New book ‘Losing Earth’ looks back at how politics squandered a pivotal climate change moment

Climate change is top of mind these days for a lot of folks, whether you’re a 2020 presidential contender or a high school student staging a walkout. With more extreme weather and record years for heat — 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record — this issue is moving up as a top priority for many, especially younger people.

But talk of global warming and its impact on the planet have been going on well before today’s annual Earth Day or even the past few years. As author Nathaniel Rich laid out in a groundbreaking issue-long piece for The New York Times Magazine this past summer, the period between 1979 and 1989 was the “decade we almost stopped climate change.” But the discussion then was more focused on politics than science, and the U.S. government decided to sideline and table the issue.

Rich built off the momentum from that piece and goes into even more detail with his new book Losing Earth: A Recent History. In it, he paints the never-before-told story of the people behind these climate change debates. The scientists and activists who saw the red flags, mobilized and did everything within their power to impact changs, versus the maddening, debilitating war of politics, which decided that climate change wasn’t enough of a threat to take action.

GeekWire interviewed with Rich about his story-turned-book, the Green New Deal on the table, and why it’s going to take everything in our power to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius.

GeekWire: You are known for writing fiction. How did you come to environmental writing and this story?

Nathaniel Rich: I still write novels, but I am a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, and I’ve written about some environmental issues and climate change. My editors approached me about writing a full issue-length piece about climate change. They had this partnership with the Pulitzer Center on crisis journalism, so it’s the fruit of that partnership, and the second time they’d ever done something like this.

They wanted to do something about climate change, but what could it be? If we were to go about doing this, we needed to figure out a new way of writing about the subject.

Nathaniel Rich.

Like with any common narrative, climate change has taken on in public conversation its own tropes and cliches and patterns. In most climate journalism — and this is a broad generalization — it essentially takes a form: “Here’s a new outrage, president rolling out regulations, dropping out of Paris, or appointing some industry hack to some major cabinet position. This is a problem, the world is getting warmer by this amount, already feel ramifications, all these wildfires and droughts and etc. Here are the heroes and villains, and it’s not too late to act, but we have to act now.”

None of that is inaccurate, but you know the story by reading headline. You know what the story is going to be. That is very narrow way of looking at climate change.

The huge opportunity in this really long nonfiction piece was to take on what to me feels like the heart of the matter, which is the human story. How is this affecting us? How do we live with this knowledge? How do we deal emotionally and philosophically with this huge existential crisis come our way?

The way to access this is to go back in time before it became politicized. Before oil and gas developed decades-long, multibillion-dollar, anti-education efforts, or one party was co-opted by this hogwash. So we decided to set it in the period right before 1989, which is essentially where the clock stops on any efforts to solve the problem. The story hasn’t changed that much since then.

If we go back before that period, it was a fascinating time, the 10-year period when a small group of people were grappling with the problem for first time and got to the brink of a global solution at the end of the decade after failures and retreats along the way. This was a way to open up the story in broader way.

GeekWire: Let’s talk more about that decade, 1979 – 1989. There were a few key players who effectively blocked change: The Reagan administration, then John Sununu, White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush. Did you buy Sununu’s reasoning that governments make false promises when it comes to signing agreements and carry on business-as-usual? Or could we have impacted real change?

Nathaniel Rich: He’s the black hat there for sure. I think both are true. We have to, you know, not take seriously his scientific conclusions, but we do have to take seriously his geo-political conclusions, which are deeply cynical. All you have to do is look at the record of some of these countries, and it’s not a perfect alternate universe. The U.S. has never done anything to try to fight the problem.

You can look at other countries that have said all the right things, are progressive, have democracies that are flexible, closer to a kind of social-democratic model, and look at their record on climate change. They’ve done a lot better than the U.S., but fallen short of their resolutions. They have their own markers.

The Paris climate agreement, already, what is it? Only five countries in compliance with the goals set two years ago? (The organization Global Citizen reports seven: Morocco, The Gambia, Costa Rica, Bhutan, India, Philippines, and Ethiopia). And they’re all small countries, or developing nations.

