Are we doomed? Is it our fault? Our rapidly warming climate strongly suggests the answer is yes. But we had a chance to fix it, Nathaniel Rich argues in “Losing Earth,” his epic New York Times Magazine feature released on Wednesday.
Rich argues that when climate change first entered the American political imagination some 40 years ago, politicians in the United States were keen to confront the problem head-on. Obviously, they did no such thing.
Rich narrates the period that led up to that failure from 1979 through 1989 through the trajectories of climate scientist James Hansen and environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance, who went to great lengths to convince politicians and the public that the threat of global warming needed to be acted upon immediately to prevent civilizational collapse. Al Gore, then a young congressman, features prominently, too.
Rich’s story is a dogged, important, and nuanced piece of political journalism. Like much reporting on the subject, his piece attempts to understand a phenomenon feminist scholar Donna Haraway has termed the Great Dithering: our apparent inability and lack of will to curb emissions. Rich covers a lot of ground in the story’s 30,000 words, which is no easy task given how much is at stake.
Still, his account still falls short in one important way: It’s still not clear that it succeeds in showing how “we” as a species are to blame for failing to stop a threat fueled mainly by American corporations.
Rich begins by summarizing a decade of meetings, hearings, summits, and backroom deals between scientists, politicians, and lobbyists. The upshot? We blew it, and failed in “breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels.” Our only hope now rests in an “irrational optimism” that something—or someone—will change the course of nature. “It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others,” he submits.
In the story, global warming is presented as a problem that humans aren’t fully equipped or prepared to confront. “We have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present,” Rich writes. We “worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.” At a private event unveiling the piece Tuesday night, Rich put it more bluntly. “We haven’t reckoned, at the level of civilization, with what we’ve done to ourselves,” he explained.
But who’s done what to whom exactly? Who is the “we”?
The fact remains that other nations—197 of them—haven’t been quite as profligate on climate action as the United States, which accounts for around 15 percent of emissions worldwide. The kind of outright climate denial that helped arrest our participation in the Kyoto Protocol 21 years ago and, more recently, the Paris Agreement, isn’t widespread outside of the United States, either. It’s not that the global community has a fool-proof mitigation plan; it does not. But America’s particular failure to address climate change isn’t a failure of all of humanity. The Paris Agreement is “nonbinding, unenforceable and unheeded,” as Rich correctly writes, for a number of reasons—many of them having to do with industry influence. What’s more, the world’s commitment to climate action has not rested solely with the small cadre Rich profiles.