The Inescapable Politics of Climate Change

The Inescapable Politics of Climate Change

Everything to Lose

The struggle to save the planet.


At this point, we all know that climate change is happening (or at least most of us do). But do we really know what it will mean to live on a planet transformed by it? We know the seas will rise, but have we truly reckoned with the fact that they are on track to be four to eight feet higher by the end of the century, at which point they will drown the Maldives, the White House, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Bengal tiger’s habitat? We know that Earth is getting hotter, but have we actually come to terms with what it would mean if half the world were so hot that it would essentially cook the human body to death, as would be the case with a temperature rise of 5 or 6 degrees Celsius?

That we do not really grasp what climate change will bring is the central premise of David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. An editor at New York magazine, Wallace-Wells describes in chilling detail the possibility of year-round fires scorching the planet; latent plagues revived as the ice that harbors these frozen pathogens melts; growing numbers of people left homeless by climate-fueled disasters, rising sea levels, increasingly scarce resources, and the toxic effects of pollution. Very little of what he reports here is new, as Wallace-Wells notes; most of it has been predicted in scientific studies for years. This is part of his point: For decades, we have avoided thinking about the catastrophe on the horizon. His gambit is that, by offering this information in the form of a taut, evocative, and frequently terrifying view of the future that awaits, he might make the reality hit home in a way that scattered headlines do not.

The problem is that Wallace-Wells is not the first to attempt such a strategy. Since we started worrying about climate change, apocalyptic messages have been the bread and butter of climate writing. In 1988, when a major heat wave baked America, Time observed somberly that “the earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge.” The “dreaded ‘greenhouse effect’” appeared to be underway. The following year, Bill McKibben detailed the science and likely effects of climate change in The End of Nature, warning that “our ability to survive the heat in the summer of 1988…is no proof of our ability to survive what’s coming.” Since then, there have been many more books and articles crying doom. Activists around the world have also raised the alarm through protest. For years, tens of thousands have demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen and Paris and Rio and New York. But even so, emissions continue to rise steadily.

The daunting challenge of saying something about climate change that will break through where other warnings have not is at the heart of both The Uninhabitable Earth and Losing Earth, the new book by Nathaniel Rich. Both writers try to understand why it is that we have known about climate change for nearly four decades and yet seem to go through the same cycle of discovery time after time. Both try their best to force us out of this pattern. Yet both ultimately present variations on a familiar theme: They explain the problem in well-researched detail and issue calls for action in the closing pages. But it’s not 1988 anymore. What we need to know now is not what climate change will do but what we should—that is, how to think about climate change as a political problem.

This kind of analysis is, ostensibly, what Losing Earth attempts to offer. Whereas Wallace-Wells besieges his readers with a scientific prognosis for a dystopian future, Rich’s tactic is primarily historical. He wants to tell a more focused story of the recent past—in particular, of the missed opportunities in the 1970s and ’80s. To understand what has brought us to this point, he argues, we must first figure out “why we failed to solve this problem when we had a chance.”

Structured around a series of vignettes spanning the decade, Losing Earth follows a “handful of people” that Rich sees as the forgotten heroes of this failed effort, those “scientists from more than a dozen disciplines, political appointees, members of Congress, economists, philosophers, and anonymous bureaucrats” who learn about climate change, become alarmed, wonder why no one is doing anything about it, and then try, unsuccessfully, to mobilize a response.

In Rich’s cast of characters, there are two stars: the environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and the climate scientist James Hansen. The story opens as Pomerance, then an organizer for the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, stumbles upon a warning, in a single paragraph buried deep in an Environmental Protection Agency report on coal, that the use of fossil fuels could eventually bring about “significant and damaging changes” to the planet’s atmosphere. Bewildered as to why he has never heard of this threat before, Pomerance asks around and finds his way to an article about the scientist Gordon MacDonald, who had recently produced a report for the Department of Energy on the effects of carbon dioxide on Earth’s atmosphere. By now fully alarmed, Pomerance starts doing what he does best: making phone calls, first to scientists and then to politicians.

