By 1979, we knew nearly everything we understand today about climate change—including how to stop it. Over the next decade, a handful of scientists, politicians, and strategists, led by two unlikely heroes, risked their careers in a desperate, escalating campaign to convince the world to act before it was too late. Losing Earth is their story, and ours.
The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to Nathaniel Rich’s groundbreaking chronicle of that decade, which became an instant journalistic phenomenon—the subject of news coverage, editorials, and conversations all over the world. In its emphasis on the lives of the people who grappled with the great existential threat of our age, it made vivid the moral dimensions of our shared plight.
Now expanded into book form, Losing Earth tells the human story of climate change in even richer, more intimate terms. It reveals, in previously unreported detail, the birth of climate denialism and the genesis of the fossil fuel industry’s coordinated effort to thwart climate policy through misinformation propaganda and political influence. The book carries the story into the present day, wrestling with the long shadow of our past failures and asking crucial questions about how we make sense of our past, our future, and ourselves.
Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, Losing Earth is the rarest of achievements: a riveting work of dramatic history that articulates a moral framework for understanding how we got here, and how we must go forward.
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The Whole Banana
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, bound in a coal-black cover with beige lettering, about coal — one of many such reports that lay in uneven piles around Pomerance's windowless office on the first floor of the Capitol Hill town house that 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, startled, paused over the orphaned paragraph. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. He reread it. It made no sense. Pomerance was not a scientist; eleven years earlier he had graduated from Cornell with a degree in history. He had the tweedy appearance of an undernourished doctoral student emerging at dawn from the stacks, with horn-rimmed glasses and a thickish mustache that wilted disapprovingly over the corners of his mouth. His defining characteristic was his gratuitous height, six feet four inches, which seemed to embarrass him; he stooped over to accommodate his interlocutors. His active face was prone to breaking out in wide, even maniacal grins, but in composure, as when he read the coal report, it projected concern. He struggled with technical reports. He proceeded as a historian would: 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 were not used to fielding questions from political lobbyists. They were not used to thinking about politics.
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 there was anyone in Washington — anyone in the United States of America — who should have been aware of such a danger, it was Pomerance. As 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, on intimate terms with staffers at all levels of the legislative and executive branches. That he was aseasily 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 — great-grandson of Henry Sr., Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; great-nephew of Henry Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt's Treasury secretary; and second cousin to Robert, district attorney for Manhattan. Or perhaps it was simply his charisma — self-effacing and rambunctious, voluble and obsessive, with a visceral talent for rousing soliloquy, 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 twenties laboring to protect and expand the Clean Air Act, the comprehensive law regulating air pollution, drafting the language of several amendments himself. 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, gesturing.
There was an article about a geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald. Pomerance hadn't heard of MacDonald, but he knew all about the Jasons, the mysterious coterie of elite scientists to which MacDonald belonged. The Jasons were like one of those teams of superheroes with complementary powers who join forces in times of galactic crisis. They were convened by the U.S. intelligence apparatus to devise novel scientific solutions to the most vexing national security problems: how to detect an incoming missile; how to predict fallout from a nuclear bomb; how to develop unconventional weapons, like high-power laser beams, sonic booms, and plague-infected rats. Some of the Jasons had federal contracts or long-standing ties to U.S. intelligence; others held prominent titles at major research universities; all were united by the conviction, shared by their federal clients, that American power should be guided by the wisdom of its superior scientific minds. The Jasons met each summer in secret, and their very existence had been a loosely guarded 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 Vietnam War protesters set MacDonald's garage on fire, he pleaded with the Jasons to use their powers for peace instead of war.
He hoped that the Jasons could join forces to save the world. For human civilization, as he saw it, was facing an existential crisis. In "How to Wreck the Environment," an essay published in 1968, 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." The world's most advanced militaries, he warned, would soon be able to weaponize weather. By accelerating industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, they could alter weather patterns, forcing mass migration, starvation, drought, and economic collapse.
In the decade since, MacDonald had grown alarmed to see humankind accelerate its pursuit of this particular weapon of mass destruction, not maliciously, but unwittingly. President Carter's initiative to develop high-carbon synthetic fuels — gas and liquid fuel extracted from shale and tar sands — was a frightening blunder, the equivalent of building a new generation of thermonuclear bombs. During spring 1977 and summer 1978, the Jasons met in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research 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 dramatic one, marking the point at which human civilization would contribute as much carbon to the atmosphere as the planet had done in the preceding 4.6 billion years. The inevitability of the doubling was not in question; a high school student could do the arithmetic. Depending on the future rate of fossil fuel consumption, the threshold would likely be breached by 2035 and no later than 2060.
