Climate Change

6-7/8 Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

The Antarctic Peninsula, where about three million pairs of penguins breed, is one of the most quickly warming areas on the planet; its average temperature has increased by five degrees Fahrenheit over the past 75 years. Many scientists believe that this warming will endanger some penguin colonies in two ways: dwindling food and loss of nesting habitats. On the rocky shores of Deception Island, where the penguins breed, they need cold, dry land for their eggs to survive, but rising temperatures have introduced rain and pools of water to nesting sites. And because of the rapid loss of sea ice, krill — the tiny crustaceans that serve as penguins’ main source of food — can’t sustain the large colonies they need to thrive. The penguin population of Baily Head, in the northern part of Antarctica, seems to have dropped from 85,000 breeding pairs in 2003 to 52,000 seven years later, a decline of almost 40 percent. Scientists fear that as warm water shifts farther south along other coastal regions, larger populations of penguins could face a similar decline. Photographs by George Steinmetz for The New York Times.

6.‘Otherwise, They’ll Gurgle’ November 1980-September 1981

The meeting ended Friday morning. On Tuesday, four days later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. And Rafe Pomerance soon found himself wondering whether what had seemed to have been a beginning had actually been the end.

After the election, Reagan considered plans to close the Energy Department, increase coal production on federal land and deregulate surface coal mining. Once in office, he appointed James Watt, the president of a legal firm that fought to open public lands to mining and drilling, to run the Interior Department. “We’re deliriously happy,” the president of the National Coal Association was reported to have said. Reagan preserved the E.P.A. but named as its administrator Anne Gorsuch, an anti-regulation zealot who proceeded to cut the agency’s staff and budget by about a quarter. In the midst of this carnage, the Council on Environmental Quality submitted a report to the White House warning that fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” alter Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “a warming of the Earth, possibly with very serious effects.” Reagan did not act on the council’s advice. Instead, his administration considered eliminating the council.

At the Pink Palace, Anthony Scoville had said that the problem was not atmospheric but political. That was only half right, Pomerance thought. For behind every political problem, there lay a publicity problem. And the climate crisis had a publicity nightmare. The Florida meeting had failed to prepare a coherent statement, let alone legislation, and now everything was going backward. Even Pomerance couldn’t devote much time to climate change; Friends of the Earth was busier than ever. The campaigns to defeat the nominations of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch were just the beginning; there were also efforts to block mining in wilderness areas, maintain the Clean Air Act’s standards for air pollutants and preserve funding for renewable energy (Reagan “has declared open war on solar energy,” the director of the nation’s lead solar-energy research agency said, after he was asked to resign). Reagan appeared determined to reverse the environmental achievements of Jimmy Carter, before undoing those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and, if he could get away with it, Theodore Roosevelt.

Reagan’s violence to environmental regulations alarmed even members of his own party. Senator Robert Stafford, a Vermont Republican and chairman of the committee that held confirmation hearings on Gorsuch, took the unusual step of lecturing her from the dais about her moral obligation to protect the nation’s air and water. Watt’s plan to open the waters off California for oil drilling was denounced by the state’s Republican senator, and Reagan’s proposal to eliminate the position of science adviser was roundly derided by the scientists and engineers who advised him during his presidential campaign. When Reagan considered closing the Council on Environmental Quality, its acting chairman, Malcolm Forbes Baldwin, wrote to the vice president and the White House chief of staff begging them to reconsider; in a major speech the same week, “A Conservative’s Program for the Environment,” Baldwin argued that it was “time for today’s conservatives explicitly to embrace environmentalism.” Environmental protection was not only good sense. It was good business. What could be more conservative than an efficient use of resources that led to fewer federal subsidies?

Meanwhile the Charney report continued to vibrate at the periphery of public consciousness. Its conclusions were confirmed by major studies from the Aspen Institute, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis near Vienna and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Every month or so, nationally syndicated articles appeared summoning apocalypse: “Another Warning on ‘Greenhouse Effect,’ ” “Global Warming Trend ‘Beyond Human Experience,’ ” “Warming Trend Could ‘Pit Nation Against Nation.’ ” People magazine had profiled Gordon MacDonald, photographing him standing on the steps of the Capitol and pointing above his head to the level the water would reach when the polar ice caps melted. “If Gordon MacDonald is wrong, they’ll laugh,” the article read. “Otherwise, they’ll gurgle.”

Gordon MacDonald in the Oct. 8, 1979, issue of People magazine. Robert Sherbow/Time Inc.

But Pomerance understood that in order to sustain major coverage, you needed major events. Studies were fine; speeches were good; news conferences were better. Hearings, however, were best. The ritual’s theatrical trappings — the members of Congress holding forth on the dais, their aides decorously passing notes, the witnesses sipping nervously from their water glasses, the audience transfixed in the gallery — offered antagonists, dramatic tension, narrative. But you couldn’t have a hearing without a scandal, or at least a scientific breakthrough. And two years after the Charney group met at Woods Hole, it seemed there was no more science to break through.

