Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Nathaniel Rich's Losing Earth

This is a quick read outlining the history of the efforts to do something to slow down fossil fuel use. Everything we know now about climate change, pretty much, we knew with great certainty forty years ago, in 1979. "The climate scientist James Hansen has called a 2-degree warming 'a prescription for long-term disaster. Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. A 3-degree warming, on the other hand, is a prescription for short-term disaster" (4). 5 degrees will bring the fall of human civilization. "The Red Cross estimates that already more refugees flee environmental crises than violent conflict" (4). We had a great chance to fix it all between 1979 and 1989, but we didn't take it.


"The common explanation today concerns the depredations of the fossil fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain which comic-book bravado" (6). But the fossil fuel industry was actually on board for a time. There are a whole lot of names and dates to keep straight below (I bolded the important ones), and the book, curiously, has NO index or footnotes! Rich wrote it as a compelling story, but I digest it better chronologically:

Part I: Shouts in the Street: 1856-1978 and 1979-1982

ETA: 1856 - Not in the book: Eunice Foote, a physicist from Seneca Falls, N.Y., shared a paper called "Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun's rays" at an Advancement of Science annual meeting, demonstrating the interactions of the sun's rays on different gases. She came to the same conclusions as Tyndall and three years earlier.

1859 - John Tyndall "hit upon the greenhouse effect's fundamental corollary: because carbon dioxide molecules absorbed heat, variations in its atmospheric concentration could create changes in climate. This finding inspired Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the combustion of coal and petroleum for the mass production of energy could raise global temperatures" (21-22).

1939 - Guy Stewart Callendar "discovered that, at the weather stations he observed, the previous five years were the hottest in recorded history" (22).

1956 - Time published a profile of scientist Roger Revelle questioning whether "man's factory chimneys and auto exhausts will eventually cause salt water to flow in the streets of New York." Life published an essay about the "long-term change in world climate' that was already raising global temperature" (190). People were talking about this in the mainstream way back then!

1957 - Scientists from Humble Oil (later Exxon), studied carbon dioxide levels, and "the notion that burning fossil fuels had increased the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere went unquestioned by Humble's scientists" (48). In the same year, Roger Revelle and Hans Seuss wrote: "Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be repeated in the future" (23). and Charles David Keeling, a geochemist, charted the data. This became known as the Keeling Curve:

1958 - "The Bell Science Hour, one of the most popular educational film series in American history, aired in prime time the Unchained Goddess, a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra (190). It explains how it all works. Here it is in full, but the climate change bit is at the very end, starting at 50 minutes in:

1963 - James Hansen, a NASA scientist, figured out that Venus's surface is hot because "the planet's atmosphere was mainly carbon dioxide" (30). He used "giant new supercomputers to map the planet's atmosphere. With software programs they would create Mirror Worlds: parallel realities that mimicked our own . . . that could be sped forward to reveal the future" (31) to make predictions.

1965 - Revelle told Lyndon Johnson of the danger of GHGs, and they commissioned a study which warned about "changes that could be 'not controllable through local or even national efforts. Nothing less than a coordinated global effort would be required. Yet no such effort materialized, and emissions continued to rise" (23).

1968 - Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, and science adviser to the national intelligence community, wrote "How to Wreck the Environment" in which he predicted that "the weapons of mass destruction were those of environmental catastrophe. . . . By accelerating industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, they could alter weather patterns, forcing mass migration, starvation, drought, and economic collapse. In the decade following, MacDonald had grown alarmed to see humankind accelerate its pursuit of this particular weapon of mass destruction, not maliciously, but unwittingly" (16-17). He advised Nixon on the dangers of burning coal (19).

1969 - The effect that the photos of the Earth taken from the moon landing had on the world, and the subsequent origins of Earth Day in 1970, weren't mentioned in the book, but here they are anyway.

1972 - The National Petroleum Council wrote a report for the Department of the Interior explaining that "climate changes would probably not be apparent 'until at least the turn of the century'" (49), which was in less than thirty years. Check out the groovy cover page:

1975 - Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, convened a global warming symposium at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where she said,
"We are facing a period when society must make decisions on a planetary scale. . . . Unless the peoples of the world can begin to understand the immense and long-term consequences of what appear to be small immediate choices, the whole planet may become endangered" (41). "Never before have the governing bodies of the world been faced with decisions so far-reaching. It is inevitable that there will be a clash between those concerned with immediate problems and those who concern themselves with long-term consequences" (152).
1976 - Also not mentioned in the book: My grade 6 teacher, Ms. McKinley, told us that the earth was warming and just one degree would have a big impact, so we should turn the heat down and make sure to turn off lights when we're not using them. This knowledge was mainstream.