The Jasons' report to the Department of Energy, The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate, was composed in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings: global temperatures would increase by an average of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius; Dust Bowl conditions would "threaten large areas of North America, Asia and Africa"; and agricultural production and access to drinking water would plummet, triggering unprecedented levels of migration. "Perhaps the most ominous feature," however, would be the effect on the poles. Even minimal warming could "lead to rapid melting" of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which contained enough water to raise the oceans sixteen 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 Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, every branch of the military, the National Security Council, and the White House.
Pomerance read about this in a state of shock that, as was the pattern with him, swelled briskly into outrage. "This," he told Agle, "is the whole banana."
He had to meet Gordon MacDonald. The scientist, the article had mentioned, worked at the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded think tank that developed national defense and nuclear warfare technology. His title was senior research analyst, which was a delicate way of saying science adviser to the national intelligence community. After a single phone call, Pomerance, a 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 with a wave of glossy, silverish hair over horn-rimmed frames, who possessed more than a passing resemblance to Alex Karras — a geophysicist trapped in the body of an offensive lineman. He extended a hand like a bear's paw.
"I'm glad you're interested in this," said MacDonald, taking in the young activist.
"How could I not be?" said Pomerance. "How could anyone not be?"
MacDonald seemed miscast as a preacher of existential doom; he was too imposing of physical bearing and too decorous of manner. A bout of polio at the age of nine had left him with a chronic limp and a passion for scientific inquiry, awoken by the months of convalescence he had spent at a Dallas clinic reading medical journals about his illness. Despite his bad leg, he started at guard for the San Marcos Academy Bears and was offered a football scholarship to Rice. Harvard offered him a scholarship with no strings attached. Upon reaching campus, he swiftly earned a reputation as a prodigy. In his twenties, he advised Dwight D. Eisenhower on space exploration; at thirty-two, he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences; at forty, he was appointed to the inaugural Council on Environmental Quality, where he advised Richard Nixon on the environmental dangers of burning coal. Now approaching his fiftieth birthday, 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. MacDonald had followed the problem closely ever since, with increasing alarm.
He spoke for two hours. As he traced the history of humanity's understanding of the problem, explaining the fundamental science, Pomerance grew increasingly appalled.
"If I set up briefings with some people on the Hill," asked Pomerance, "will you tell them what you just told me?"
Thus began the Gordon and Rafe carbon dioxide roadshow. Pomerance arranged informal briefings with anybody he could think of in a position of power on Capitol Hill. The men settled into a routine, with MacDonald methodically explaining the science and Pomerance interjecting the exclamation points. They were surprised to find that, though most of the offices they visited had received copies of the Jasons' report, few senior officials were familiar with its findings, let alone grasped the dystopian consequences of global warming. After conversations with the EPA, The New York Times, the Energy Department (which, Pomerance learned, had established an Office of Carbon Dioxide Effects two years earlier, at MacDonald's urging), the National Security Council (a senior staffer, Jessica Mathews, was Pomerance's first cousin), and the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, they at last worked their way up to the president's top scientist himself, Frank Press.
Pomerance did not fully appreciate the extent of MacDonald's standing within the highest echelons of the U.S. government until they entered Press's chambers in the Old Executive Office Building, the granite fortress that stood on White House grounds, looming over the West Wing. MacDonald and Press had known each other since the Kennedy administration, when Press had figured out how to use Geiger counters to detect the Soviet Union's underground nuclear testing program. Press was familiar with the carbon dioxide issue. In July 1977, six months after Carter took office, he had written a memo to the president explaining that unchecked fossil fuel combustion might lead to a "global climatic warming" as high as 5 degrees Celsius and "large scale crop failures." "As you know," he wrote to Carter, "this is not a new issue." But Press had concluded that "the present state of knowledge" did not justify taking action in the near term. Since then, Press had overseen the development of Carter's synthetic-fuels program.
What Pomerance had expected to be yet another casual briefing assumed the character of a high-level national security meeting. Press had summoned nearly the entire senior staff of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the officials consulted on every critical matter of energy and defense strategy, who did not seem especially familiar with the climate issue. Pomerance figured it was best 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 solemn mood in the office told him that this was understood.
