FEATURE

Wonk Quixote

Losing Earth: A Recent History BY Nathaniel Rich. MCD. Hardcover, 224 pages. $25.

WHAT HAPPENED? This is the question Nathaniel Rich attempts to answer in Losing Earth: A Recent History, an extended version of his 30,000-word article that took up most of the August 5, 2018, issue of the New York Times Magazine. “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979,” he begins, and goes on to tell us that in the decade that followed, “we had an excellent chance” of solving the problem. “The conditions for success were so favorable,” he writes, “that they have the quality of a fable.” Yet more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere in the forty years since 1979 than in the two preceding centuries, and the planet is currently on a path to abrupt and catastrophic ecological collapse.

So what happened? Many blame the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican cronies for obscuring the science, minimizing the urgency of the problem, and dooming us like some Marvel supervillain. Rich asserts that this is mistaken. “The industry’s assault did not begin in force until the end of the eighties,” he writes. “During the preceding decade, some of the largest oil and gas companies, including Exxon and Shell, made serious efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.” What’s more, Rich argues, “during the 1980s, many prominent Republican members of Congress, cabinet officials, and strategists shared with Democrats the conviction that the climate problem was the rare political winner: nonpartisan and of the highest possible stakes.”

This is a controversial interpretation. Alyssa Battistoni, an editor at Jacobin, called Rich’s New York Times Magazine piece “naive” and “irresponsible,” and Naomi Klein claimed it was “spectacularly wrong in its central thesis.” Both Klein and Battistoni argue that institutional failures to address climate change can’t be understood outside of the complex emergence of deregulation, globalization, and ideological revolution generally referred to as neoliberalism. Climatologist Michael E. Mann found Rich’s story incomplete and “tone deaf.” Robert Brulle, a sociologist who studies “climate change counter-movement organizations,” accused Rich of cherry-picking, calling the article “a highly selective historical account that omits key facts.” Brulle also pointed out that Rich’s “treatment of industry actors is limited to their official statements, and neglects their political actions,” which reinforces criticisms from others, including Emily Atkin in the New Republic and Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. As Meyer points out, Rich’s evidence contradicts his own conclusions: “Again and again, he describes the Reagan administration going out of its way to thwart climate science and policy.”

Rich could have taken the opportunity to revise his story in light of such criticism, but the book is substantially the same as the article. Throughout, he describes fossil-fuel companies, their lobbyists, and their Republican Party proxies working to slow response, distract attention, and avoid action, yet he persistently frames such delaying tactics as good-faith efforts to cope with an intractable political problem. Rich is correct in seeing climate change as something that frustrates easy solutions, but the “quality of a fable” with which he imbues his story is gratingly disingenuous.

In turning his controversial article into a book, Rich might have offered readers the scholarly apparatus that can make even a partial history useful. Citations, reference notes, and an index would have been welcome, particularly in helping determine what is new in Rich’s account and what is merely a tendentious rehashing of others’ research. This is especially important since Rich’s story has already been told, and better, by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes and Conway begin, like Rich, with the 1979 Charney report on climate change, which projected 3°C warming as early as 2030, depending on emissions levels. Like Rich, they follow the debates and meetings that led to the compromised Nierenberg report of 1983, which projected warming of 2°C to 3°C by 2065, if not earlier, but in its executive synthesis discouraged reducing CO2 emissions because doing so would be expensive, technological development would doubtless produce new solutions, and the effects of climate change could be alleviated by adaptation and migration. And like Rich, they find a turning point in NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 appearance before the US Senate, in which he (and other scientists) testified that there was 99 percent certainty that global warming was occurring and had been caused by humans, and offered research showing that we should expect between 1.5°C and 4.5°C warming by midcentury, along with polar ice collapse, sea level rise, increased storms, droughts, and all the other environmental catastrophes with which we are now familiar. (We remain on this pathway, projected to hit 2°C warming by 2050, if not earlier.) Rich’s version of the story introduces the Zelig-like environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance, witness to important meetings and press conferences, and novelistic details, such as the observation that Hansen’s brow is “heavy” and his green eyes “implacable,” for instance, or that Pomerance’s “thickish mustache . . . wilted disapprovingly over the corners of his mouth.” But in basic outline Rich’s account resembles the one in Merchants of Doubt closely, sometimes discomfitingly so, except in the angle of attack: Oreskes and Conway are not telling a fable of bipartisan good faith, but a history of how political and corporate operatives hijacked science.

Given that Rich’s “Recent History” doesn’t seem to offer much new as history, we might well wonder what he intended. “We are well enough acquainted by now with the political story of climate change, the technological story, the economic story, the industry story,” he writes. “They have been told expertly, and exhaustively, by journalists and scholars.” He then asks, “What about the human story?”

This, we must suppose, was his goal: to tell the story of the failed quest to stop climate change through an individual lens, focusing on a mustachioed Quixote, Rafe Pomerance, and his erstwhile Sancho Panza, James Hansen. Rich goes so far as to suggest that Pomerance recruited Hansen into the fight against climate change, which seems misleading, given that Hansen’s involvement in the issue predates their meeting and was built not on Pomerance’s lobbying but on Hansen’s role as a government scientist. Yet Rich isn’t one to let such quibbles get in the way of his narrative: “That we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels can be credited to the efforts of a handful of people . . . led by a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist who, at severe personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming. . . . What follows is their story, and ours.”

Not my story. Probably not yours, either. I was three years old when Rafe Pomerance discovered what atmospheric scientists already knew—that fossil-fueled industrial civilization was dooming itself with waste carbon—and twelve when James Hansen testified that anthropogenic global warming was already occurring. And I did not grow up amid America’s cultural and political elite, as did Pomerance and Rich, but into working-class poverty; nor did I become a NASA scientist, like Hansen. It is true that, like them, I’m gendered male and racially marked white, but like most Americans I’m utterly alienated from the power dynamics and policy decisions that shape our collective life.

Losing Earth is not “our story,” but a nostalgic ruling-class apologia for the advisers, administrators, and scientists serving the American plutocracy. It’s not without its wonkish drama, but the human story of climate change it is not. That story is one of hurricanes, floods, fires, civil war, refugees locked in cages, starvation, drought, and woe. That story is about elites all along the political spectrum betraying the people whose lives they rule, and it is becoming a story about the betrayed lashing out in confused and often misdirected rage. We may have “lost” the earth, or at least the tranquil climate of the Holocene, but in the storm to come we’re stuck here with each other, come hell or high water. We deserve a better account of what happened.


Roy Scranton’s most recent book is We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change (Soho Press, 2018).