1977 - A report commissioned by the Energy Research and Development Administration warned about climate change leading to a host of disasters, but "it categorized the best available remedy--a transition to renewable energy--as far-fetched" (41).

1978 - Rafe Pomerance director of Friends of the Earth, read an EPA report on coal that first alerted him to human driven climate change: "fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about 'significant and damaging' changes to the global atmosphere" (12). Pomerance was well-connected in Washington. He knew about a secret group of scientists, called the Jasons, who were convened by the US intelligence apparatus to develop scientific solutions to national security issues. They were "united by the conviction, shared by their federal clients, that American power should be guided by the wisdom of its superior scientific minds" (16). Pomerance get them looking at the data.

Pomerance and Gordon MacDonald started working together and spoke with President Carter's top scientist, Frank Press about solutions, but Press "concluded that the present state of knowledge did not justify taking action in the near term" (21). Jimmy Carter "proposed that Congress enact a 'national solar strategy' anyway and installed thirty-two solar panels on the roof of the White House" (24). At the same time, however, "President Carter's initiative to develop high-carbon synthetic fuels--gas and liquid fuel extracted from shale and tar sands--was a frightening blunder" (17).

The same year, Exxon circulated an internal memo warning that "humanity had only five to ten years before 'hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical" (50).

I'm sure this forecast of doom wasn't helped by being, in the minds of the masses, mixed in with so many previous apocalyptic predictions based on superstitions or numerology and the like. Also, since the 30 year prediction was repeated over and over, it give a sense of never actually coming to fruition.

1979 was a big year:

Frank Press got Jule Charney, a meteorologists, to "gather the nation's top oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, and climate modellers. They would judge whether MacDonald's alarm was justified. . . . If Charney's elite group confirmed that human civilization was hastening its own extinction, the president would be forced to act" (25).

There were discrepancies in the projections however. Akio Arakawa, a pioneer of computer modeling, said it was due to differing expectations about what happens when snow melts and no longer reflects the sun, "Which meant that the Jasons' calculation was too optimistic. When carbon dioxide doubled in 2035 or thereabouts, global temperatures would increase between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, with the most likely outcome falling in the middle: a warming of 3 degrees. The Charney report that summarized and explained this was "immediately assumed the authority of settled fact. . . . The last time the world was 3 degrees warmer was during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were eighty feet higher, and wild horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean" (36). This is just fifteen years from now.

The Fatalists were a group of intellectuals debating climate change (although I can't find anything else written about them): They questioned, not if climate change is real, but whether or not human beings would be willing to prevent a climate catastrophe: "Was the prospect of a global food shortage one century hence enough to motivate a person to commute to work by public bus? . . . How much value did we assign to the future?" (42). They attended summits, but nobody listened to them.

William Nordhaus, a member of Carter's Council of Economic Advisers, "had become so alarmed by the problem that he developed a new economic model to deal with it" (42). He estimated that five meters of sea level rise would imperil 6% of the nation's real estate wealth, on top of agricultural declines, conflicts, and other major upheavals. "If human behavior couldn't be improved, perhaps the market could. His remedy was to make nations pay the true cost of carbon by levying a tax on emissions. By his calculations, the price came out to ten dollars a ton" (43). but it would require a global tax collector and international treaty.

The same year, Michael Glantz, a political scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, wrote in Nature, that politicians either take a "crisis management" approach or a "muddling through" approach. With longterm issues, a mudding through approach is less immediately costly to politicians who are most often gone in just a few years.

Exxon created its own carbon dioxide research program with an annual budget of $600,000, but they became concerned only with how much of warming could be blamed on them (47).

Then in 1980...

April - Senator Paul Tsongas, held the first congressional hearing on carbon dioxide buildup. Gordon MacDonald testified that the U.S. should "take the initiative and develop, through the United Nations, a way to coordinate every nation's energy policies to address the problem" (51).

June - Carter signed the Energy Security Act, directing the National Academy of Science to start a multiyear study, called Changing Climate. Henry Shaw was invited to help develop climate legislation. "A 1980 report prepared at the request of the White House by the National Academy of Sciences proposed that 'the carbon dioxide issue should appear on the international agenda in a context that will maximize cooperation and consensus-building. . . . A decade later . . . the sentiment was unanimous: action had to be taken, and the United States would need to lead. It didn't" (8).

