Losing Earth

Losing Earth - New York Times.jpg

The law of unintended consequences is at work at the climate desk of the New York Times Magazine. 

Just days after publishing journalist Nathaniel Rich's 30,000-word magnum opus "Losing Earth" on how humanity could have averted climate-change catastrophe in the 1980s but didn't, environmentalists themselves have condemned the tract for letting the fossil-fuel industry off the hook. No less a personage than Penn State University professor Michael E. Mann, creator of the famed hockey-stick graph, accused Rich of giving Exxon a free pass. “Frankly, I think a lot is missing," Mann mused. "The article feels tone-deaf to me. Its message, to quote the great and powerful Oz, seems to 'pay no attention to that billion-dollar fossil fuel industry disinformation campaign behind the curtain.'" Poor Rich. A year-and-a-half spent interviewing America's leading climate activists—James Hansen, Rafe Pomerance, Al Gore—in the cause of bequeathing to the movement a durable creation myth, and this is the thanks he gets. It cannot be stated too often: it isn't easy being green.

It also cannot be stated too often that eco-radicals like Rich deserve to be hoisted with their own petards.

In his short preface to "Losing Earth," NYT Magazine editor Jake Silverstein identifies the piece as "a work of history"—no doubt anticipating that critics might quibble with the author's bona fides. Nathaniel Rich, age 38, holds a degree in literature from Yale and has published three novels. In a 2013 New York Review of Books piece that ran under the title "A Genius for Disaster," Cathleen Schine called him "a gifted caricaturist and a gifted apocalyptist." She's certainly right about that.

But Rich is no historian. "Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979," he claims. "By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences." Everybody knew, Rich avers repeatedly.

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The idea that the science on global warming was settled and widely acknowledged by 1979 will come as a big surprise to North Americans who can remember meteorologists (and major news media) warning them that the Earth was then descending into a new ice age. (The most famous NCAR temperature graph from the period, shown here, left little to the imagination and, indeed, continues to perplex at least some climate scientists in the U.S.) Not that it mattered much because in those crisis-ridden years young people were already traumatized by fears of nuclear war—and then, in the early 1980s, by the spectre of nuclear winter. What we get from Rich's deft prose is a series of vignettes about the earnest but ultimately quixotic efforts of his protagonists to enlist politicians in the cause of reducing CO2 emissions—on the assumption that, sooner or later, the anthropogenic global-warming signal that had been theorized more than a century earlier would be separated from the noise of natural climate variability. Beyond that, we get precious little science, and almost no consideration of the broader social and political context in which the activists' doomsday warnings operated.

If this seems like an unfair criticism of an article intended merely to "track the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe," consider this parting volley from Rich's epilogue:

Like most human questions, the carbon-dioxide question will come down to fear. At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others.

Keeping the planet to two degrees of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees, would require transformative action. It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.

Fear, suffering, revolution—we seldom see the three horsemen of the climate apocalypse cataloged together so boldly. Indeed, for their candor alone—for clarifying what they believe is at stake in the climate crisis and what terrible sacrifices are required to avert it—humanity owes Nathaniel Rich and NYT Magazine a vote of gratitude. "It is true that much of the damage that might have been avoided is now inevitable," Rich concludes. But we need not despair. With a coordinated effort to exploit "the fears of young people"—i.e. by terrifying yet another generation of youth already beleaguered by collapse anxiety and myriad other species of existential angst—we might just be able to "preserve some semblance of the world as we know it."

Much like the unnamed U.S. army officer who said infamously of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre in 1968, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” climate radicals like Nathaniel Rich today believe they must destroy civilization to save it. Theirs is an unabashedly authoritarian project, and like authoritarians everywhere, they know they must start with the kids.