It was with a shiver of optimism, then, that Pomerance read on the front page of The New York Times on Aug. 22, 1981, about a forthcoming paper in Science by a team of seven NASA scientists. They had found that the world had already warmed in the past century. Temperatures hadn’t increased beyond the range of historical averages, but the scientists predicted that the warming signal would emerge from the noise of routine weather fluctuations much sooner than previously expected. Most unusual of all, the paper ended with a policy recommendation: In the coming decades, the authors wrote, humankind should develop alternative sources of energy and use fossil fuels only “as necessary.” The lead author was James Hansen.

Pomerance called Hansen to ask for a meeting. He explained to Hansen that he wanted to make sure he understood the paper’s conclusions. But more than that, he wanted to understand James Hansen.

At the Goddard Institute, Pomerance entered Hansen’s office, maneuvering through some 30 piles of documents arrayed across the floor like the skyscrapers of a model city, some as high as his waist. On top of many of the stacks lay a scrap of cardboard on which had been scrawled words like Trace Gases, Ocean, Jupiter, Venus. At the desk, Pomerance found, hidden behind another paper metropolis, a quiet, composed man with a heavy brow and implacable green eyes. Hansen’s speech was soft, equable, deliberate to the point of halting. He would have no trouble passing for a small-town accountant, insurance-claims manager or actuary. In a sense he held all of those jobs, only his client was the global atmosphere. Pomerance’s political sensitivities sparked. He liked what he saw.

As Hansen spoke, Pomerance listened and watched. He understood Hansen’s basic findings well enough: Earth had been warming since 1880, and the warming would reach “almost unprecedented magnitude” in the next century, leading to the familiar suite of terrors, including the flooding of a 10th of New Jersey and a quarter of Louisiana and Florida. But Pomerance was excited to find that Hansen could translate the complexities of atmospheric science into plain English. Though he was something of a wunderkind — at 40, he was about to be named director of the Goddard Institute — he spoke with the plain-spoken Midwestern forthrightness that played on Capitol Hill. He presented like a heartland voter, the kind of man interviewed on the evening news about the state of the American dream or photographed in the dying sun against a blurry agricultural landscape in a campaign ad. And unlike most scientists in the field, he was not afraid to follow his research to its policy implications. He was perfect.

“What you have to say needs to be heard,” Pomerance said. “Are you willing to be a witness?”

7.‘We’re All Going to Be the Victims’March 1982

Though few people other than Rafe Pomerance seemed to have noticed amid Reagan’s environmental blitzkrieg, another hearing on the greenhouse effect was held several weeks earlier, on July 31, 1981. It was led by Representative James Scheuer, a New York Democrat — who lived at sea level on the Rockaway Peninsula, in a neighborhood no more than four blocks wide, sandwiched between two beaches — and a canny, 33-year-old congressman named Albert Gore Jr.

Gore had learned about climate change a dozen years earlier as an undergraduate at Harvard, when he took a class taught by Roger Revelle. Humankind was on the brink of radically transforming the global atmosphere, Revelle explained, drawing Keeling’s rising zigzag on the blackboard, and risked bringing about the collapse of civilization. Gore was stunned: Why wasn’t anyone talking about this? He had no memory of hearing it from his father, a three-term senator from Tennessee who later served as chairman of an Ohio coal company. Once in office, Gore figured that if Revelle gave Congress the same lecture, his colleagues would be moved to act. Or at least that the hearing would get picked up by one of the three major national news broadcasts.

Gore’s hearing was part of a larger campaign he had designed with his staff director, Tom Grumbly. After winning his third term in 1980, Gore was granted his first leadership position, albeit a modest one: chairman of an oversight subcommittee within the Committee on Science and Technology — a subcommittee that he had lobbied to create. Most in Congress considered the science committee a legislative backwater, if they considered it at all; this made Gore’s subcommittee, which had no legislative authority, an afterthought to an afterthought. That, Gore vowed, would change. Environmental and health stories had all the elements of narrative drama: villains, victims and heroes. In a hearing, you could summon all three, with the chairman serving as narrator, chorus and moral authority. He told his staff director that he wanted to hold a hearing every week.

It was like storyboarding episodes of a weekly procedural drama. Grumbly assembled a list of subjects that possessed the necessary dramatic elements: a Massachusetts cancer researcher who faked his results, the dangers of excessive salt in the American diet, the disappearance of an airplane on Long Island. All fit Gore’s template; all had sizzle. But Gore wondered why Grumbly hadn’t included the greenhouse effect.

There are no villains, Grumbly said. Besides, who’s your victim?

If we don’t do something, Gore replied, we’re all going to be the victims.

He didn’t say: If we don’t do something, we’ll be the villains too.

Representative Albert Gore Jr. in 1982. John Dustaira/Associated Press

The Revelle hearing went as Grumbly had predicted. The urgency of the issue was lost on Gore’s older colleagues, who drifted in and out while the witnesses testified. There were few people left by the time the Brookings Institution economist Lester Lave warned that humankind’s profligate exploitation of fossil fuels posed an existential test to human nature. “Carbon dioxide stands as a symbol now of our willingness to confront the future,” he said. “It will be a sad day when we decide that we just don’t have the time or thoughtfulness to address those issues.” That night, the news programs featured the resolution of the baseball strike, the ongoing budgetary debate and the national surplus of butter.

