COP26 Part 1
Losing Earth: The Decade we Could Have Stopped Climate Change 

By Nathaniel Rich
Published by Picador, 2020 Paperback, £9.99 rrp at Bookbusters

Review of Tim Barton

Put aside the foolish subtitle – climate change is an ongoing process, with anthropogenic factors that effect change globally limited to a few specific periods of our history. Rich’s book is a well-researched yet chattily readable history of a decade beginning in 1979, a decade that offered real chances to alter the path of the global heating juggernaut. As Rich explains, these chances were frittered away, as have the potential gains of a few opportunities since then, each closer to the tipping points after which only serious mitigation was possible.

In a way, Losing Earth is an epitaph, because by now only desperate and after-the-fact amelioration is possible – with the terrible consequences of two centuries of industrial productivism and increasing consumerism pretty much locked-in, inaction will be worse than acting too late, but either way we are facing an historically unprecedented loss for Gaia and all the species we share our biosphere with, including, of course, ourselves.

The author introduces us to a handful of “scientists from more than two dozen disciplines, political appointees, members of Congress, economists, phil-osophers, and anonymous bureaucrats” who came close to “breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels”. These included Rafe Pomerance and Gordon MacDonald, who managed to get the ear of Washington’s most influential, James Hansen, Jule Charney, Edward Teller, and “the Jasons”, “a mysterious coterie of elite scientists” that Rich describes as “like one of those teams of superheroes with complementary powers who join forces in times of galactic crisis”.

From the summer of 1977 onwards the Jasons developed an understanding of our carbon budget based on earlier work. These included, for example, nineteenth-century discoveries regarding ‘greenhouse gasses’ by John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius, and Charles Keeling and Roger Revelle’s work from 1957 onwards that had led, in 1965, to a study commissioned by then president Lyndon B Johnson that concluded that the “altered composition of the atmosphere on a global scale” would lead to changes that could “not [be] controllable through local or even national efforts”. The Jasons published a slightly terrifying treatise, The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate, projecting the likely effects of a two or three degree global warming. Charney’s report was similarly apocalyptic. Both look crazily optimistic from today’s perspective.

By 1980 Exxon, and other fossil-fuel industry behemoths, stepped up their own carbon dioxide investigations (which, as with the tobacco industry, had really begun in the 1950s). Naturally, key aims of their work were to analyse how much blame may come their way, and to develop a “very aggressive defensive program”. In June
1980 president Jimmy “Carter signed the Energy Security Act”. Henry Shaw, of Exxon’s research laboratories, was invited to work on climate legislation, alongside various less complicit experts. Battle lines were drawn, and as Reagan entered the White House, things got heated and complicated. But the data was out, and hope was in the air. 

As the eighties progressed, real opportunities came and went, and the decade’s hopes, fears, and failures are outlined in detail by Rich. In 1987, the UN published the Brundtland Report Our Common Future; in 1988, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was convened for the first time; in 1989, Margaret Thatcher “called on world leaders to organise a global warming convention”. Things could be seen as positive, but the US government and industry lobbyists averted an emissions freeze and launched a decade of greenwashing, fig-leafing, business-as-usual, and denialist funding, even whilst giving lip-service to the overwhelming scientific evidence that ‘anthropogenic warming’ (green-house gas emissions from human industry and agriculture) was a real, clear and present danger.

The next chance to steer the juggernaut onto different tracks, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), begins
in Glasgow on 31st October and runs for a fortnight. The urgency felt by Pomerance and MacDonald over forty years ago has spread and deepened. Many of those attending want real change. Some don’t. Some who do, also want to cover their own backs. Some fear electoral backlash from traditional voter bases if action taken is too firm (‘too firm’ being the minimum necessary). Most believe globalised industrial ‘green technology’ is a ‘solution’, and a fair few that geo-engineering and vast industrialised carbon sequestration projects are a ‘solution’, which leaves those who have been paying attention to carbon budgets and the dangers of hubristic attempts to ‘control nature’ on a vast and irreversible scale more than worried.

Will COP26 achieve anything useful? Will positive pronouncements and lip-service dissipate in the following months? Will anything substantial agreed be enough? And, will it be enacted in non-regressive and socially
just ways, or will it batter the poor and protect the wealthy? Lay your bets, but as Losing Earth demonstrates, err on
the side of cynicism or be sorely disappointed…

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