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Climate change’s lost ground

In the late 1970s the opportunity to halt global warming was within our grasp. Spurning it turned a crisis into a catastrophe

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Forty years ago, Nathaniel Rich tells us in Losing Earth, global warming was better understood by the general public and US politicians than at any time since. Moreover, the opportunity to broker a global treaty to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases had presented itself, and the political will existed for the US to lead on the issue. Had action been taken, we could have stopped climate change in its tracks, much as we halted ozone depletion with the 1989 Montreal Protocol to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

The history of what went wrong is a sorry tale, and Rich chooses to tell it through the eyes of two of the most enduring climate campaigners, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen. Pomerance’s engagement with climate change began in 1979. He was working in the Washington office of Friends of the Earth when he read a technical report on coal that mentioned that in a few decades coal-burning might bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the atmosphere. As an environmental advocate, he thought if this were true, he should have known about it. But neither he nor anyone in the office had heard of the threat.

Curious about the veracity of the statement, Pomerance contacted Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist and member of “the mysterious coterie” of elite scientists known as “the Jasons”, a group convened by US Intelligence to devise solutions to vexing national security problems. Fortuitously, the Jasons had just released a report titled “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate”, which included scenarios of nightmarish threats to food and water security, and severe impacts from rising seas. Shocked, Pomerance decided that something had to be done and began to broker briefings on Capitol Hill to raise awareness of the issue.

Personal factors were also driving Pomerance. His wife was eight months pregnant at the time. What sort of world, he wondered, was he bringing his child into? And why had it fallen to him, a lobbyist in his early thirties without scientific training, to do something about this ominous threat? As inexperienced as he was, Pomerance’s hearings began to have an impact.

Frank Press, President Jimmy Carter’s scientific adviser, convened one meeting. After hearing the evidence he decided to call on the US National Academy of Sciences for a full assessment of “the carbon dioxide problem”. A key role in producing that report was played by James Hansen, a physicist from Nasa who was developing a climate model aimed at understanding what a doubling of CO2 concentrations would do to Earth’s climate. The academy report concluded that such an increase would lead to 3°C of warming. The last time the world was that warm was around three million years ago, and back then beech trees grew just 500km from the South Pole.

The fossil fuel industry was watching developments with interest. Exxon, worried that “legislation affecting our business will be passed”, created a carbon dioxide research programme. And its concern was not entirely misplaced: President Carter signed the Energy Security Act and congress empowered the National Commission on Air Quality to invite a group of experts to draft legislation aimed at avoiding dangerous climate change.

The two dozen people – “policy gurus, deep thinkers, an industry scientist and an environmental activist” – called on by the National Commission on Air Quality discussed a number of options to deal with the threat, from developing synthetic fuel to investing in photovoltaics. Exxon’s representatives did not oppose such actions, instead arguing for “an orderly transition”. An economist with the group, however, saw problems, saying: “We are talking about some major fights in this country.”

The greatest problem, however, came when they had to agree to put things down on paper. So divergent were participants’  views, and so determined were they to argue the minutiae, that they could not draft a single paragraph. Astonishingly, their final statement was phrased more weakly than the declaration calling for the workshop in the first place – and such was the discord that it was signed only by the moderator.

Four days after that catastrophic failure, Ronald Reagan was elected US president. When he floated plans to close the Energy Department and deregulate surface coal-mining, the president of the National Coal Association declared himself to be “deliriously happy”. But the science threatening the fossil fuel industry would not go away. Hansen had published findings in the journal Science showing that the planet had already started to warm. And Al Gore, then a congressman in his early thirties, had begun convening hearings on the climate problem. In 1982 the CBS evening news picked up on Gore’s second hearing on the greenhouse effect investigating the implications of Hansen’s findings. The climate problem was again on the agenda. But with an increasing divide in political and public opinion, no clear consensual course of action was in the offing. This deadlock emboldened Exxon. It decided that the threat of legislation affecting its bottom line was past and that it was safe to refocus on oil, gas and coal.

It was news of the ozone hole in the mid-1980s that revitalised the climate issue. Here was an undeniably urgent atmospheric pollution problem that both politicians and the public understood. So clear and urgent was the case for cutting CFCs that it ushered in both the Montreal Protocol and bipartisan support in the US for climate action. The issue peaked over the summer of 1988, which was the hottest and driest in history. When Hansen gave unequivocal testimony to Congress on the threat of climate change, the door to action seemed once again to open.