To explain what the carbon dioxide problem meant for the future, and not just the distant future, MacDonald began by turning to the distant past — 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 with sleeping pills. In 1859, Tyndall hit upon the greenhouse effect's fundamental corollary: because carbon dioxide molecules absorbed heat, variations in its atmospheric concentration could create changes in climate. This finding inspired Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the combustion of coal and petroleum for the mass production of energy 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 calculated the effect of "throwing some 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air each minute." He discovered that, at the weather stations he observed, the previous five years were the hottest in recorded history. "Man," he wrote, had become "able to speed up the processes of Nature." That was in 1939.
MacDonald's voice was deliberate and authoritative, his powerful hands conveying the force of his argument. His audience listened in bowed silence. Pomerance couldn't read them. Political appointees concealed their private opinions for a living. Pomerance couldn't. He shifted in his chair, restless, glancing between the Jason and the government suits, trying to see whether they grasped the shape of the behemoth that MacDonald was describing.
MacDonald concluded his sermon with Roger Revelle, perhaps the most distinguished of the priestly caste of government scientists who, since the Manhattan Project, had advised every president on major policy; Revelle had been a close colleague of MacDonald's and Press's since they had all served together under Kennedy. Whereas Arrhenius and Callendar, in their icy Northern European hamlets, welcomed the prospect of warmer weather, Revelle recognized that human society had been organized around specific climatic conditions that, if altered, would lead to violent disruptions. MacDonald quoted from a major paper Revelle and Hans Seuss had published in 1957: "Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be repeated in the future." The following year, 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. As MacDonald's imperturbable audience looked on, he traced the Keeling curve in the air, his thick forefinger jabbing toward the ceiling.
With each passing year, MacDonald explained, humanity's large-scale geophysical experiment grew more audacious. After Keeling had charted it for nearly a decade, Revelle 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. His administration commissioned a study by the president's Science Advisory Committee, led by Revelle, which warned in its 1965 report of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters — changes that could be "not controllable through local or even national efforts." Nothing less than a coordinated global effort would be required. Yet no such effort materialized, and emissions continued to rise. At this rate, said MacDonald, they could see a snowless New England, the swamping of major coastal cities, a 40 percent decline in national wheat production, and the forced migration of one-quarter of the world's population. Not within centuries — within their own lifetimes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Losing Earth"
Copyright © 2019 Nathaniel Rich.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Reckoning,
PART I: SHOUTS IN THE STREET: 1979–1982,
1. The Whole Banana: Spring 1979,
2. Mirror Worlds: Spring 1979,
3. Between Clambake and Chaos: July 1979,
4. Enter Cassandra, Raving: 1979–1980,
5. A Very Aggressive Defensive Program: 1979–1980,
6. Tiger on the Road: October 1980,
7. A Deluge Most Unnatural: November 1980–September 1981,
8. Heroes and Villains: March 1982,
9. The Direction of an Impending Catastrophe: 1982,
PART II: BAD SCIENCE FICTION: 1983–1988,
10. Caution Not Panic: 1983–1984,
11. The World of Action: 1985,
12. The Ozone in October: Fall 1985–Summer 1986,
13. Atmospheric Scientist, New York, N.Y.: Fall 1987–Spring 1988,
PART III: YOU WILL SEE THINGS THAT YOU SHALL BELIEVE: 1988–1989,
14. Nothing but Bonfires: Summer 1988,
15. Signal Weather: June 1988,
16. Woodstock for Climate Change: June 1988–April 1989,
17. Fragmented World: Fall 1988,
18. The Great Includer and the Old Engineer: Spring 1989,
19. Natural Processes: May 1989,
20. The White House Effect: Spring–Fall 1989,
21. Skunks at the Garden Party: November 1989,
Afterword: Glass-Bottomed Boats,
A Note on the Sources,
Also by Nathaniel Rich,
A Note About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Makes you really think about the future as we know it Mr. Rich's work is extremely relevant to climate politics today as it helps you understand why we haven't taken a stronger stand as well as how it came to be that way. I think about the future differently now, and I've definitely changed how I live my daily life.
Losing Earth is a precise, concise study of the last forty years of waffling over and denial of important environmental truths that we as Americans have simply refused to look at, or to do anything about. Global warming is not a simple problem, but it is one that could be addressed and handled in a timely manner if cooler heads prevailed in government. That was at least true forty years ago. We are fast approaching that point of no return. Do we really want to watch humans disappear from the Earth when adapting our lifestyle to preserve our homeland is simple? I guess so. Please read this book. And VOTE! Every chance you get. I received a free electronic copy of this study on our environmental problems from Netgalley, Nathaniel Rich, and MCD Publishers. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me. I have read and reviewed this book of my own volition. This review reflects my honest opinion of this work.