But Gore soon found another opening. Congressional staff members on the science committee heard that the White House planned to eliminate the Energy Department’s carbon-dioxide program. If they could put a hearing together quickly enough, they could shame the White House before it could go through with its plan. The Times article about Hansen’s paper had proved that there was a national audience for the carbon-dioxide problem — it just had to be framed correctly. Hansen could occupy the role of hero: a mild-mannered scientist who had seen the future and now sought to rouse the world to action. A villain was emerging, too: Fred Koomanoff, Reagan’s new director of the Energy Department’s carbon-dioxide program, a Bronx native with the manner of a sergeant major and an unconstrained passion for budget-cutting. Each man would testify.

Hansen did not disclose to Gore’s staff that, in late November, he received a letter from Koomanoff declining to fund his climate-modeling research despite a promise from Koomanoff’s predecessor. Koomanoff left open the possibility of funding other carbon-dioxide research, but Hansen was not optimistic, and when his funding lapsed, he had to release five employees, half his staff. Koomanoff, it seemed, would not be moved. But the hearing would give Hansen the chance to appeal directly to the congressmen who oversaw Koomanoff’s budget.

Hansen flew to Washington to testify on March 25, 1982, performing before a gallery even more thinly populated than at Gore’s first hearing on the greenhouse effect. Gore began by attacking the Reagan administration for cutting funding for carbon-dioxide research despite the “broad consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is a reality.” William Carney, a Republican from New York, bemoaned the burning of fossil fuels and argued passionately that science should serve as the basis for legislative policy. Bob Shamansky, a Democrat from Ohio, objected to the use of the term “greenhouse effect” for such a horrifying phenomenon, because he had always enjoyed visiting greenhouses. “Everything,” he said, “seems to flourish in there.” He suggested that they call it the “microwave oven” effect, “because we are not flourishing too well under this; apparently, we are getting cooked.”

There emerged, despite the general comity, a partisan divide. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans demanded action. “Today I have a sense of déjà vu,” said Robert Walker, a Republican from Pennsylvania. In each of the last five years, he said, “we have been told and told and told that there is a problem with the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We all accept that fact, and we realize that the potential consequences are certainly major in their impact on mankind.” Yet they had failed to propose a single law. “Now is the time,” he said. “The research is clear. It is up to us now to summon the political will.”

Gore disagreed: A higher degree of certainty was required, he believed, in order to persuade a majority of Congress to restrict the use of fossil fuels. The reforms required were of such magnitude and sweep that they “would challenge the political will of our civilization.”

Yet the experts invited by Gore agreed with the Republicans: The science was certain enough. Melvin Calvin, a Berkeley chemist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the carbon cycle, said that it was useless to wait for stronger evidence of warming. “You cannot do a thing about it when the signals are so big that they come out of the noise,” he said. “You have to look for early warning signs.”

Hansen’s job was to share the warning signs, to translate the data into plain English. He explained a few discoveries that his team had made — not with computer models but in libraries. By analyzing records from hundreds of weather stations, he found that the surface temperature of the planet had already increased four-tenths of a degree Celsius in the previous century. Data from several hundred tide-gauge stations showed that the oceans had risen four inches since the 1880s. Most disturbing of all, century-old glass astronomy plates had revealed a new problem: Some of the more obscure greenhouse gases — especially chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a class of man-made substances used in refrigerators and spray cans — had proliferated wildly in recent years. “We may already have in the pipeline a larger amount of climate change than people generally realize,” Hansen told the nearly empty room.

Gore asked when the planet would reach a point of no return — a “trigger point,” after which temperatures would spike. “I want to know,” Gore said, “whether I am going to face it or my kids are going to face it.”

“Your kids are likely to face it,” Calvin replied. “I don’t know whether you will or not. You look pretty young.”

It occurred to Hansen that this was the only political question that mattered: How long until the worst began? It was not a question on which geophysicists expended much effort; the difference between five years and 50 years in the future was meaningless in geologic time. Politicians were capable of thinking only in terms of electoral time: six years, four years, two years. But when it came to the carbon problem, the two time schemes were converging.

“Within 10 or 20 years,” Hansen said, “we will see climate changes which are clearly larger than the natural variability.”

James Scheuer wanted to make sure he understood this correctly. No one else had predicted that the signal would emerge that quickly. “If it were one or two degrees per century,” he said, “that would be within the range of human adaptability. But we are pushing beyond the range of human adaptability.”

“Yes,” Hansen said.

How soon, Scheuer asked, would they have to change the national model of energy production?

Hansen hesitated — it wasn’t a scientific question. But he couldn’t help himself. He had been irritated, during the hearing, by all the ludicrous talk about the possibility of growing more trees to offset emissions. False hopes were worse than no hope at all: They undermined the prospect of developing real solutions.

“That time is very soon,” Hansen said finally.

“My opinion is that it is past,” Calvin said, but he was not heard because he spoke from his seat. He was told to speak into the microphone.

“It is already later,” Calvin said, “than you think.”

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