Sunday, August 5, 2018

Road Not Taken

I first learned about the greenhouse effect as an unsuspecting undergrad at New York's City College. That was in the early days of the environmental movement. (I attended the first-ever Earth Day Central Park in 1970 while an undergraduate.) It was a time when we were all increasing in awareness of a multitude of environmental threats, of which, I suppose, I saw the global warming due to  the greenhouse effect as just  one more  of them. It was also a time when the expectation was that we would somehow get a handle on these problems and solve them. (Nixon established the EPA that same year 1970). To the extent that I thought about those issues in grad school, not much changed in the way I continued to think about them - and expect that they would somehow be solved by a combination of political action and scientific and technical inventiveness. I do remember one professor in an International Law seminar saying that what was really so worrisome about this issue was how the people who knew the most about it (i.e.., scientists) seemed to be the most concerned!

Indeed they were! 

That much is clear from a two-part article in The New York Times Magazine, called "Losing Earth," by Nathaniel Rich. It examines a decade when the causes and consequences of climate change first became well known. If one reads nothing else serious this week, one should probably read this  fascinating and saddening account -

The story Rich recounts is, as I said, fascinating - and infinitely saddening. For there was a time - not really all that long ago, in living memory of many of us alive today - when the crisis we are now experiencing as Climate Change was already sufficiently well understood and when the world's major powers were closer than they have ever since been to adopting a global framework for addressing its causes.

Unfortunately that decade coincided with something else - a political revolution in the United States that began with the disastrous election of 1980. According to Rich:

"After the election, Reagan considered plans to close the Energy Department, increase coal production on federal land and deregulate surface coal mining. Once in office, he appointed James Watt, the president of a legal firm that fought to open public lands to mining and drilling, to run the Interior Department. 'We’re deliriously happy,' the president of the National Coal Association was reported to have said. Reagan preserved the E.P.A. but named as its administrator Anne Gorsuch, an anti-regulation zealot who proceeded to cut the agency’s staff and budget by about a quarter. In the midst of this carnage, the Council on Environmental Quality submitted a report to the White House warning that fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” alter Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “a warming of the Earth, possibly with very serious effects.” Reagan did not act on the council’s advice. Instead, his administration considered eliminating the council."

Watt and Gorsuch! Recognize those nasty names?             

"By the end of 1982, multiple congressional committees were investigating Anne Gorsuch for her indifference to enforcing the cleanup of Superfund sites, and the House voted to hold her in contempt of Congress; Republicans in Congress turned on James Watt after he eliminated thousands of acres of land from consideration for wilderness designation. Each cabinet member would resign within a year."

But the direction had been set. Meanwhile, even apart from that problem, there remained the even more fundamental problem of the inherently short-term reference-point for American politics and politicians:

"This was the only political question that mattered: How long until the worst began? ... Politicians were capable of thinking only in terms of electoral time: six years, four years, two years.

As I said above, this is one article that everyone needs to read. It is fascinating, but ever so saddening, as we realize how close we almost came to addressing this problem that is now breathing down upon us - its hot breath quite literally doing so around the world right now. Even were our dysfunctional political leadership to undertake now at this late date to address the crisis, there is already irreversible damage that has been done to our world.

Dare we still hope in the human future?

No comments:

Post a Comment