In August 2018, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to a single story: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” The 30,000-word piece—by Nathaniel Rich, a writer-at-large for the magazine and the author of three novels — focused on the political machinations and the people involved in early efforts to battle climate change.
Rich’s approach, almost novelistic in feel, came in for some criticism from environmental activists, many of who found it lacking in immediate urgency and blame. The tale is, however, a compelling look at a particular moment in time, when some sort of real solution to the problem seemed not only possible, but inevitable.
Now Rich has expanded the piece into a book: “Losing Earth: A Recent History.” I recently met the author not far from his house in New Orleans (where he was in the midst of packing boxes, for a move Uptown), and we talked about how the book came to be, how close we really were to fixing the problem in the 1980s, and how the political argument around climate change has shifted.
Where do you begin with a subject this unimaginably broad?
The challenge was to write about climate change in a new way. But that itself didn’t seem too daunting, since so much of writing about climate change tended to fall within an extraordinarily narrow range: “Here’s some new crisis …”
“A chunk of Antarctica the size of Rhode Island has broken free.”
“Yet another indication that the earth is warming catastrophically. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. Here are the heroes. Here are the villains. If we don’t change our ways, increasingly horrible things are going to happen. But it’s not too late. There’s still hope—if we act now.” Now, I don’t take issue with any of that. It’s all accurate. But I did feel that there is more to the story.
And to some extent, even when we’re in full agreement with these stories, we’ve stopped listening to them.
The dominant narrative has not changed since the ’90s. But to write about the issue honestly, we also have to take into account the human dimension of the crisis, the larger moral questions it raises. After all, that’s exactly what we do for other major social issues. Think about the breadth of literature devoted to race or gender or immigration or gun violence. Yes, you have the articles that explain the politics, the policies under consideration, the science, all of that. But you also have stories about individual experience and the philosophical challenges that such crises provoke. Why shouldn’t climate change receive this treatment? I would argue that climate change is the great human story of our time — really, the great story of our species, since it’s a problem that we’ve created, that has grown more serious as our civilization has advanced, and that now threatens everything we call human.
You focused on this very specific window of time, the 1980s. How did you you find your way to that moment?
I started by asking, “When did this common narrative about climate change begin to take shape?” I learned that it’s been in place since about 1988, when the scientist James Hansen gave his famous testimony before Congress and global warming became a major national story. But I knew that knowledge of the subject went back earlier, and I came upon this idea of a 10-year period. It begins with the establishment of scientific consensus on climate change, and early efforts are made to translate that science into policy.
Looking back from our polarized present, there was an amazing amount of political consensus on the issue.
Yes, it’s astounding in retrospect, and it continued for much of the decade. During that period, despite a few setbacks, a solution is articulated — a binding, global treaty to reduce carbon emissions — and policy talks reach the stage of high-level diplomatic meetings. But at the last second, the U.S. pulls out of a deal. And the record stops. The industry sinks its teeth in, and the Republican party turns. We know the story from that point, 1989 to the present. It’s been well told and well researched. What was missing is how we got to that point — how, before failure was thrust upon us by the fossil-fuel industry, we managed to fail all by ourselves.
It’s almost as if your story is a portrait of how we got stuck.
Now that I know that history, I’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to the extraordinary level of public amnesia surrounding it. I saw today a speech on the floor of Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demanding immediate action on climate change. She was as eloquent and forceful as ever, but in conclusion she says, “The government has known about this since 1989.”
The government has known about climate change since at least the 1950s; 1989 was actually the end of the cycle during which we tried in good faith to solve it. And I don’t mean to single out Ocasio-Cortez; many of those who are leading the policy fight today seem to share the general premise, promoted by the industry and Republican party, that this is a recent problem.
Although it involves science, your story is a character-driven narrative. You created a vivid cast of characters. Hansen, the scientist, Rafe Pomerance, the environmental activist. Al Gore comes up a lot. How did you find them?
These are the people who were the first to suffer the crisis of conscience that all of us do when we discover the severity of the problem. They just discovered the problem soonest. Like us, their response moved quickly from apprehension — “Holy shit, this is happening! What do we do?” — to denial — “Surely those in power will figure this out” — to an acceptance that they would have to solve the problem themselves. That is basically our situation, too.
It was important to me to preserve the force of the narrative, that there not be an authorial voice. Every scene had to be told through the perspective of a character. So I found a couple of people who were present at each major milestone during the decade and were largely responsible for driving the progress forward during that time: Rafe Pomerance and Jim Hansen.
How did you figure out what those milestones were?
I interviewed more than a hundred people, nearly everyone alive who was involved in the politics or science during the period. I visited various archives: the Reagan Library, the Carter Library, the National Archives, university libraries, private collections. I read hundreds of articles on Lexis-Nexis and compiled a master chronology detailing everything that happened related to climate change during the decade: articles, meetings, conferences, hearings, scientific papers, you name it. I found that the action, the push for solutions, divided naturally into three acts. The first draft, all 45,000 words of it, was essentially the master narrative transcribed.
The closest thing to a villain here is John Sununu, the elder President Bush’s chief of staff. I either didn’t know, or maybe I forgot, the pivotal role he played in almost single-handedly blocking that emissions treaty.
No one had written about the high-level diplomatic climate meeting in Noordwijk before, apart from a couple of obscure academic papers. There wasn’t much press at the time. But after enough interviews, I realized that this was the moment when the politics got derailed.