July - At the Revelle Hearing, Al Gore wanted a higher degree of certainty "to convince a majority of Congress to restrict the use of fossil fuels" (75). Revelle was concerned that the urgency of the issue was lost on people. Hansen said the only question that matters is, "How long until the worst began?" (76)

October - Rafe Pomerance and two dozen other experts and/or political figures got together to develop policy around climate change. It was clear we needed an international treaty that changes how we are able to burn thing, like coal, except China, the Soviet Unions, and the US were accelerating extraction. The problem isn't the atmosphere, but "the political problem of the inertia of the economic and political system" (56). The science supported an extreme measure, but that would be unlikely to meet with political agreement. They tried to think in terms of solutions around new technologies like solar development instead.

One of the problems was (and is) that, "Political appointees confused uncertainty around the margins of the issue (whether warming would be 3 or 4 degrees Celsius in fifty or seventy-five years) for uncertainty about the severity of the problem. . .. I have notice that very often when we as scientists are cautious in our statements, everybody else misses the point, because they don't understand our qualifications" (60). The group couldn't draft a single paragraph in agreement (62).

November - Ronald Reagan was elected. He closed the Energy Department, increased coal production, deregulated surface coal mining, and appointed an anti-regulation zealot to the EPA. Carter had already cut NASA's budget.

1981 - James Hansen wrote a NASA paper stating that the world is already warming, cautioning that  "fossil fuels should be used only as necessary" (69).  Pomerance met with Hansen at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

1982  - Dan Rather mentioned the greenhouse effect on the news. Edward David Jr., the president of Exxon research, supported Hansen and gave a speech to climate scientists that attacked capitalism's free market and explained the need for a 50-year window to transition to renewable energy

Part II: Bad Science Fiction - 1983-1988

The Charney report had "done nothing to change the state of climate science but had transformed the state of climate politics" (88). The EPA published its own assessment, Can We Delay a Greenhouse Warming? which "could be reduced to a word: nope" (89). Under Reagan, nothing could be done until the Nation Academy of Sciences completed an analysis of the problem. In the press interview of the big reveal in 1983, lead author William Nierenberg argued that "there was no urgent need for action" despite what he had written in his report. He recommended, publicly, "'caution, not panic.' It was a serious problem, granted, but 'if it goes the way we think, it will be manageable in the next hundred or so years.' Better to wait and see" (91).
"The greatest blow, however, came from the New York Times, which published its most prominent piece on global warming to date under the headline "Haste of Global Warming Trend Is Opposed" . . . reason to discount the EPA's 'unwarranted' report and warned against taking any 'near-term corrective action.' . . . 'There are no actions recommended other than continued research'" (94). 
Pomerance decided "It was ridiculous to wait for scientists to demand action. They already agreed on the basic facts, after all. Why not place the burden on the energy industries? Ask them to prove that burning fossil fuels was benign" (96). He spoke at a hearing with a clear proposal of what needs to happen, then shortly after, resigned from Friends of the Earth: "How do you stage a protest when the toxic waste dump was the entire planet or, worse, its invisible atmosphere?" (98).

Then, in 1985, the ozone layer was noticeably thinning. This issue had an immediacy to it that climate change lacked: "nobody was worried about CFCs because of their warming potential. They were worried about going blind. . . . Reagan proposed a reduction in CFC emissions of 95%" (103). It had a speedy solution with an international treaty already in negotiation. "Why not hitch the milk wagon to the bullet train?" (108). But, "it caused many casual observers to conflate the two crises" (110). "The ozone hole, Pomerance realized, alarmed the public because, though it was no more visible than global warming, ordinary people could be made to see it" (112).  Furthermore, and maybe more importantly, a major manufacturer of CFCs, "realized that it stood to profit from the transition to replacement chemicals and began placing full-page ads in the New York Times to announce its support for a phaseout" (116). If we want to stop fossil fuel extraction in a similar fashion, we need the giants to see the profits in renewables, but those profits will never be as high.

Then the White House demanded changes to Hansen's scientific findings before he testified in congress. "He told the administrator in NASA's legislative affairs office that he refused to make the changes. If that meant he couldn't testify, so be it" (117). So he testified as a private citizen instead. In 1987, Al Gore announced he was running for president, "in part to bring attention to global warming" (120). Then in May 1988, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev made a pledge to cooperate on global warming (120).

