Climate Change

5/8 Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

5.‘We Are Flying Blind’ October 1980

Two days before Halloween, Rafe Pomerance traveled to a cotton-candy castle on the Gulf of Mexico, near St. Petersburg, Fla, that locals called the Pink Palace. The Don CeSar hotel was a child’s daydream with cantilevered planes of bubble-gum stucco and vanilla-white cupolas that appeared to melt in the sunshine like scoops of ice cream. The hotel stood amid blooms of poisonwood and gumbo limbo on a narrow spit of porous limestone that rose no higher than five feet above the sea. In its carnival of historical amnesia and childlike faith in the power of fantasy, the Pink Palace was a fine setting for the first rehearsal of a conversation that would be earnestly restaged, with little variation and increasing desperation, for the next 40 years.

The Don CeSar hotel in the 1970s. From the Don CeSar

In the year and a half since he had read the coal report, Pomerance had attended countless conferences and briefings about the science of global warming. But until now, nobody had shown much interest in the only subject that he cared about, the only subject that mattered — how to prevent warming. In a sense, he had himself to thank: During the expansion of the Clean Air Act, he pushed for the creation of the National Commission on Air Quality, charged with ensuring that the goals of the act were being met. One such goal was a stable global climate. The Charney report had made clear that goal was not being met, and now the commission wanted to hear proposals for legislation. It was a profound responsibility, and the two dozen experts invited to the Pink Palace — policy gurus, deep thinkers, an industry scientist and an environmental activist — had only three days to achieve it, but the utopian setting made everything seem possible. The conference room looked better suited to hosting a wedding party than a bureaucratic meeting, its tall windows framing postcard views of the beach. The sands were blindingly white, the surf was idle, the air unseasonably hot and the dress code relaxed: sunglasses and guayaberas, jackets frowned upon.

The front page of The New York Times on Aug. 22, 1981.

“I have a very vested interest in this,” said State Representative Tom McPherson, a Florida Democrat, introducing himself to the delegation, “because I own substantial holdings 15 miles inland of the coast, and any beachfront property appreciates in value.” There was no formal agenda, just a young moderator from the E.P.A. named Thomas Jorling and a few handouts left on every seat, including a copy of the Charney report. Jorling acknowledged the vagueness of their mission.

“We are flying blind, with little or no idea where the mountains are,” he said. But the stakes couldn’t be higher: A failure to recommend policy, he said, would be the same as endorsing the present policy — which was no policy. He asked who wanted “to break the ice,” not quite appreciating the pun.

“We might start out with an emotional question,” proposed Thomas Waltz, an economist at the National Climate Program. “The question is fundamental to being a human being: Do we care?”

This provoked huffy consternation. “In caring or not caring,” said John Laurmann, a Stanford engineer, “I would think the main thing is the timing.” It was not an emotional question, in other words, but an economic one: How much did we value the future?

We have less time than we realize, said an M.I.T. nuclear engineer named David Rose, who studied how civilizations responded to large technological crises. “People leave their problems until the 11th hour, the 59th minute,” he said. “And then: ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?’ ” — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was a promising beginning, Pomerance thought. Urgent, detailed, cleareyed. The attendees seemed to share a sincere interest in finding solutions. They agreed that some kind of international treaty would ultimately be needed to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide at a safe level. But nobody could agree on what that level was.

William Elliott, a NOAA scientist, introduced some hard facts: If the United States stopped burning carbon that year, it would delay the arrival of the doubling threshold by only five years. If Western nations somehow managed to stabilize emissions, it would forestall the inevitable by only eight years. The only way to avoid the worst was to stop burning coal. Yet China, the Soviet Union and the United States, by far the world’s three largest coal producers, were frantically accelerating extraction.

“Do we have a problem?” asked Anthony Scoville, a congressional science consultant. “We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” He doubted that any scientific report, no matter how ominous its predictions, would persuade politicians to act.

Pomerance glanced out at the beach, where the occasional tourist dawdled in the surf. Beyond the conference room, few Americans realized that the planet would soon cease to resemble itself.

What if the problem was that they were thinking of it as a problem? “What I am saying,” Scoville continued, “is that in a sense we are making a transition not only in energy but the economy as a whole.” Even if the coal and oil industries collapsed, renewable technologies like solar energy would take their place. Jimmy Carter was planning to invest $80 billion in synthetic fuel. “My God,” Scoville said, “with $80 billion, you could have a photovoltaics industry going that would obviate the need for synfuels forever!”

The talk of ending oil production stirred for the first time the gentleman from Exxon. “I think there is a transition period,” Henry Shaw said. “We are not going to stop burning fossil fuels and start looking toward solar or nuclear fusion and so on. We are going to have a very orderly transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.”

“We are talking about some major fights in this country,” said Waltz, the economist. “We had better be thinking this thing through.”

But first — lunch. It was a bright day, low 80s, and the group voted to break for three hours to enjoy the Florida sun. Pomerance couldn’t — he was restless. He had refrained from speaking, happy to let others lead the discussion, provided it moved in the right direction. But the high-minded talk had soon stalled into fecklessness and pusillanimity. He reflected that he was just about the only participant without an advanced degree. But few of these policy geniuses were showing much sense. They understood what was at stake, but they hadn’t taken it to heart. They remained cool, detached — pragmatists overmatched by a problem that had no pragmatic resolution. “Prudence,” Jorling said, “is essential.”

After lunch, Jorling tried to focus the conversation. What did they need to know in order to take action?

