1/8 Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

Editor’s Note

This narrative by Nathaniel Rich is a work of history, addressing the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989: the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos, all shot over the past year by George Steinmetz. With support from the Pulitzer Center, this two-part article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe. It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it. Jake Silverstein


The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because in the decade that ran 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 — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect” — a metaphor dating to the early 1900s — was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Why didn’t we act? A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. An entire subfield of climate literature has chronicled the machinations of industry lobbyists, the corruption of scientists and the propaganda campaigns that even now continue to debase the political debate, long after the largest oil-and-gas companies have abandoned the dumb show of denialism. But the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. During the preceding decade, 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.

Nor can the Republican Party be blamed. Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that “most scientists believe global warming is occurring,” and that percentage is falling. But during the 1980s, many prominent Republicans joined Democrats in judging the climate problem to be a rare political winner: nonpartisan and of the highest possible stakes. Among those who called for urgent, immediate and far-reaching climate policy were Senators John Chafee, Robert Stafford and David Durenberger; the E.P.A. administrator, William K. Reilly; and, during his campaign for president, George H.W. Bush. As Malcolm Forbes Baldwin, the acting chairman of the president’s Council for Environmental Quality, told industry executives in 1981, “There can be no more important or conservative concern than the protection of the globe itself.” The issue was unimpeachable, like support for veterans or small business. Except the climate had an even broader constituency, composed of every human being on Earth.

It was understood that action would have to come immediately. At the start of the 1980s, scientists within the federal government predicted that conclusive evidence of warming would appear on the global temperature record by the end of the decade, at which point it would be too late to avoid disaster. More than 30 percent of the human population lacked access to electricity. Billions of people would not need to attain the “American way of life” in order to drastically increase global carbon emissions; a light bulb in every village would do it. A report prepared at the request of the White House by the National Academy of Sciences advised that “the carbon-dioxide issue should appear on the international agenda in a context that will maximize cooperation and consensus-building and minimize political manipulation, controversy and division.” If the world had adopted the proposal widely endorsed at the end of the ’80s — a freezing of carbon emissions, with a reduction of 20 percent by 2005 — warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees.

A broad international consensus had settled on a solution: a global treaty to curb carbon emissions. The idea began to coalesce as early as February 1979, at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva, when scientists from 50 nations agreed unanimously that it was “urgently necessary” to act. Four months later, at the Group of 7 meeting in Tokyo, the leaders of the world’s seven wealthiest nations signed a statement resolving to reduce carbon emissions. Ten years later, the first major diplomatic meeting to approve the framework for a binding treaty was called in the Netherlands. Delegates from more than 60 nations attended, with the goal of establishing a global summit meeting to be held about a year later. Among scientists and world leaders, the sentiment was unanimous: Action had to be taken, and the United States would need to lead. It didn’t.

The inaugural chapter of the climate-change saga is over. In that chapter — call it Apprehension — we identified the threat and its consequences. We spoke, with increasing urgency and self-delusion, of the prospect of triumphing against long odds. But we did not seriously consider the prospect of failure. We understood what failure would mean for global temperatures, coastlines, agricultural yield, immigration patterns, the world economy. But we have not allowed ourselves to comprehend what failure might mean for us. How will it change the way we see ourselves, how we remember the past, how we imagine the future? Why did we do this to ourselves? These questions will be the subject of climate change’s second chapter — call it The Reckoning. There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.

That we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels can be credited to the efforts of a handful of people, among them a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist who, at great personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming. They risked their careers in a painful, escalating campaign to solve the problem, first in scientific reports, later through conventional avenues of political persuasion and finally with a strategy of public shaming. Their efforts were shrewd, passionate, robust. And they failed. What follows is their story, and ours.

Part One 1979–1982

Rafe Pomerance in 1983. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

1.‘This Is the Whole Banana’ Spring 1979

The first suggestion to Rafe Pomerance that humankind was destroying the conditions necessary for its own survival came on Page 66 of the government publication EPA-600/7-78-019. It was a technical report about coal, bound in a coal-black cover with beige lettering — one of many such reports that lay in uneven piles around Pomerance’s windowless office on the first floor of the Capitol Hill townhouse that, in the late 1970s, served as the Washington headquarters of Friends of the Earth. In the final paragraph of a chapter on environmental regulation, the coal report’s authors noted that the continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the global atmosphere.

