Thanks to “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” Nathaniel Rich’s August 2018 NY Times investigative report about how people in leadership positions dithered while anthropogenic climate disruption gathered destructive strength, we have historical background for our increasingly dismal circumstances (the report covers 1979-1989—yes, forty years ago climate change was on the table). While the inner motivations and outer forces that fed the dither might have been made more explicit by Rich, an informed imagination fills many blanks.
Nineteenth century scientists recognized a relation between the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels and its temperature. In 1896 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that combustion of coal and oil would raise temperatures in some relation to the amount burned.
In 1939 a British engineer found that weather station temperatures showed the highest levels ever documented.
A 1957 paper by Hans Suess and Roger Revelle referred to the atmospheric and coming climate changes as “a large-scale geophysical experiment.”
In 1965 President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee reported that this “experiment” would lead to “rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas…” and that a global response was required to prevent the worst.
By 1979 there were more reports, more meetings, more discussions, more specific predictions: in particular, that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 ppm over the preindustrial level would lead to a 5.5-degree F. increase in global temperatures, which would be, we could say, a serious challenge to civilization owing to its effects on weather patterns and through them on food, fresh water, disease, sea level, heat indices, wildfire, flood, storms, displaced populations, international stability…
The preindustrial level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 ppm. This fine day in the summer of 2019 it is 414. Within the next few decades, it could reach 560 assuming continuation of the present emissions trajectory. The pace and precise nature of coming disaster are uncertain but not the fact that it will arrive and, by more and more accounts, earlier than many have expected.
As President since 2017 Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” had government agencies remove discussion of it from their websites and instructed them not to talk about it. Magical thinking, presumably: avert the mind and unpleasantness disappears. Or is at least postponed for the next generation to deal with when he will be dead and still care not at all for others. The U.S. contribution to CO2 levels continues to increase.
Rich’s ten-year history of leadership failure ends in 1989 when the first President Bush’s campaign promise to apply the “White House effect” against the greenhouse effect went into hiding less than a year after his inauguration, never to be seen again. In that same year the California Energy Commission issued a detailed report predicting the most likely consequences of global warming; it has turned out remarkably prescient: “droughts, floods, fires, and heat waves.” (Julia Rosen, “California was warned about climate change 30 years ago,” LA Times, 6/22/19.) Although California has done more than any other state to confront the issue, some of those who worked on the report say that it shows “how long we’ve waited to act—and how much time has been wasted.” “I felt…a sense of regret for us as a society…We’ve known what we need to do and we just keep refusing to do it.” There are reputable voices that now predict a 9’ sea level rise by century’s end.
Rich ended his story with several observations: “More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it.” (The conference was called to discuss an international treaty limiting greenhouse emissions; it failed— “Your government [the U.S.]” the minister said, “is fucking this thing up.”) Rich’s final sentence: “When it comes to our own nation, which has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians.” They succeeded.
Rhetorical question: When’s the last time anybody observed a corporation make a morally principled decision that might have impaired, however slightly, its bottom line? Dupont, according to “Losing Earth,” only dropped its opposition to the treaty restricting production of CFCs, the ozone-destroying chemicals, when it realized it could make more money off the replacements. (Seriously reduced ozone levels would result in skin cancers, cataracts, impaired growth and development of plants, destruction of phytoplankton [the base of ocean food webs], damaged development and reproduction of fish, shrimp, and other marine life, and is associated with other impairments as well.)
Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, German atmospheric physicist, climatologist, and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has said that “…if we continue down the present path ‘there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilization. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years.’” (Cited in “The third degree: Evidence and implications for Australia of existential climate-related security risk,” published by Breakthrough: The National Center for Climate Restoration, July 2019.)