Meanwhile, Hansen is hard at work at NASA studying the atmosphere of Venus. In 1979, he is asked by Jule Charney, a scientist charged with producing an early report on the greenhouse effect, to bring his expertise to bear on the atmospheric conditions of Earth. Hansen uses his knowledge of atmospheric function and the power of new supercomputers to create what he calls “Mirror Worlds”: computer models sophisticated enough to play out the possible futures under different atmospheric conditions. For example, if carbon emissions double, then, according to Hansen’s models, Earth would warm by 4 degrees Celsius.

By 1981, the two men’s paths converge. After reading one of Hansen’s studies, Pomerance pays him a visit. He is in search of the face of climate science and finds in Hansen a plainspoken Midwesterner perfect for congressional hearings. The two men, along with others now worried about global warming, organize and attend conferences for climate scientists and policy-makers in Florida and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They meet with EPA staffers and representatives from the American Petroleum Institute. They draft reports explaining in detail the threat posed by a warming planet. In hearing after hearing, they beg Washington’s power players to take this threat seriously. Gradually, they find allies: then-Senators Al Gore, John Chafee, and Timothy Wirth; former EPA administrator William Reilly; the environmental lawyer Gus Speth; scientists like MacDonald and Stephen Schneider; and dozens of other dignitaries. But action remains elusive.

Rich follows these efforts through the 1980s, marking the incremental advances until 1988, when Pomerance and Hansen achieve a breakthrough: The combination of a major heat wave in the United States and Hansen’s forceful testimony before the Senate finally puts climate change in the headlines. A few days later, Pomerance attends the “Woodstock for climate change” in Toronto to discuss emissions-reduction targets with scientists and politicians from around the world, all hoping to build support for a then seemingly plausible reduction of 20 percent by the year 2000.

Yet as the climate message picks up momentum, it begins to generate pushback. Though the oil industry conducted internal research on the greenhouse effect for years, most of its employees were ignorant of the relationship between fossil-fuel use and climate change until Hansen’s testimony. Faced with this challenge to their core commodity, industry executives decide that their best option is to enter the debate posing as benign skeptics—to question alarmist predictions, emphasize uncertainties, and discourage energetic regulation. But even as the industry begins to mobilize, it plays only a minor role in Rich’s narrative, one described in just a few pages. Instead, the main heavy here is former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, the White House chief of staff during the George H.W. Bush administration, a contrarian budget hawk who is suspicious of environmentalists and angry about the challenge they pose to the president’s authority.

Sununu comes out of nowhere in the closing chapters of the book to thwart what little progress has been made, directing the Office of Management and Budget to alter Hansen’s testimony and declaring climate change verboten in White House discussions. Yet Rich’s portrayal of him as a lone villain is so unconvincing that it merely magnifies the absence of the other opponents, the fossil-fuel industry in particular. Either way, we know who wins in the end. By 1989, Pomerance has wangled a fair amount of publicity but little power to back it up. That year, he travels to an international conference in the Netherlands, where representatives of some 60 countries gather to hammer out an agreement to stabilize global carbon emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.

Pomerance and other activists are there to advocate for an even more aggressive treaty—one that would not only stabilize emissions but reduce them. Yet their plan for achieving it is underwhelming, to say the least. They hope that by staging stunts and holding press conferences, they can embarrass the US delegate, Allan Bromley, into making a commitment. Unsurprisingly, the stunts have little effect. Even the less ambitious agreement to merely stabilize emissions is thwarted when Bromley works behind the scenes at Sununu’s direction to torpedo it.

With this, Rich’s history ends. What he sees as an age of innocence had come to a close, in two ways. It was clear that climate change was on the horizon and that it was going to be bad. But it was also becoming clear that knowledge of the threat alone would not rouse enough people to take up the common cause of planetary survival.

Much of this story is uncanny and unsettling. Reading about high-level discussions on climate change taking place a full four decades ago will disabuse you of any lingering fantasy that politics moves in a progressive direction over time. Yet although Rich shows us how some of the early advocates for action on climate change failed, he tells us very little about why. Focused as he is on a couple of characters, it is hard to get a sense of whether their meetings matter all that much even within the Beltway; certainly, we get no sense of the wider world outside these elite circles of scientists and policy-makers. Other than Sununu’s vindictiveness and human shortsightedness, we have very little sense of the forces arrayed against Hansen and Pomerance. The inattention to the fossil-fuel industry is most glaring, but Rich also fails to address the consolidation of business interests more broadly against efforts to decarbonize. Nor do we get a glimpse of the movements that might have responded otherwise—say, those outside DC organizing against Reaganomics. So reading Losing Earth often feels like reading a script for a West Wing episode about climate change, only with less repartee.

