Review: Losing Earth

Losing Earth.jpg

Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

Summary: An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day.

Did you know that much of the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and global warming traces back to the nineteenth century? That in the 1950’s and throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scientists were already warning of global warming and contending that warming connected with higher carbon dioxide levels was already evident? Did you know there was a time when climate change and the science behind it was not a political issue and that political leaders in both parties, and many others in most the the countries of the world, substantially agreed that this was a looming problem that needed to be addressed? That world leaders came very close to an agreement to limit and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 1989? That was thirty years ago. In 1990 human beings emitted more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of cutting that amount, by 2018, the amount was projected at 37.1 billion metric tons and growing.

Nathaniel Rich narrates the story of a lost moment through two figures: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and Gordon MacDonald, a climate scientist. A third figure who plays a prominent role is James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who compiled massive amounts of data, and gave compelling testimony wherever called upon. Pomerance, came across this finding in a government study on the continued use of fossil fuels: “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” That was in the Spring of 1979 and changed the course of his life. It led to his interview with Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, who was glad that someone beside him finally noticed.

Rich’s book traces their efforts to mobilize awareness and action, culminating in the formation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a climate summit in the Netherlands in 1989. Initially, action on climate change was widely supported, at least in public statements. Meanwhile, a transformation began to take place in the fossil fuel industry from studying the issue themselves and reckoning on the consequences of continued fuel use, to a movement of resistance and a challenge to the science, and exercise of increasing leverage. In the climate talks, the resistance of one US figure led to a meaningless agreement to which the US never subscribed, and an increasingly politicized discourse around climate issues. Perhaps the most stunning revelation of this book was that it was not always so.

Rich’s afterword is both hopeful and sobering. He both notes the technological advances that might be turned to action limiting global temperature rises to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Yet he also wrestles with the propensity of human beings to not act to address possible dangers down the road and instead prefer their present comfort. He not only condemns in the strongest terms those who twist and deny what they know. He challenges all of us:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

To see how close the world came to a climate agreement on carbon emissions in the 1980’s, to learn of a time when this was not a political football, suggests that it may be possible in the future. To avert the worst possibilities, it is imperative. One concludes Rich’s book wondering, will we seize or miss the opportunity that we have?


Planetary Denial


Our only home. Image credit: NASA

I’ve lived long enough to walk with friends facing terminal illnesses. One of the most character defining things is how one faces one’s death. One of the most relationship-defining moments is how the friends of the dying walk with their friends in those moments. One thing we do know is that denial never helps. Sometimes, denying a life-threatening illness averts treatment that can save life. Denying that one is dying prevents one from concluding one’s life well. Pretending a dying friend will get better prevents the conversations that allow people to say what is needed to finish well together.

I’m convinced that the planetary systems that sustain life on our planet are in a serious crisis. If you are not convinced of that, I really have no argument for you. Chances are, you’ve heard them all and don’t credit them.

I do. The rapid planet-wide rise of temperatures that corresponds to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide we have poured into our atmosphere already is having consequences. The death of coral reefs. An arctic free of ice. Coastal cities and inhabited islands that will be submerged. Droughts. Catastrophic fire seasons. Melting glaciers. Melting permafrost adding even more greenhouse gases, accelerating the process.

I’ve lived one place for thirty years. I garden. I’ve seen our growing season extend two to three weeks in that short period. We have more insects. Rains and storms are more intense. Winters are milder. Thirty years is a short time to see some of these changes on a year in, year out basis.

What I read, what I learn from politically impartial scientists who are friends, what I see around me, even what I feel, tells me I am not living in the world of my youth just fifty to sixty years ago. If there is anything to what I read, these changes are only going to intensify in the years ahead. We have yet to see all the effects of the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, let alone what we will emit in the years ahead.

In my childhood, we learned to live under the cloud of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war, at least so far, have stayed the hands of those who could unleash one. In one way, instant incineration, or a quick, if painful death from radiation sickness may be easier than what we could be facing.

The scenario before us seems to be one of survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost. Drought and famine will likely increase taking many by starvation, or others in wars for food and water. The migrations we have seen in recent years will likely increase, and the confrontations at borders become more violent. We will be in an increasingly unstable world, and even within national borders, tensions will increase. Living near the relatively abundant water supply of the Great Lakes, I wonder what tensions we will face even from other parts of our own country stressed for water. Meanwhile, food pressures or environmental degradation will mean rapid species die offs of other creatures. Imagine a dawn without bird song but simply the intensifying of unremitting heat. As oceans rise, the question occurs to me of where will all the people in our coastal cities live and work?

It won’t all happen at once, which gives us the illusion that somehow we will escape the apocalypse. No doubt, this is what assures the powerful that they can get by. And maybe they will. Those in power today will likely die a natural death, as probably will I. But if the predictions hold, every year will get a little worse. Within a generation, we will know we are in an unremitting global crisis that will take generations or millennia to reverse. In two generations, many places on our planet will be hellish, and it seems credible to me that our social order will not sustain the brutal struggle for survival that will ensue.

I think we all hope for an amazing techno-fix. This seems like our hopes for miracle cures, or even miracle diet plans! Given the complex systems, and planetary scale, and how far down the road we are, I think the best we may do is prepare for the future, and do what we can not to make it worse. From what I can see, we’re not even doing that, and we crucify anyone who seriously talks about the drastic steps needed just to keep planetary temperatures from rising “only” 3 degrees Celsius.

As a Christian, my belief that Jesus is Lord of all challenges me to bring all my thoughts about this under his Lordship. I’m wrestling with what this means when I’m pretty convinced we face an existential crisis as a species we’ve not faced. For starters, I think this means continuing to live by faith. It means that I bring this crisis, and how I live to Him. If I believe all things were created through and sustained by Christ, that means that I do not stop looking to him when things appear dire. It may be that our hope is only in the “new heavens and new earth” of which scripture speaks. That’s not up to me. What is up to me is to continue to live as a responsible steward and caretaker of God’s world. I am increasingly aware that I, and all of us will answer for how we cared for the world, for the species, and fellow human beings who died because we did not care for it well. It challenges me to do all I can and to cherish and preserve the beauty of the earth while we can.

My faith teaches me that love of God and neighbor are intricately intertwined. As Christian communities, I think we will need to wrestle more deeply with how we will care for neighbors who experience loss and need. Will we adopt a “lifeboat ethic” or a “lay-down-our lives” ethic?

It seems to me that Christian communities need to begin talking about these things. These are end of planetary life conversations, and as desperately important as any other end-of-life conversation. It may be an easy escape to hope for the return of Christ to deliver us from all these things. But Jesus says we cannot know the day or hour of this, and we cannot count on this coming before things get bad. What we can count on is that there will be a reckoning for how we lived in these bad times.

There are some who will think all this is extreme. I so hope you are right. I would love to be proved wrong. But all that I know, see, even feel in my bones tells me we face something as serious as humanity has ever faced. The planet will survive. Whether we do is another question. It may depend on whether we face the hard truths before us, and on how we live whatever life is given us.

After Paris


By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).

I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.

1.  Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?

2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?

3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.

4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.

5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.

6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech.  He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?

In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.