By Nathaniel Rich
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2019
The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted its entire August 1, 2018 issue to a single article called Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich. I think the article must have caused a bit of a sensation because Rich has extended it into a book, Losing Earth: A Recent History, published in April of this year.
Losing Earth describes the efforts of scientists, environmental activists, and politicians during the decade from 1979 to 1989 to push the United States government into taking concrete actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Two of the main characters in the book, you could call them heroes, are Rafe Pomerance, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth from 1980 to 1984, and James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York from 1981 to 2013. Together with others, they attempted to get the US to commit to specific targets on reducing carbon emissions.
Back in the mid-1980’s, there was quite a bit of optimism among environmentalists. A United Nations agreement, known as the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, was signed in 1985, quickly followed in 1987 by the Montreal Protocol which prescribed targets for phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Today, the Montreal Protocol is widely seen as one of the most successful international agreements ever implemented.
Activists thought the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons might serve as model for international cooperation on carbon dioxide.
It didn’t happen. The Reagan Administration refused to sign on.
In retrospect, perhaps ozone was too easy. Though the industry resisted change, the number of companies directly involved was relatively small. Phasing out chlorofluorocarbons did not affect the daily lives of average Americans, let alone demand sacrifices from them. And the idea of a growing “hole” in the ozone layer above the Antarctic was both a compelling image and a concrete target that focused attention and drove action.
Carbon dioxide is a far more pervasive and complex problem.
Losing Earth lays out the people and events that led to this lost opportunity. It tells how the US blew a chance to take concrete action on climate change thirty years ago when the problem was more manageable and when significant progress might have been achieved with less cost than today. It describes how the oil and coal industries have spent tens of millions of dollars over decades successfully resisting any government efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
It’s a depressing book.
Unfortunately, it’s also disappointing.
First, the book was clearly rushed into print. It has no index. Call me pedantic if you like, but non-fiction books should always have an index. Always. It’s not that hard. Any word processor will create one for you in seconds. Not having an index is inexcusable.
There’s no bibliography either. Rich mentions several important government reports about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change but does not give proper citations. I’ve provided a couple of links below.
There isn’t a single graph or chart in the book. Rich mentions something called the Keeling Graph, or the Keeling Curve several times – I can’t tell you exactly where because the book has no index! – but it’s pretty important. It tracks atmospheric carbon dioxide in parts per million (ppm) over decades. There’s no reproduction of it in the book.
Here’s the graph from May 10, 2019.
You can find it here: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/. (There’s apparently nothing magic about the 400 ppm level shown by the green line, but the last time Earth had CO2 levels that high was millions of years ago.)
The publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux usually produces high quality books by top authors. They’ve done a poor job with this one.
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with Losing Earth as a piece of journalism. Rich tells the story with detailed accounts of the actions and interactions of the people most directly involved. He gives you a sense of how incredibly difficult it is to shift US government policy, of people spending years, risking their careers and reputations to fight for what they knew was right.
However, the book is mostly narrative. Except for the last chapter, there’s not much analysis of the events or the politics. Rich doesn’t delve deeply into why the efforts failed back then – other than pointing the finger at fossil fuel companies and certain intransigent government officials – and why they continue to fail today.
As a result, Losing Earth presents some important history of failed attempts to get the US to deal with climate change, but it does little to draw out concrete lessons that we can learn from those failures and it does not suggest a way forward. As the title suggests, Losing Earth is more an epitaph than a cautionary tale.
I, for one, reject that conclusion.
As Rich himself notes,
“A major difference, four decades later, is that a solution is in hand; many solutions, in fact. They tend to involve some combination of carbon taxes, renewable energy investment, expansion of nuclear energy, reforestation, improved agricultural techniques, and more speculatively, machines capable of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.” [p. 201]
If those solutions had existed back in the 1980’s we might have made more progress. Without them, we would have no hope of making progress today. Difficult choices and wrenching changes lie ahead if we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But there is a way forward. It’s too early to say the Earth is lost.
Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate, a.k.a. the Jason Report (1979)
Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, a.k.a. the Charney Report (1979)