I’ve never thought of myself of a pioneer in warning about climate change, but maybe, just a little.
Back in 1984, Viking published a book I wrote with Pascal J. Imperato, titled Acceptable Risks, which examined how regulators, and individuals, choose to ignore certain hazards—such as smoking or living in earthquake-prone California—while taking action against others, often in a highly irrational way. The penultimate chapter explored an emerging danger we called “The Ultimate Risk: The Greenhouse Effect.”
This is what it was called before it was referred to as “global warming” and then more accurately and broadly, “climate change.” Back in the good old days we figured we still had plenty of time to address it. In that period, the nuclear threat was the prime concern.
On the eve of another Earth Day, I decided to check back on that chapter, which I penned myself, for the first time in a few years. What I found: there’s not much new under the ever-hotter sun. The “inconvenient truth” of global warming has been told for decades—Dr. James Hansen was even featured in our chapter—to little avail. Ironically, I had interviewed the young congressman Al Gore for my previous book on whistleblowers, related to toxic dump sites.
In fact, the chapter in Acceptable Risks opens with a warning about the Antarctic ice sheet melting, and a rising of the sea level likely to “submerge” coastal cities. The paragraph that followed could have come directly from the famous Al Gore film (without the slide show) twenty years on: “There have been warming trends before, but never one so rapid as this—virtually overnight on the geological clock. Rather than having several hundreds years to cope with the changes it may bring, humankind will have to adjust in little more than half a century.”
Of course, we are now thirty years into that half-century.
“More than a severe disruption of the world economy is at stake,” I wrote. “The very survival of Earth’s highest forms of life may be on the line.” But, I advised, “Something can be done to prevent—or at least mitigate—this threat. On a global basis, humankind can cut down its burning of fossil fuels, stabilizing the excessive accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere that creates the hazard known as the Greenhouse Effect.
“There is no sign, however, that we have the slightest interest in doing this.”
Back then, scientists felt sure the warming would soon come—they accurately projected a one degree global rise in twenty years—but that normal temperature cycles were probably masking the trend, and “the lack of clear-cut evidence for a major warming effect may have terrible consequences, for it has already undermined efforts at getting governments of the world’s nationals to deal with the threat of such an effect.”
So what was our own Congress doing about it then? About as much as it is now. But there was sort of an excuse. Climate change, as noted, was still somewhat speculative. One top scientist told me, “To really know anything you'll have to wait another thirty years, so we won’t be able to convince Congress of anything until 2010.”
As it turned out, we came to know a lot long before thirty years passed. As Leonard Cohen once put it, “We asked for signs/and signs were sent.” But about that 2010 deadline…