Part III: You Will See Things That You Shall Believe - 1988-1989

In the summer of 1988, Harvard closed due to the heat and New York City had a mosquito problem.  Hansen realized the problem with the climate change hearings is that they happened in November instead of the middle of summer. He testified, and they focused on a target: "20 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2000" (186).
"Of course, with any emissions target, you had to take into account the fact that the developing world, with its booming population growth, would inevitably ingest much larger quantities of fossil fuels by 2000. But those gains could be offset by a wider propagation of the renewable-technologies already at hand--solar, wind, geothermal" (137).   
At the end of the summer, after Al Gore suspended his candidacy, the environment became an election issue. "When Michael Dukakis proposed tax incentives to encourage domestic oil production and boasted that coal could satisfy the nation's energy needs for the next three centuries, George H.W. Bush took advantage. 'I am an environmentalist. . . . Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect, are forgetting about the White House effect" (139). By the end of 1988, 32 climate bills had been introduced in Congress.
"German parliament created a special commission on climate change, which called the Toronto goal inadequate and concluded that action had to be taken immediately, 'irrespective f any need for further research.' . . . It was at the moment--when the environmental movement was, in the words of one energy lobbyist, 'on a tear'--that the United Nations unanimously endorsed the establishment, by UNEP and the WMO, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to be composed of scientists and policymakers who would conduct scientific assessments and develop a global climate policy" (140). 
BUT then TerryYosie got in the picture. He was hired by the American Petroleum Institute to run its environment division. And Exxon "had begun to formulate its own strategy of bringing about a fragmented world . . . to 'emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect" (146).
"As Yosie saw it, three strategic options lay available to them. The first was a binding global treaty requiring strong intervention from governments. The second amounted to a shrug; Yosie quoted John Maynard Keynes's observation that 'in the long run we'll all be daed,' so why worry? The final position, which Yosie endorsed, echoed William Nierenberg's message five years earlier, after the publication of Changing Climate: proceed with caution, not panic, making sure that regulatory policy was applied gradually, in order to avoid any economic shocks. The best way to do this, argued Yosie, was to make the industry 'an active participant in the scientific and policy debate'" (148).
Hansen agreed to testify to congress in order to clear up some misunderstandings around the science. Instead he was censored. "He was asked to demand that Congress consider only climate legislation that would immediately benefit the economy, 'independent of concerns about an increasing greenhouse effect'--a sentence no scientist would ever utter" (166). Three days later, Thatcher called on world leaders to organize a global warming convention. John Sununu was clear, "I don't want anyone in this administration without a scientific background using 'climate change' or 'global warming' ever again. . . . Bush had brought up global warming on the campaign trail only after hunting through a briefing booklet for a new issue that might get him some positive press" (163-4). It wasn't really something he cared about. Some think Sununu's obstruction was critical. But, Rich asks, "Why was support for a climate remedy so shallow that all it took was a single naysayer within the Bush administration to unravel it?" (179).

Sununu responded: "It couldn't have happened because the leaders  in the world at that time were all looking to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources. That was the dirty little secret at the time.' The IPCC process, he believes, was a face-saving act of meaningless symbolism that could lead to nothing but false promises" (179).

Now anti-environmental lobbyists, often under environmental sounding names, like the Global Climate Coalition, have developed more power; the GCC spends a million a year "to crush public support for climate policy" (185). "Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world, and there is every reason to believe that both will be consumed by industry so long as it pays to do so" (189).

Rich ends with a warning,
"It is not yet widely understood, though it will be, that the politician who claims that climate change is uncertain betrays humanity in the same fashion as the politician who fabricates weapons of mass destruction in order to whip up support for a profiteering war. It is not yet widely understood, though it will be, that when a government relaxes regulations on coal-fired plants or erases scientific data from a federal website, it is guilty of more than merely bowing to corporate interests; it commits crimes against humanity. . . . Once it becomes possible to disregard the welfare of future generations, or those now vulnerable to flooding or drought or wildfire--once it becomes possible to abandon the constraints of human empathy--any monstrosity committed in the name of self-interest is permissible. . . . the denialists' greatest trick is to convince us that they are convinced" (195). 
Nearly every conversation that we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979. . . . we could not be counted on to save ourselves. . . . So 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, as we might spit out a poison" (200). 

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