to transform public opinion, they have done so on the strength of a moral claim that persuades enough voters to see the issue in human terms. That will come “only at the moment of moral repugnance that follows a clear-eyed reckoning with what we have done and what we continue to do.”