Politics, for Rich, takes place primarily within the halls of power. Perhaps this is because that is simply how Pomerance and Hansen saw things. They try valiantly to persuade other elites to put aside their differences in order to tackle a common threat and are surprised when they get nowhere. They never seem to consider changing tacks or bringing outside power to bear on their insider dealings. The public, in this strategy, is an amorphous mass to be mobilized only through occasional statements to the press. The prospect of engaging with existing social movements—including those not considered environmentalist—or organizing new ones seems never to occur to them or to Rich, even though the environmental-justice movement was taking off at the same time. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are represented by a group of philosophers and economists that Rich dubs “the Fatalists,” who deduce that “we could not be counted on to save ourselves.”

The limits of Rich’s story are particularly resonant in how he frames the stakes. He narrates early efforts to act on climate change as if they were happening in isolation from the political and economic turbulence of the decade he’s chronicling. We had “something close to a blank slate in the spring of 1979,” he writes in Losing Earth’s introduction; it was a time when the subject of climate change was still free of “political toxicity and corporate agitprop.” But 1979 as a “blank slate”—really? Certainly, it’s a curious way to describe a moment characterized by spiraling inflation amid the rise of a right-wing movement on the verge of taking power.

Despite his narrow focus, Rich draws broad conclusions. Climate change, he suggests, is just the latest in a series of unfortunate events since the Industrial Revolution when “humanity lost control of its technology” and the spinning jennies, coal furnaces, and steam engines took on lives of their own. Sure, fossil-fuel companies may have acted with “mustache-twirling depravity,” but for Rich, they are only partly to blame. Don’t kid yourself, he admonishes us: “Everyone knew,” but no one did anything. The problem, in the end, lies with all of us. “We do not like to think about loss, or death,” he solemnly declares, and so we looked away.

Ultimately, Rich’s history is told as a fable, complete with a moral. “I know that I’m complicit,” he observes. “My hands drip crude.” His epigraphs drive home this point. Several suggest that divine retribution awaits. He opens the book with a long passage from Proverbs 1:20-29, which includes the lines “And you neglected all my counsel / And did not want my reproof / I will also laugh at your calamity / I will mock when your dread comes.” He concludes with the lyrics to Tiny Tim’s “The Other Side”: “The ice caps are melting / The tide is rushing in / All the world is drowning / To wash away the sin.”

If you’re looking for sin, you’ll find it. But Rich could stand to look a little harder in the direction of the oil companies, energy lobbyists, and assorted Reaganites arrayed against Pomerance and his little band of environmentalists. The former appear hardly at all in the story he tells, and when they do, their good faith is generally assumed—even though they begin to act nefariously the minute it seems the underdogs might pose a threat. Rich seems constitutionally incapable of grasping the role of power in the political processes he claims to diagnose. Not everyone’s hands, however unclean, are on its levers. And Rich’s narrative, which explicitly seeks to dissuade readers from blaming the fossil-fuel companies for our current predicament, helps excuse those whose are.

It is an astonishing feat of false equivalence, for example, to suggest that someone who might have seen a video about climate change in high school or an item in an environmental newsletter—to name a couple of the examples that Rich gives to support his claim that “everyone knew”—is responsible for the failure to do anything about climate change in a way that approaches the culpability of companies that for decades put their unfathomable resources into studying the problem, or of a political party, then on the rise, that eventually made climate-change denial all but an official line. To compare all of us to such actors is to work very hard to make the case for shared culpability.

It’s true that pointing a finger at fossil-fuel companies, oil lobbyists, and Republican Party activists alone is insufficient. The entire world runs on cheap oil, and fossil-fuel executives have done what any good capitalist would do—that is, whatever they could get away with. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should absolve the fossil-fuel industry or its political backers of responsibility, but rather that we should indict the economic and political system that drives them.