Pomerance paused, startled, over the orphaned paragraph. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. He reread it. It made no sense to him. Pomerance was not a scientist; he graduated from Cornell 11 years earlier with a degree in history. He had the tweedy appearance of an undernourished doctoral student emerging at dawn from the stacks. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a thickish mustache that wilted disapprovingly over the corners of his mouth, though his defining characteristic was his gratuitous height, 6 feet 4 inches, which seemed to embarrass him; he stooped over to accommodate his interlocutors. He had an active face prone to breaking out in wide, even maniacal grins, but in composure, as when he read the coal pamphlet, it projected concern. He struggled with technical reports. He proceeded as a historian might: cautiously, scrutinizing the source material, reading between the lines. When that failed, he made phone calls, often to the authors of the reports, who tended to be surprised to hear from him. Scientists, he had found, were not in the habit of fielding questions from political lobbyists. They were not in the habit of thinking about politics.

The reporting and photography for this project were supported by a major grant from the Pulitzer Center, which has also created lesson plans to bring the climate issue to students everywhere.

Pomerance had one big question about the coal report. If the burning of coal, oil and natural gas could invite global catastrophe, why had nobody told him about it? If anyone in Washington — if anyone in the United States — should have been aware of such a danger, it was Pomerance. As the deputy legislative director of Friends of the Earth, the wily, pugnacious nonprofit that David Brower helped found after resigning from the Sierra Club a decade earlier, Pomerance was one of the nation’s most connected environmental activists. That he was as easily accepted in the halls of the Dirksen Senate Office Building as at Earth Day rallies might have had something to do with the fact that he was a Morgenthau — the great-grandson of Henry Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; great-nephew of Henry Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary; second cousin to Robert, district attorney for Manhattan. Or perhaps it was just his charisma — voluble, energetic and obsessive, he seemed to be everywhere, speaking with everyone, in a very loud voice, at once. His chief obsession was air. After working as an organizer for welfare rights, he spent the second half of his 20s laboring to protect and expand the Clean Air Act, the comprehensive law regulating air pollution. That led him to the problem of acid rain, and the coal report.

He showed the unsettling paragraph to his office mate, Betsy Agle. Had she ever heard of the “greenhouse effect”? Was it really possible that human beings were overheating the planet?

Agle shrugged. She hadn’t heard about it, either.

That might have been the end of it, had Agle not greeted Pomerance in the office a few mornings later holding a copy of a newspaper forwarded by Friends of the Earth’s Denver office. Isn’t this what you were talking about the other day? she asked.

Agle pointed to an article about a prominent geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald, who was conducting a study on climate change with the Jasons, the mysterious coterie of elite scientists to which he belonged. Pomerance hadn’t heard of MacDonald, but he knew all about the Jasons. They were like one of those teams of superheroes with complementary powers that join forces in times of galactic crisis. They had been brought together by federal agencies, including the C.I.A, to devise scientific solutions to national-security problems: how to detect an incoming missile; how to predict fallout from a nuclear bomb; how to develop unconventional weapons, like plague-infested rats. The Jasons’ activities had been a secret until the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed their plan to festoon the Ho Chi Minh Trail with motion sensors that signaled to bombers. After the furor that followed — protesters set MacDonald’s garage on fire — the Jasons began to use their powers for peace instead of war.

There was an urgent problem that demanded their attention, MacDonald believed, because human civilization faced an existential crisis. In “How to Wreck the Environment,” a 1968 essay published while he was a science adviser to Lyndon Johnson, MacDonald predicted a near future in which “nuclear weapons were effectively banned and the weapons of mass destruction were those of environmental catastrophe.” One of the most potentially devastating such weapons, he believed, was the gas that we exhaled with every breath: carbon dioxide. By vastly increasing carbon emissions, the world’s most advanced militaries could alter weather patterns and wreak famine, drought and economic collapse.

