Several weeks ago, the entire Sunday New York Times Magazine was given over to a single article, titled “Losing Earth,” written by Nathaniel Rich. It is a remarkable piece of narrative journalism that examines a decade, 1979 to 1989, which he identifies as that moment when mankind — activists, scientists, politicians, environmentalists — came to a momentous understanding regarding the causes and dangers of climate change. The glass must be broken and the alarm pulled if catastrophe was to be averted.
Rich’s text is long and dense, but essential if we are to fully comprehend where we are today and what awaits us in the future. He poses what I consider to be an answer to a compelling question, one that gave me pause and captured my imagination.
But first the back story, which begins in 1979. That year, Rich writes, climate scientists and environmentalists reached a far-reaching consensus on global warming. The data and early models were made known to the top tiers of government and politicians. What followed was almost a decade of debate and discussion and many attempts by a cohort of scientists and environmentalists to effect change and create policy.
Finally, in 1989, an international summit, the Noordwijk Ministerial Conference, comprising 60 nations, was held in the Netherlands. Its agenda focused on halting the rise in carbon emissions into the atmosphere and thereby altering the rate of climate change. A binding agreement was to be crafted with all nations as signatories. A 20 percent reduction by all nations by 2005 was the target.
The summit represented that golden moment when the arc of history regarding the warming of the planet would be changed. There was still time. A new narrative was at hand.
But to their astonishment — given the papers written, the hearings held, the lectures delivered, and the fact that George H.W. Bush had declared himself an environmentalist — the U.S. delegation inexplicably reversed direction and lobbied for inaction. The Soviet Union, Japan and Britain joined the U.S. and the outcome was a non-binding, verbiage-filled agreement that avoided any hard commitments on carbon reduction. The conference was declared a failure. Greenpeace called it a “disaster,” and a decade of hard-won progress was returned to the ether of inaction and adaptation, where it has remained for the past 30 years.
Since the conference, deniers (“global warming is a hoax”) have been emboldened while politicians found cover for their skepticism, some relying on that familiar canard of questioning global warming during a particularly cold winter.
In reflecting back on Noordwijk, Rich writes in article’s epilogue, “We were so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuel. The world (today) is warming more quickly than most climate models predict, the toughest emissions reductions now being proposed, even by the most committed nations, will probably fail to achieve any given global temperature stabilization target. More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the 1989 conference than in the entire history of civilization preceding it. In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon; by
2017 that figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons.”
Regardless of the continuing debate over global warming — sustainables, renewables, the Paris Accords — the only number that counts is the total quantity of global greenhouse gas emitted per year. That number continues to rise.
The U.S. has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever over the past quarter century, while “the fossil-fuel industry has made a concerted effort to drive the narrative and suppress science, confuse the public and bribe politicians.” The major oil providers knew then and know now what lies ahead. Ditto Washington. The data is and was incontrovertible. Yet we continue to do nothing. The compelling question is: Why? Part three will offer the opportunity to explore Rich’s answer.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.