Early Warnings

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat, Greenland, 2007
Tiina Itkonen
Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat, Greenland, 2007; photograph by Tiina Itkonen from her book Avannaa, published by Kehrer in 2014

Last summer, when The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to Nathaniel Rich’s essay “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” I resisted reading it. It was early August, and dozens of cities around the world had recently reported record-breaking high temperatures. A heat wave in Japan had killed sixty-five people during a single week, and hospitalized tens of thousands more; roads and rooftops were melting in the United Kingdom; in Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, temperatures had approached 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The real-time effects of climate change were—and are—all around us, and it is highly likely that they are going to get much worse. Must we also torture ourselves with reminders of missed opportunities?

Alas, yes. Rich’s Losing Earth: A Recent History—a slightly expanded version of his article—makes a strong case for the value of might-have-beens. In Rich’s telling, the story of climate politics between 1979 and 1989, both in the United States and internationally, is one of great possibility and almost total failure. While limiting the devastating effects of carbon emissions was more difficult to do during the 1980s than Rich suggests, he effectively excavates an era when alliances were unsettled, minds were far more open to change, and a determined, well-informed effort nevertheless came to naught.

Today, the most obvious enemy of meaningful action on climate change is the fossil fuel industry, which has emphasized the complexity of the Earth’s climate in order to divide the public and immobilize our politics. But in 1979, as Rich points out, the basic science of climate change was not considered especially complicated—or especially controversial. Many government scientists, and researchers at companies such as Exxon, understood and accepted that the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel combustion was radically transforming the atmosphere and heating up the planet. Scientists, after all, had been predicting this since 1896, when the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that a threefold increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would boost average surface temperatures in the Arctic by 8 to 9 degrees Celsius. Predicting the precise effects of climate change—exactly what will happen where and when—is complex because the global climate system is extremely complex. But for more than a century, the general consequences of loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide have been about as debatable as gravity.

In the spring of 1979, when a thirty-two-year-old Cornell graduate named Rafe Pomerance, then the deputy legislative director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, stumbled on a brief reference to climate change in a government report, it wasn’t difficult for him to grasp the implications. The report, an Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the future of…

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