In the decade since then, MacDonald had been alarmed to see humankind begin in earnest to weaponize weather — not out of malice, but unwittingly. During the spring of 1977 and the summer of 1978, the Jasons met to determine what would happen once the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled from pre-Industrial Revolution levels. It was an arbitrary milestone, the doubling, but a useful one, as its inevitability was not in question; the threshold would most likely be breached by 2035. The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,” was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings: Global temperatures would increase by an average of two to three degrees Celsius; Dust Bowl conditions would “threaten large areas of North America, Asia and Africa”; access to drinking water and agricultural production would fall, triggering mass migration on an unprecedented scale. “Perhaps the most ominous feature,” however, was the effect of a changing climate on the poles. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.

The Jasons sent the report to dozens of scientists in the United States and abroad; to industry groups like the National Coal Association and the Electric Power Research Institute; and within the government, to the National Academy of Sciences, the Commerce Department, the E.P.A., NASA, the Pentagon, the N.S.A., every branch of the military, the National Security Council and the White House.

Pomerance read about the atmospheric crisis in a state of shock that swelled briskly into outrage. “This,” he told Betsy Agle, “is the whole banana.”

Gordon MacDonald worked at the federally funded Mitre Corporation, a think tank that works with agencies throughout the government. His title was senior research analyst, which was another way of saying senior science adviser to the national-intelligence community. After a single phone call, Pomerance, a former Vietnam War protester and conscientious objector, drove several miles on the Beltway to a group of anonymous white office buildings that more closely resembled the headquarters of a regional banking firm than the solar plexus of the American military-industrial complex. He was shown into the office of a brawny, soft-spoken man in blocky, horn-rimmed frames, who extended a hand like a bear’s paw.

“I’m glad you’re interested in this,” MacDonald said, sizing up the young activist.

“How could I not be?” Pomerance said. “How could anyone not be?”

MacDonald explained that he first studied the carbon-dioxide issue when he was about Pomerance’s age — in 1961, when he served as an adviser to John F. Kennedy. Pomerance pieced together that MacDonald, in his youth, had been something of a prodigy: In his 20s, he advised Dwight D. Eisenhower on space exploration; at 32, he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences; at 40, he was appointed to the inaugural Council on Environmental Quality, where he advised Richard Nixon on the environmental dangers of burning coal. He monitored the carbon-dioxide problem the whole time, with increasing alarm.

MacDonald spoke for two hours. Pomerance was appalled. “If I set up briefings with some people on the Hill,” he asked MacDonald, “will you tell them what you just told me?”

Thus began the Gordon and Rafe carbon-dioxide roadshow. Beginning in the spring of 1979, Pomerance arranged informal briefings with the E.P.A., the National Security Council, The New York Times, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Energy Department, which, Pomerance learned, had established an Office of Carbon Dioxide Effects two years earlier at MacDonald’s urging. The men settled into a routine, with MacDonald explaining the science and Pomerance adding the exclamation points. They were surprised to learn how few senior officials were familiar with the Jasons’ findings, let alone understood the ramifications of global warming. At last, having worked their way up the federal hierarchy, the two went to see the president’s top scientist, Frank Press.

Press’s office was in the Old Executive Office Building, the granite fortress that stands on the White House grounds just paces away from the West Wing. Out of respect for MacDonald, Press had summoned to their meeting what seemed to be the entire senior staff of the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy — the officials consulted on every critical matter of energy and national security. What Pomerance had expected to be yet another casual briefing assumed the character of a high-level national-security meeting. He decided to let MacDonald do all the talking. There was no need to emphasize to Press and his lieutenants that this was an issue of profound national significance. The hushed mood in the office told him that this was already understood.

To explain what the carbon-dioxide problem meant for the future, MacDonald would begin his presentation by going back more than a century to John Tyndall — an Irish physicist who was an early champion of Charles Darwin’s work and died after being accidentally poisoned by his wife. In 1859, Tyndall found that carbon dioxide absorbed heat and that variations in the composition of the atmosphere could create changes in climate. These findings inspired Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the combustion of coal and petroleum could raise global temperatures. This warming would become noticeable in a few centuries, Arrhenius calculated, or sooner if consumption of fossil fuels continued to increase.

Consumption increased beyond anything the Swedish chemist could have imagined. Four decades later, a British steam engineer named Guy Stewart Callendar discovered that, at the weather stations he observed, the previous five years were the hottest in recorded history. Humankind, he wrote in a paper, had become “able to speed up the processes of Nature.” That was in 1939.