While Rich zeroes in on a small group of policy elites and draws general lessons about all humanity from their actions, Wallace-Wells marshals vast quantities of data about our future but comes to few conclusions. Reflective rather than narrative in form, The Uninhabitable Earth has very few characters apart from the author himself grappling with the implications of an ever-hotter world to come.

Wallace-Wells takes seriously the charge that climate change will transform every aspect of human life, and he tries to cover it all, from ethics to economics, storytelling to technology. The result is an impressively thorough and thoughtful compilation, a useful and up-to-date primer addressing everything from the likelihood of a massive methane release from the Arctic’s melting permafrost to the future of warfare in a hotter world. Yet he is, if anything, perhaps too ecumenical. In his quest to be encyclopedic, he tends toward aggregation rather than synthesis, stacking every possible climate scenario into a murkily horrifying future and introducing contradictory ideas while doing very little to reconcile them.

The first half of The Uninhabitable Earth sticks closely to the formula of the viral article that his book is based on. Wallace-Wells relentlessly details the conditions of a world transformed by climate change. Each of the 12 short chapters addresses a specific kind of doom. He examines how a warmer planet will kill life in our oceans, make our air unbreathable, burn our forests, kill our crops, bake our cities. Climate change, he argues, threatens the most basic elements of our lives—where we live, what we eat, what we drink.

Floods in 2017 affected 41 million people in South Asia and killed 1,200; with an optimistic 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, he tells us, the land where 375 million people live would be flooded, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Indonesia is already making plans to move its capital from the sinking city of Jakarta.

Likewise, Wallace-Wells explains, the droughts that now occasionally ravage drier regions will threaten almost all of the world’s agricultural production, expanding the desert and creating dust bowls. Freshwater lakes and aquifers will dry up everywhere from the American West’s Ogallala Aquifer to central Asia’s Aral Sea. Cape Town, South Africa; São Paulo, Brazil; and Barcelona, Spain, have already faced water shortages in the past few years.

After this deluge of data, Wallace-Wells tries to make sense of why we haven’t acted to stop this foretold catastrophe and discusses how its unfolding will shape our lives. It is here, in the exploration of the social dimensions of climate change, that his book most clearly intersects with and diverges from Rich’s. Wallace-Wells opens The Uninhabitable Earth by emphasizing the speed with which climate change has worsened: Half of all carbon emissions from fossil fuels have been produced in the past three decades and about 85 percent since the end of World War II. Rich notes this too but sees it as evidence of futility: In the years since we came to understand it, climate change has only advanced, he says. For Wallace-Wells, this speeding-up indicates that the blame lies not with humanity as a whole. We don’t need to go back to the Industrial Revolution to learn what went wrong; instead, he argues, the problem is far more recent. It is a problem that has dramatically worsened within the span of a human lifetime.

On the question of its causes, however, Wallace-Wells wavers. At times he tends, like Rich, toward self-flagellation: “Each of us imposes some suffering on our future selves every time we flip a light switch, buy a plane ticket, or fail to vote.” Yet he also recognizes that addressing climate change through individual consumer choices is not sufficient and, unlike Rich, he is willing to name the system within which these choices are made. The left, he concedes, is right to center capitalism’s role in climate change.

Despite this concession, Wallace-Wells remains unwilling to follow through on its implications. “Many on the Left point to the all-encompassing system,” he writes, “saying that industrial capitalism is to blame. It is.” But—and there’s always a but—we are all stakeholders in capitalism, all complicit by way of our consumer habits.

It’s true in a very basic sense that we all bear some measure of responsibility for climate change. We all rely on fossil fuels; they are impossible to avoid. There is no ethical consumption under climate change, you might say. Yet in their fixation on individual complicity, both Wallace-Wells and Rich miss the point of structural analysis. We can’t absolve ourselves as individuals without changing the political and economic systems that shape our lives. Capitalism is the biggest of all, and yet people have been trying to systematically address its ills for a long time. At times they have even succeeded. This is not to say that it’s easy, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Many people have been able to understand social problems in relation to capitalism while understanding that capitalism is a human creation that can be unmade. Millions of people have come to understand their experiences in relationship to its larger dynamics and have identified political antagonists while recognizing that the problem is larger than those villains alone. All of these lessons are relevant to the struggle to understand and politicize climate change.

