I’ve just finished reading this gargantuan piece from the NY Times, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, which tells the story in the late 80’s of how we almost ended up with meaningful, binding agreements globally to reduce CO2 emissions, when doing so would have drastically reduced the cost of dealing with climate change in the 21st century.
As you’d imagine from as big ticket piece from the likes of the Grey lady, it’s a gripping story. I learned loads of new things about how the narratives used for the global response to ozone depletion was so swift compared with relative foot dragging on climate change, and how long it had been on the radar of the US government.
It’s also somewhat heartbreaking to know how close we came, and towards the end, I found it pretty difficult to come away without wanting to blame one of the political operators in the Bush administration, James Sununu, for effectively scuttling the negotations when there seemed to be something approaching consensus on reducing CO2 emissions.
In fact, he’s the closest thing the story really has to an antagonist, which is pretty impressive given you have Exxon in the room for half the substantive meetings mentioned.
There’s a good response from Naomi Klein, which I think provides some useful context about the voices involved:
Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.
It’s not that surprising that the New York Times might be a bit US-centric, but one other thing that hadn’t been so obvious to me was the political climate itself , and the rise of neoliberalism – these were the pretty much the heydays of Thatcher and Reagan:
the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.
It’s 30,000 words long, so basically a novella, but if you’re interested in anyway by the climate, it’s worth a read.