MacDonald’s voice was calm but authoritative, his powerful, heavy hands conveying the force of his argument. He was a geophysicist trapped in the body of an offensive lineman — he had turned down a football scholarship to Rice in order to attend Harvard — and seemed miscast as a preacher of atmospheric physics and existential doom. His audience listened in bowed silence. Pomerance couldn’t read them. Political bureaucrats were skilled at hiding their opinions. Pomerance wasn’t. He shifted restlessly in his chair, glancing between MacDonald and the government suits, trying to see whether they grasped the shape of the behemoth that MacDonald was describing.

MacDonald’s history concluded with Roger Revelle, perhaps the most distinguished of the priestly caste of government scientists who, since the Manhattan Project, advised every president on major policy; he had been a close colleague of MacDonald and Press since they served together under Kennedy. In a 1957 paper written with Hans Suess, Revelle concluded that “human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” Revelle helped the Weather Bureau establish a continuous measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide at a site perched near the summit of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, 11,500 feet above the sea — a rare pristine natural laboratory on a planet blanketed by fossil-fuel emissions. A young geochemist named Charles David Keeling charted the data. Keeling’s graph came to be known as the Keeling curve, though it more closely resembled a jagged lightning bolt hurled toward the firmament. MacDonald had a habit of tracing the Keeling curve in the air, his thick forefinger jabbing toward the ceiling.

Charles David Keeling with the Keeling curve. From Special Collections & Archives, U.C. San Diego Library

After nearly a decade of observation, Revelle had shared his concerns with Lyndon Johnson, who included them in a special message to Congress two weeks after his inauguration. Johnson explained that his generation had “altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale” through the burning of fossil fuels, and his administration commissioned a study of the subject by his Science Advisory Committee. Revelle was its chairman, and its 1965 executive report on carbon dioxide warned of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters — changes that would require no less than a coordinated global effort to forestall.

In 1974, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on the carbon-dioxide problem. It concluded that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.” Yet emissions continued to rise, and at this rate, MacDonald warned, they could see a snowless New England, the swamping of major coastal cities, as much as a 40 percent decline in national wheat production, the forced migration of about one-quarter of the world’s population. Not within centuries — within their own lifetimes.

“What would you have us do?” Press asked.

The president’s plan, in the wake of the Saudi oil crisis, to promote solar energy — he had gone so far as to install 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House to heat his family’s water — was a good start, MacDonald thought. But Jimmy Carter’s plan to stimulate production of synthetic fuels — gas and liquid fuel extracted from shale and tar sands — was a dangerous idea. Nuclear power, despite the recent tragedy at Three Mile Island, should be expanded. But even natural gas and ethanol were preferable to coal. There was no way around it: Coal production would ultimately have to end.

The president’s advisers asked respectful questions, but Pomerance couldn’t tell whether they were persuaded. The men all stood and shook hands, and Press led MacDonald and Pomerance out of his office. After they emerged from the Old Executive Office Building onto Pennsylvania Avenue, Pomerance asked MacDonald what he thought would happen.

Knowing Frank as I do, MacDonald said, I really couldn’t tell you.

In the days that followed, Pomerance grew uneasy. Until this point, he had fixated on the science of the carbon-dioxide issue and its possible political ramifications. But now that his meetings on Capitol Hill had concluded, he began to question what all this might mean for his own future. His wife, Lenore, was eight months pregnant; was it ethical, he wondered, to bring a child onto a planet that before much longer could become inhospitable to life? And he wondered why it had fallen to him, a 32-year-old lobbyist without scientific training, to bring greater attention to this crisis.

Finally, weeks later, MacDonald called to tell him that Press had taken up the issue. On May 22, Press wrote a letter to the president of the National Academy of Sciences requesting a full assessment of the carbon-dioxide issue. Jule Charney, the father of modern meteorology, would gather the nation’s top oceanographers, atmospheric scientists and climate modelers to judge whether MacDonald’s alarm was justified — whether the world was, in fact, headed to cataclysm.

Pomerance was amazed by how much momentum had built in such a short time. Scientists at the highest levels of government had known about the dangers of fossil-fuel combustion for decades. Yet they had produced little besides journal articles, academic symposiums, technical reports. Nor had any politician, journalist or activist championed the issue. That, Pomerance figured, was about to change. If Charney’s group confirmed that the world was careering toward an existential crisis, the president would be forced to act.

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