David Slade, who as the director of the Energy Department’s $200 million Office of Carbon Dioxide Effects had probably considered the question more deeply than anyone else in the room, said he figured that at some point, probably within their lifetimes, they would see the warming themselves.

“And at that time,” Pomerance bellowed, “it will be too late to do anything about it.”

Yet nobody could agree what to do. John Perry, a meteorologist who had worked as a staff member on the Charney report, suggested that American energy policy merely “take into account” the risks of global warming, though he acknowledged that a nonbinding measure might seem “intolerably stodgy.”

“It is so weak,” Pomerance said, the air seeping out of him, “as to not get us anywhere.”

Reading the indecision in the room, Jorling reversed himself and wondered if it might be best to avoid proposing any specific policy. “Let’s not load ourselves down with that burden,” he said. “We’ll let others worry.”

Pomerance begged Jorling to reconsider. The commission had asked for hard proposals. But why stop there? Why not propose a new national energy plan? “There is no single action that is going to solve the problem,” Pomerance said. “You can’t keep saying, That isn’t going to do it, and This isn’t going to do it, because then we end up doing nothing.”

Scoville pointed out that the United States was responsible for the largest share of global carbon emissions. But not for long. “If we’re going to exercise leadership,” he said, “the opportunity is now.” One way to lead, he proposed, would be to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and regulate it as such. This was received by the room like a belch. By Scoville’s logic, every sigh was an act of pollution. Did the science really support such an extreme measure?

The Charney report did exactly that, Pomerance said. He was beginning to lose his patience, his civility, his stamina. “Now, if everybody wants to sit around and wait until the world warms up more than it has warmed up since there have been humans around — fine. But I would like to have a shot at avoiding it.”

Most everybody else seemed content to sit around. Some of the attendees confused uncertainty around the margins of the issue (whether warming would be three or four degrees Celsius in 50 or 75 years) for uncertainty about the severity of the problem. As Gordon MacDonald liked to say, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would rise; the only question was when. The lag between the emission of a gas and the warming it produced could be several decades. It was like adding an extra blanket on a mild night: It took a few minutes before you started to sweat.

Yet Slade, the director of the Energy Department’s carbon-dioxide program, considered the lag a saving grace. If changes did not occur for a decade or more, he said, those in the room couldn’t be blamed for failing to prevent them. So what was the problem?

You’re the problem,” Pomerance said. Because of the lag between cause and effect, it was unlikely that humankind would detect hard evidence of warming until it was too late to reverse it. The lag would doom them. “The U.S. has to do something to gain some credibility,” he said.

“So it is a moral stand,” Slade replied, sensing an advantage.

“Call it whatever.” Besides, Pomerance added, they didn’t have to ban coal tomorrow. A pair of modest steps could be taken immediately to show the world that the United States was serious: the implementation of a carbon tax and increased investment in renewable energy. Then the United States could organize an international summit meeting to address climate change. This was his closing plea to the group. The next day, they would have to draft policy proposals.

But when the group reconvened after breakfast, they immediately became stuck on a sentence in their prefatory paragraph declaring that climatic changes were “likely to occur.”

“Will occur,” proposed Laurmann, the Stanford engineer.

“What about the words: highly likely to occur?” Scoville asked.

“Almost sure,” said David Rose, the nuclear engineer from M.I.T.

“Almost surely,” another said.

“Changes of an undetermined — ”

“Changes as yet of a little-understood nature?”

“Highly or extremely likely to occur,” Pomerance said.

“Almost surely to occur?”

“No,” Pomerance said.

“I would like to make one statement,” said Annemarie Crocetti, a public-health scholar who sat on the National Commission on Air Quality and had barely spoken all week. “I have noticed that very often when we as scientists are cautious in our statements, everybody else misses the point, because they don’t understand our qualifications.”

“As a nonscientist,” said Tom McPherson, the Florida legislator, “I really concur.”

Yet these two dozen experts, who agreed on the major points and had made a commitment to Congress, could not draft a single paragraph. Hours passed in a hell of fruitless negotiation, self-defeating proposals and impulsive speechifying. Pomerance and Scoville pushed to include a statement calling for the United States to “sharply accelerate international dialogue,” but they were sunk by objections and caveats.

“It is very emotional,” Crocetti said, succumbing to her frustration. “What we have asked is to get people from different disciplines to come together and tell us what you agree on and what your problems are. And you have only made vague statements — ”

She was interrupted by Waltz, the economist, who wanted simply to note that climate change would have profound effects. Crocetti waited until he exhausted himself, before resuming in a calm voice. “All I am asking you to say is: ‘We got ourselves a bunch of experts, and by God, they all endorse this point of view and think it is very important. They have disagreements about the details of this and that, but they feel that it behooves us to intervene at this point and try to prevent it.’ ”

They never got to policy proposals. They never got to the second paragraph. The final statement was signed by only the moderator, who phrased it more weakly than the declaration calling for the workshop in the first place. “The guide I would suggest,” Jorling wrote, “is whether we know enough not to recommend changes in existing policy.”

Pomerance had seen enough. A consensus-based strategy would not work — could not work — without American leadership. And the United States wouldn’t act unless a strong leader persuaded it to do so — someone who would speak with authority about the science, demand action from those in power and risk everything in pursuit of justice. Pomerance knew he wasn’t that person: He was an organizer, a strategist, a fixer — which meant he was an optimist and even, perhaps, a romantic. His job was to assemble a movement. And every movement, even one backed by widespread consensus, needed a hero. He just had to find one.

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Original article referenced in last episode

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