I do think you have to take seriously that countries were talking the talk, but weren’t ultimately going to walk the walk. They were even saying, in the book and in the memoir by Allan Bromley, Sununu’s man in Noordwijk (the Dutch town where they had a massive climate discussions in 1989 to set global goals and sign an agreement), people said from other nations, “How are you going to meet these promises?” And they said, “Who cares? There’s no way to enforce it, so we’re just going to sign the documents.”

Technically, there was a huge opportunity and there were mechanisms in place by the end of the 80s to go to zero emissions globally, still to make a dramatic reach at the problem and to alter the rise, to tail the CO2 emissions.

If the U.S. had signed that agreement in Noordwijk, would all major powers keep to that target? Probably not. But would they be better than now? Probably. Climate change is a huge spectrum of outcomes. We wouldn’t be traveling down the same terrible path we are now.

GeekWire: People constantly argue that we don’t have the tools or technology to wean ourselves off fossil fuels at this point. Is that true?

Nathaniel Rich: I think it’s an argument the fossil fuel industry promotes and has for a long time. There was just a good piece in The New Yorker by John Cassidy, laying out the various plans that exist, and there are lots of them, to move to 100 percent renewables in a way that is profitable. There is a huge growing body of economic literature to support this as well.

Land use, nuclear power? We never get to the real policy debates to be had about these questions because of this scourge of denialism, we never even start that conversation. It’s very rare that people have reasonable conversations about the best ways to compensate workers who are coal workers if we close those down, or what’s the best use for revenue from a carbon tax. There’s real reasonable debate that could be had for economic solutions, but we don’t even have the debate.

We shouldn’t be debating whether the science has been established, which it was 40 years ago.

GeekWire: Do you see Democrats successfully running on The Green New Deal for 2020?

Nathaniel Rich: Well, I think the question should be, I think they’re being forced into it, which is a positive thing for our democracy and our planet. It’s been conventional wisdom until now not to mention it for mainstream Democratic candidates.

I think it’s a really positive development that they obviously feel that they have to speak about it and have a position on it. It’s a huge development, and by a Green New Deal, a transformational overall of energy and economic policy in the U.S., clearly the energy here is on the left, but it has been increasing on both sides of the political spectrum.

The major thing about this moment is not that people have become convinced the science is real, or they’ve seen enough wildfires or hurricanes, “Oh, it’s the 30th time around, so it must be real.” The difference is that people are talking about the issue in a very different register. People are speaking about it that not only is there an imperative logically to act, but a moral imperative to act.

You see that in the way people, like AOC, and other freshman house members, protestors, Sunrise Movement, that 16-year-old from Sweden (Greta Thunberg, who organized school walkouts and is now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize), to see them speak or protest. They don’t say, “This is really stupid we’re not acting. The science is here, and it’s irrational not to act.” They say, “You older people are killing us and robbing our future. This is a civil rights issue. You’re destroying our future.”

That’s a much different kind of argument. A moral, honest argument. That’s an argument that can’t easily be dismissed.

Now to see the first wave of what that means in this presidential campaign, they have to talk about it. The second wave is they have to commit to it as the top priority of the ticket. The only person who’s done that is Jay Inslee from Washington.

GeekWire: Do you think it’s possible to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius?

Nathaniel Rich: Probably not. It’s technically possible. I don’t think it’s likely. But we’re sort of venturing, that’s as far as I can go. I’m not a scientist, that’s where I’d defer to folks who do the science in the field. From what I’ve read, and I’ve read everything I can, it seems it’s possible.

James Hansen (a scientist and key player in the book who toiled on climate change warnings and solutions during that decade) has a plan that starts in 2020 right after Trump’s first term, which is a combination of a nuclear, carbon tax, and a hard pivot into renewable energy. After 12 years, it is supposed to be hugely profitable, and hold warming to under 2 degrees.

On paper it can be done. The question is the will. Another example of how we fall into horrifics is to set this up as a binary thing: Success or failure. There’s probably no success, but there’s a huge range of failure. Forget 2 and 3 degrees. There’s a huge difference between 2 and 2.1. This is why it’s important to try everything as fast as possible.

Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich is out April 9. Rich is speaking at a Town Hall event in Seattle on April 26.