Pomerance, who was still deeply involved in agitating for action on climate change, suggested a target: a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Although there was precious little science behind the figures, it sounded good and was destined to become the first target for reductions proposed at a global forum. By the end of 1988, 32 climate bills had been introduced to Congress, calling not only for reduction targets but a global agreement on climate action. The UN had created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and George Bush senior had pledged a “White House effect” to combat the “greenhouse effect”.

However, a pushback had begun. All the fossil fuel industry needed to do, it realised, was to copy the tactics used by the tobacco industry when it was under threat. Critical to their strategy was a push to “highlight uncertainties in the science”. Tragically, human frailty was also at work. John Sununu, Bush’s chief of staff, who referred to himself as the “old engineer”, had an iconoclastic bent. He was sceptical of Hansen’s models so he ran his own crude climate models on his desktop computer. Based on the pathetic data they generated, Sununu convinced himself that talk of climate change was “technical garbage” and became determined to sabotage action. He succeeded: US exceptionalism meant that the final statement of the global meeting did not conclude that all nations were in favour of action, and moreover it lacked specific actions, targets and deadlines.

This catastrophic failure is in no small part responsible for where we are today, and while Sununu continues to deny responsibility, the blame clearly lies at his feet. But for the sake of the generations who will live in the era of climate catastrophe, the guilty need to be held accountable.

Rich’s final pages document the consequences of failure. Since the 1989 climate conference, humanity has released more carbon into the atmosphere than in all of history to that point. In 2009, as another effort to get international action at the Copenhagen Summit loomed, the fossil fuel industry spent around half a billion dollars lobbying on Capitol Hill. Rich argues that basic climate science hasn’t altered much over the past 40 years, with the exception of one area, “the assignment of blame”. As we accelerate towards 3°C of warming or more, lawsuits proliferate.

The escalating severity of the threat we face is abundantly laid out in David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. He points out that if we could somehow keep the temperature increase to 1.5°C, rather than 2°C, the lives of at least 150 million people would be spared. We will reach the 1.5°C threshold in 21 years at the latest. But on our current trajectory – of 3-4°C by 2100 – the damage is exponentially worse. And it is now too late to solve the problem just by cutting emissions: we will also need to pioneer ways of drawing down gigatons of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

The threats identified by Wallace-Wells are multifarious. From economic (the US will lose 0.88 per cent of GDP for the first degree of warming) to forest die-back, loss of coral reefs, rising seas, increasing disease, hunger caused by extreme weather, and the creation, in the worst-case scenarios, of an uninhabitable zone in the tropics. But, Wallace-Wells tells us, it is the social disruption we should fear most. Nothing is as vicious and abhorrent as civil war.

In A Bright Future, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist tell us that some countries have already solved climate change and that the rest can follow. Their “solution” is nuclear power: countries such as Sweden, which have retained their nuclear power plants, are doing better at cutting emissions than those such as Germany and Japan, which are closing them down. But the idea that building more nuclear power plants can help us combat climate change is deluded, if only because of the timelines involved in nuclear power plant construction. A nuclear power plant that is conceived today would not be constructed for at least a decade – more likely two. This means that a programme for building nuclear power can do nothing to help warming stay below 2°C because the plants will not be generating electricity until we are committed to that threshold.

Already nuclear power is not economical. In the US, the industry is calling for subsidies to allow it to compete with other forms of energy generation. Nuclear power plants pay their investors back over 50 years, so anyone putting their billions into nuclear power today is betting on the price of electricity 60 years from now. Today, all the smart money is on wind and solar, which make up the lion’s share of all new energy generation. A Bright Future is, I fear, nothing but an ignis fatuus leading us away from the path that can minimise damage to our future.

If our future looks bad, our children’s is worse. Wallace-Wells relates that he and his wife had a child while he was writing his book. I wonder about the response of this most cosseted of generations: we’ve protected them from everything yet we have ruthlessly exposed them to the greatest threat of all. They have already begun to realise this, of course – but when the consequences of our climate follies start raining down upon their heads, how will they respond? With protesters occupying the coal fields of Australia, more than 1,000 Extinction Rebellion activists arrested in London and school children striking across the globe, I suspect we will not be left wondering for long. 

Tim Flannery is a paleontologist, explorer and conservationist. His most recent book is “Europe: A Natural History” (Allen Lane)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change
Nathaniel Rich
Picador, 256pp, £14.99

The Uninhabitable Earth
David Wallace-Wells
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20

A Bright Future
Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist
Public Affairs, 288pp, £20

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy