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Losing Earth

A Recent History

By Nathaniel Rich
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Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich

Losing Earth (2019) tells the story of climate change, both as a scientific fact and as a political conflict. This detailed piece of long-form reporting recounts the scientific community’s early push to raise the alarm about climate change and the coordinated effort the fossil fuel industry made to thwart those warnings.

Key idea 1 of 8

Scientists have demanded action on climate change for longer than you think.

The site: Geneva, Switzerland. Dozens of prominent scientists from all the world’s major powers have gathered for the first World Climate Conference. Their message is clear: industrial activity is drastically elevating the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If humanity wants to avoid disaster, we need to act now.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It could almost be a headline from this morning’s news. But this event didn’t happen yesterday or even last year. It happened in 1979.

The truth is, we’ve long understood the threat of man-made climate change. For decades, scientists have known of the causes, the disastrous effects, and how to avoid them. But, despite their efforts, we have failed to make the necessary changes.

The key message here is: Scientists have demanded action on climate change for longer than you think.

We can trace the modern push to stop climate change back to 1979. This was the year that Rafe Pomerance, an environmentalist working for Friends of the Earth, stumbled upon a startling report. It was put out by the Jasons, a scientific think tank led by geophysicist Gordon MacDonald. 

The report claimed that human activity was on track to doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It predicted that this change would set off a greenhouse effect, raising global temperatures and causing widespread ecological disruption. It was a nightmare scenario but based on solid arguments.

Alarmed, Pomerance contacted MacDonald. The two decided to use their connections in government to push for drastic change to avoid this fate. Over the next few months, they met with everyone they could in Washington. They talked with congressmen, the National Security Council, even senior staff of the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

The response was reassuring. The officials seemed to take the threat seriously. By July, Jule Charney, a leading meteorologist, organized a conference of top scientific minds to address the issue. And at the conference, NASA scientist Jim Hansen presented detailed computer models confirming the predictions made by Pomerance and MacDonald.

The result of this collaboration was a final report, sometimes called The Charney Report, titled Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment. It synthesized all the known variables into a clear narrative: If nothing changed, the world’s average temperature would go up three degrees. The results would be disastrous.

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