Is our political vision as fickle and changing as a summer shower?
In the decade from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.
Some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.
So begins a long article published in the NY Times* tracing America’s valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to come to grips with Climate Change.
Environmental activists, scientists, politicians and even energy industrialists joined in the effort. US Republicans joined with Democrats. Presidents Carter, Johnson, and even Nixon got involved. And then, like Sisyphus’ stone, it all rolled back.
Nathaniel Rich tells the story largely through the experience of Rafe Pomerance, former Vietnam War protester and conscientious objector, now environmental activist, and for a while, deputy legislative director of Friends of the Earth. In the spring of 1979, Pomerance, alarmed by the problem of climate change (about which he had learned almost by chance), began to organize briefings on the subject with top US energy advisors.
Back in 1974, the C.I.A. had reported that climate change had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world” and that the future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.”
In July 1979, Jule Charney, “the father of modern meteorology”, produced a report, “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment.” It concluded that if CO2 emissions doubled, as appeared inevitable, the world would warm 3°C.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Energy Security Act. The National Academy of Sciences began a comprehensive study on the social and economic effects of climate change.
The National Commission on Air Quality called a meeting in Florida to propose climate policy. Legislation to restrict carbon combustion appeared inevitable. A carbon tax was considered. But when the group reconvened after breakfast to issue a statement, they became stuck on a sentence and never got to the second paragraph.
November 1980: Ronald Reagan is elected President. He sets about to reverse the environmental achievements of Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Even his fellow Republicans are alarmed.
August 1981: James Hansen and other NASA scientists predict unprecedented warming – soon! – and recommend that fossil fuels should be used only “as necessary.” Rafe Pomerance asked Hansen: “Are you willing to be a witness?” Hansen flew to Washington to testify. “We may already have in the pipeline a larger amount of climate change than people generally realize,” he said. “Within 10 or 20 years, we will see climate changes which are clearly larger than the natural variability.”
Meanwhile, Exxon had been spending conspicuously on global-warming research. It had already made heavy investments in nuclear and solar technology, and proposed to usher in a new global energy system to save the planet from the ravages of climate change.
The carbon-dioxide issue was beginning to receive major national attention.
Jimmy Carter had directed the National Academy of Sciences to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the carbon-dioxide problem. Its findings were announced in October 1983. But Reagan’s White House recommended “no actions other than continued research.” Exxon soon revised its position on climate-change research.
In June 23 1988, Hansen spoke before a Senate hearing. The warming trend could be detected “with 99 percent confidence,” he said. “It is changing our climate now.” A few days later, a World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, held in Toronto, called for a 20 % reduction in carbon emissions by 2005.
Public awareness of the greenhouse effect now reached a new high. President George Bush proudly called himself “an environmentalist. Margaret Thatcher warned that global warming could “greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope”. The coal industry moved from denial to resignation.
The summer 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history.
The UN created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to conduct scientific assessments and develop global climate policy. Secretary of State James Baker, addressing the IPCC, said “We can probably not afford to wait until all of the uncertainties about global climate change have been resolved.” A bipartisan group of senators requested that Bush cut emissions.
But John Sununu, Bush’s chief of staff, told Jim Baker: “Stay clear of this greenhouse-effect nonsense.” Baker didn’t speak about the subject again. The White House attempted to censor and distort Hansen’s next testimony.
In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of CO2. By 2017, the figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons, and continues its inexorable rise. And so do global temperatures and disastrous weather events.
And oil companies devote billions to finding new oil fields, even though we have far more oil than we could ever safely burn.
The indifference of the current US government to environmental issues is maddeningly well known.
But Nathan Rich suggests optimism.
We have a solution in hand: carbon taxes, increased investment in renewable and nuclear energy and decarbonization technology. … At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act.
And concludes, “It is also human nature, after all, to hope.”
*Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change (1979-1989) by Nathaniel Rich