To his credit, Wallace-Wells clearly wants to believe that we can keep Earth habitable. He criticizes full-on doomsayers like Paul Kingsnorth, the English writer and founder of the Dark Mountain Project, who has argued that the destruction of nature is too far advanced and that we should give up and move to the woods as the earth revolts and civilization collapses. Wallace-Wells, by contrast, insists over and over that we have a shot at avoiding the worst and that it is our duty to take it. But to close his book by declaring that the portrait he has painted in such gruesome detail throughout previous chapters is “entirely elective” feels like the plot device that declares “It was all a dream!” That is to say, it is not very convincing—and not only because of the whiplash, but also because, after so many pages describing in sweeping terms what a hotter future holds and the reasons we’ve collectively failed to avert it, it is very hard to imagine how we could have acted differently.

If Rich’s narrative focuses too closely on the efforts of a few individuals, Wallace-Wells’s offers too little sense that humans are acting at all. Oil and climate are the primary actors in his story. Temperatures rise, and so does violence; as the use of fossil fuels expands, so does progress. Next to these heavy hitters, human agency seems to count for little. And while Wallace-Wells insists that we need to engage in politics, he gives little sense of what that entails. His exhortations, moreover, imply that the moment for politics is now or never: We can either prevent the truly catastrophic warming from happening or pass a point of no return and suffer the dark fate his book describes. But politics will continue to shape the world long after temperatures rise.

Rich too, in closing, pivots to a call for action, but he urges us to think about climate change not as a political issue but as a moral one—for “if we speak about climate as only a political issue,” he writes, citing the now-partisan nature of American climate politics, “it will suffer the fate of all political issues.” Moral claims, he argues, can override the kind of petty maneuvering that doomed the efforts that Losing Earth describes. But casting “the issue in human, rather than political terms,” as Rich would have us do, does not simply make the political challenges go away.

We have everything we need but the political will” is the oldest climate moral in the book, and one that very well might lead many to believe things really are hopeless. But the political will we need isn’t found only in Washington or just for leaders to discover or muster. Politics isn’t simply a “moral multiplier,” as Wallace-Wells describes it, or a battle of lobbyists, as Rich suggests; it’s an activity that has its own histories, lessons, and forms of resilience, all of which we would do well to study far more closely.

In fact, the absence of climate politics from these books makes them feel already somewhat dated. After all, climate change is very much on the political agenda these days, forced into the spotlight by a new wave of action that combines the language of scientific urgency with calls for justice, against mounting evidence that climate change is here in the form of thousands of people killed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and thousands of homes destroyed by wildfires in California. Indigenous water protectors and climate activists have blocked routes for the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who was inspired to run for office by the Dakota Access protests—announced immediately after her election that she would push for a Green New Deal and joined Sunrise Movement protesters sitting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They are part of an explosion of movements more generally, from Red for Ed to Black Lives Matter, insisting that things cannot continue as they have.

It is hard to tell what will come out of these various surges of political energy and action; they will surely unfold in ways we cannot predict. But what is clear is that these activists’ understanding of the problem extends beyond technical analyses of carbon emissions to encompass the broader system of corporate impunity, oligarchic power, and deep racial and class inequality within which climate change is unfolding. Above all else, what they understand is that tackling climate change requires collective action.

To recognize the significance of these new movements’ rise is not to say that you have to be cheery about our prospects. Nothing, not even the most ambitious version of the Green New Deal, is going to solve climate change, if by that we mean make it not happen, which is not at all the same thing as saying that it doesn’t matter what we do. But the point isn’t to arrive at a single solution. There is no real end, after all. The next 12 years are crucial for determining how much worse it will get, but the decisions before us will continue long afterward: decisions about whether to build walls or welcome refugees, about how to relocate homes as seas rise and how to make food as crops wither, about how to live together on a more difficult planet. We will be living with climate change forever. It is heavy as hell. But we must get used to it—and then figure out what to do next. And next. And next.

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