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The will to act when the data are dire

Losing Earth: A Recent History

Nathaniel Rich
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2019
224 pp.
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In the face of a dire planetary prognosis, American politicians in the 1980s faced a simple question: Act now, or wait and see? These are the same options available to anyone presented with an uncertain future, whether rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a cyst that might turn cancerous, or scattered cases of an infectious disease that could explode into a pandemic. Losing Earth focuses on the first of these, but as I read the book—under a stay-at-home order in New Jersey owing to the spread of coronavirus disease 2019—Nathaniel Rich’s frustration resonated with my own. Why, he asks, did American politicians fail to act when scientists agreed that there was a real and present danger?

In 1951, environmentalist Rachel Carson had noted that the growing season in the subarctic regions was longer, growth rings on trees were fatter, and cod were migrating farther north. “The long trend is toward a warmer earth,” she wrote (1).

In 1975, anthropologist Margaret Mead convened a symposium calling attention to the endangered atmosphere. Arguing that the issue would need to be addressed on a planetary scale, she called for more research, especially scientific models of the likely future that could guide action in the present.

Rich observes that by 1979, scientists had assembled the essential pieces of the climate warming puzzle. By the end of the next decade, evidence regarding the future of the planet was incontrovertible: Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were causing the planet to warm. Models warned of a litany of dangers: rising sea levels, the abandonment of coastal cities, widespread droughts, and shifting agricultural belts. These issues, Rich notes, were understood to be environmental in nature and political in impact.

The book’s two main characters—Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen—move through its pages like characters from a Frederick Forsyth novel: cool, competent, unfussy, and at odds with a world that underappreciates their hard-won expertise. Pomerance was “not a scientist” but a stooping six-foot-four environmental policy analyst with horn-rimmed glasses and a mustache. Hansen had majored in math and physics but dreamed of baseball. He helped create computer models of carbon circulation on a planetary scale and worked with Jule Charney to produce a report that predicted that the planet would warm by 3°C in the next century (2). Pomerance scrutinized the evidence, read between the lines, and started calling politicians.

They might have succeeded in convincing those in power of the need to curb the world’s fossil fuel dependency were it not for President Ronald Reagan’s investment in fossil fuels and unrelenting war on environmentalism throughout the 1980s, followed by President George H. W. Bush’s 1989 appointment of John Sununu as White House Chief of Staff. If Pomerance and Hansen are the book’s heroes, Sununu is the archvillain.

Ever since Mead’s 1975 conference, Rich posits, Sununu had interpreted claims of global warming as an excuse to bridle economic progress and enact authoritarian global solutions to a problem whose existence he doubted. Pomerance and Hansen could not convince Sununu otherwise, and when given the opportunity to steer the country’s policy away from reckoning with climate change, Sununu took it. (He remains skeptical of global warming to this day.)

Rich’s tight focus on the lives of a handful of men allows him to frame science and politics as mirror worlds—Hansen and Pomerance never quite grokking the power dynamics of politics, and Sununu handily rejecting the logic of science. More broadly, Rich suggests that many Americans found it difficult to appreciate the connection between actions in the present and long-term effects, the lag between cause and effect exacerbated by our species’s tolerance for self-delusion.

Rich’s description of the politicians’ inaction when presented with robust scientific evidence now feels prescient. Yet from the perspective of a world beset by the social, political, and health impacts of a novel coronavirus, I found myself searching the book for the key relations that characterize the causal space between personal choices and a cultural zeitgeist. It was not until the epilogue that Rich turned his attention to the powerful dynamics of funding in science, attempts of the fossil fuel industry to manipulate the optics of knowledge for a broader public, and the disproportionate effects of climate change according to demographics and geography.

References and Notes
1. R. Carson, The Sea Around Us (Oxford Univ. Press, 1951).
2. National Research Council, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment (The National Academies Press, 1979); https://doi.org/10.17226/12181.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.