What were your interviews with Sununu like? Were they contentious?
No. He’s a little cantankerous, hard-nosed, but he was amiable and forthright. For instance: Until I published the piece, nobody knew who had censored Hansen’s congressional testimony in 1989, a huge national scandal at the time. Thirty years later, in our conversation, Sununu admitted responsibility for it.
It’s clear from the book that if Sununu’s not actively involved in opposing it, we sign the carbon emissions treaty.
We probably sign the treaty. Which begs the question: If we signed it, would we have honored it?
While I was reading about Sununu’s involvement, I thought about Dick Cheney. Because I’ve asked more than once in my long life, “How does Dick Cheney sleep at night?” So logically I started asking, apropos of climate change, “How does John Sununu sleep at night?” Later in the book, you answer my question. He has a rationalization for his action.
He’s an interesting figure, because the logic he used is now mainstream Republican nonsense. But Sununu came about it independently; he came about it first. He was a crank whose crackpot theories have become conventional within his party. But he, at least, is sincere. I don’t think he is dissembling when he says that he doesn’t trust the scientific models. He really does think that there are international leftist conspiracies to exploit science for anti-growth agendas.
But the thing that struck me is his argument: “Well, we weren’t going to live up to the treaty anyway.” That’s where he sort of lets himself off the hook.
I don’t think so. He’d like to take credit for single-handedly blocking the treaty. But he felt that it was a lie, that the U.S. was the only honest broker in the room, and the rest of the countries were just trying to save face. I think we have to take that view seriously, given what’s happened since. Many of the countries that have made the strongest efforts to fight climate change have failed to meet their own benchmarks. Of course the logic of that argument is not airtight, for if the U.S. had chosen to push for a strong treaty, it likely would have had the power to enforce it.
I would argue that, regardless of whether we met our emissions targets, signing the treaty would have jump-started our move to renewables 20 years sooner.
Undoubtedly. We’d be in much better shape.
A personal question, which I occasionally ask of environmental activists, who for the most part won’t go there: How we do not lose hope?
I should preface my answer by saying that I’m not an activist.
You spent a few years deeply engaged in the subject matter, down a pretty deep rabbit hole.
It’s a subject I care about, as it is for any thinking person alive today.
Most writing on the subject is activist-driven, even most journalism. I define “activist writing” as an effort to simplify the problem and motivate people to act. You see that whether it’s a Greenpeace pamphlet or The New York Times That’s not what I tried to do with “Losing Earth.” I tried to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, to acknowledge that there aren’t always clear answers. There are difficult moral questions to be considered. That is not to say that there is any complexity about whether we need to take dramatic action on climate change; we do, if we want to survive this thing. But there’s more to the story than action or inaction. For instance: What does our inaction to this point tell us about our society, our democracy, our values? How must we change our lives to accommodate what we know is to come? What does it tell us about the nature of human fear? I think there’s a great need for more writing to ask larger questions about climate change, particularly those that don’t have obvious answers. The first step is to speak about the issue more honestly, to understand the ways in which the climate crisis touches every aspect of our humanity.
If we’re living on the grid, then we’re all in some way complicit.
Yes. Which is not to say that Exxon shouldn’t be held accountable for its crimes. It should be made to suffer, and we should pass a carbon tax, and we should invest more heavily in renewable energy, and all the rest. That much seems pretty straightforward. But we should also speak more honestly about what we’re up against. I think you now see the first signs that we have begun to do so, in the new youth movement led by people like Greta Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez.
The response to the Green New Deal I find patronizing, even from the left. You have people like Steven Rattner or Mike Bloomberg who are against it because the details aren’t worked out, and it doesn’t begin to pencil out. Of course the details aren’t worked out.
We’re talking about completely reshaping our economy.
There aren’t details yet, only a list of principles. But what is exciting, I think, is the way that young people have begun to speak about the crisis. They no longer care to debate the science, as they shouldn’t. The science is fundamentally unchanged since 1979. They’re not even particularly interested in making the appeal to rationality, that we’re stupid not to act, which has been the main argument from activists since 1979. Instead they are saying things like, “The neglect of older generations is killing us.” “The wealthy and the powerful are stealing our futures.” “Failure to act is a moral abomination.”
That’s a very different kind of language than what we heard from Al Gore or even Jim Hansen. I think it’s also more urgent and probably more effective, politically.
As a soon-to-be father of two, living in New Orleans — one of the most climate-change challenged cities in the world — are you an optimist, a pessimist?
I’m fully aware that I live in the American city most threatened by climate change. Yet I own property here. In a certain sense, that’s exactly what I’m writing about: how we make those kinds of decisions, the messy calculus of human prioritization. I’m hopeful and pessimistic at the same time. There’s something false about being forced into these camps, the optimists vs. the pessimists, which is what so much of activist writing demands. Ultimately, they are debating a marketing strategy: What is the best way to motivate people to act? Should we scare them? Or should we inspire them with hope? That’s been the debate in the activist community for a long time. And it’s a false choice. The only respectable answer is to recognize that we’re human beings, and we ought to speak about this like adults. We are finally entering a more mature phase of the conversation, thankfully, and we should respond accordingly: with seriousness, determination, and, most of all, moral clarity.
This interview previously appeared on April 4 in Common Edge. It has been edited for clarity and length.