How the World Almost Stopped Climate Change in 1989
The political will was there.
Four decades ago, the science of climate change was becoming mainstream and industry-driven opposition to doing something about it hadn’t yet formed.
It was a time when it seemed eminently possible that the countries of the world would agree to binding restrictions on the release of greenhouse gas emissions, and elected representatives across the US political system were calling for strong climate action.
This era’s golden opportunity is chronicled in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine in a bracing piece called “Lost Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” by Nathaniel Rich.
Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Rich explains, momentum was gathering among the leading climate scientists in the US and the world. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions had long been known, but comprehensive reports on the long-term trajectory of the climate hadn’t yet become common knowledge.
That changed when an environmental activist, Rafe Pomerance, and a geophysicist, Gordon MacDonald, set about persuading legislators and regulators that ignoring climate change would lead to the destruction of coral reefs, dramatic sea level rise, the desertification of forests, an unprecedented migrant crisis, and more.
Their audiences met this dire news with surprising aplomb, and soon President Jimmy Carter tasked the National Academy of the Sciences to commission a report in 1980 called “Changing Climate” that would bring together all existing scientific knowledge and offer policy prescriptions.
Read More: 87% of the World’s Oceans Are Dying: Report
“Losing Earth” describes what happens next — a whirlwind of revelations about the environment, an unprecedented consensus on the nature of problem, and a growing coalition around the world of diplomats and heads of state willing to act decisively to prevent catastrophe.
None of it mattered.
By the time the United Nations met in 1989 to deal with the issue, the US began backtracking, censoring science, and putting out misinformation, according to Rich. The narrative presented by Rich, however, has since been criticized for alleged historical inaccuracies and whitewashing the responsibility obstructionist Republicans and oil and gas lobbyists. Some scientists argue that this era had its fair share of misinformation and political interference.
Since the 1980s, the US has stifled countless global efforts to deal with climate change and the industry-led misinformation campaign has only grown. Even though the science of climate change is more certain than ever before, it faces a growing array of doubts.
The Paris climate agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, but it’s “nonbinding, unenforceable, and already unheeded,” according to Rich.
Now the dire predictions made four decades ago are beginning to come true — the Arctic has lost 1 million square kilometers of ice since 1979, coral reefs are dying en masse, and deserts are everywhere growing.
“The inaugural chapter of the climate-change saga is over,” Rich writes. “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.”
Now, Rich contends, the world is in the second chapter — The Reckoning.
You can read the full piece, which took 18 months to report and involved hundreds of interviews, here.
This piece has been updated on August 2, 2018, to reflect criticism of the New York Times article.