RealClimate logo


Musing about Losing Earth

The NY Times Magazine has a special issue this weekend on climate change. The main article is “Losing the Earth” by Nathaniel Rich, is premised on the idea that in the period 1979 to 1989 when we basically knew everything we needed to know that climate change was a risk, and the politics had not yet been polarized, we missed our opportunity to act. Stated this way, it would probably be uncontroversial, but since the article puts the blame for this on “human nature”, rather than any actual humans, extensive Twitter discussion ensues…

Before we link to some of the more thoughtful responses, a quick reminder that a lot of people read the NY Times magazine (far more than follow any climate scientists on Twitter or Facebook), and that as David Roberts at Vox has pointed out, having differently-told climate stories – even if they are manifestly imperfect, might help broaden the conversation and basic awareness that this is a story worth delving into. Secondly, the last big NY Times magazine story I remember related to climate was the execrable profile of Freeman Dyson – a fascinating topic in theory, but one which focused on the least interesting thing about him – a barely warmed up stew of stale climate skepticism.

The article itself is supported by a lot of background work, some visually stunning photography by George Steinmetz and lesson plans hosted by the Pulitzer Center.

So, here is some of the more interesting commentary:

From Emily Atkin at New Republic:

“Losing Earth” is an impressive piece of journalism for several reasons. One is simply that it’s the Times’ longest-ever article—and it’s about global warming. This comes at a time when much of the news media is failing to live up to its responsibilities covering climate change, an issue that affects the entire population, hundreds of ecosystems, and every economic sector. Rich’s story, too, is proof that the climate story can be told in an engaging—fast-moving, human-centric, funny, and frustrating—way.

And the insights about human nature are worth pondering. “We’re a medium-term species,” he said in April. “We plan ahead, but only so far. We’re willing to sacrifice comfort in the present for security in the future, but within reason.” But the fossil fuel industry and Republicans know that, and have successfully exploited it for the last thirty years. “Losing Earth” is thus not the whole story of human’s failure to act on climate change. Its flaw is that it’s painted as such.

From Leah Stokes:

From Alex Steffen:

Both Climate Progress and Huffington Post have quotes from scientists (including Mike Mann, Bob Brulle, Jennifer Francis and David Titley) who are generally not supportive of the main conclusion.

Naomi Klein has her own idea of whose fault it was:

When I looked at the same period, I came to a very different conclusion: that what at first seemed like our best shot at lifesaving climate action had in retrospect suffered from an epic case of historical bad timing. Because what becomes clear when you look back at this juncture is that just as governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.

The failure to make even a passing reference to this other global trend that was unfolding in the late ’80s represents an unfathomably large blind spot in Rich’s piece.


At this point in a post, I’m supposed to summarise all of this and give my own informed opinion but… truth be told, I’m on vacation, and I haven’t got around to reading it all yet. So rather than demonstrate my own confirmation bias, let’s open it up. Maybe I’ll have something to say later this week…

207 Responses to “Musing about Losing Earth”

  1. 201
    Mike Roberts says:

    There seems to be a lot of push-back over the notion that human nature is to blame, rather than some specific set of humans. However, unless you believe that humans aren’t just another mammal that evolved over deep time, one has to accept that our species has a characteristic behaviour, like any other species. The details may vary depending on the environment that members of any species have to live in but there is a characteristic behaviour. So what can we surmise from what humans (as a whole) have done since we really started to get a grasp of what we were doing to the climate? Can we really expect humans to act differently from how they’ve acted up to now? The Paris climate accord brought forth lots of apparent commitments (including one to make best efforts to avoiding 1.5C) but, at a macro level, all we see are actions which just make things worse.

    Whilst there are some humans that are worse than others (and some that are better), it is our characteristic species behaviour which is really to blame. Otherwise, we’d be voting for parties that promise to halt economic growth. Hold on, there are no such parties. I wonder why not.

    This is just one random blog entry of hundreds which put more flesh on the notion of human behaviour. The “Flatland” essays are worth reading.

    Human nature is definitely the prime culprit, to my mind, and the reason why we will continue to do nothing significant to mitigate the damage we’re doing.

  2. 202
    nigelj says:

    Kevin McKinney @199

    This might be of interest:

    How Republicans came to embrace anti-environmentalism

    https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/7/6/17540154/scott-pruitt-resigns-epa-republicans-environmentalism

  3. 203
    Mr. Know It All says:

    201 – Mike R
    I’d say you are correct – it’s largely human nature that prevents progress – people don’t want to change – we love our FF powered cars, warm homes in winter, 60″ TVs, surround sound, monster trucks/SUVs, trips to Europe/Australia/Asia/Africa/South America/the climate change conference/the inauguration with our pu$$y hats, blah, blah, blah.

    Trump may not be helping find solutions to AGW, but he’s insignificant – ditto his entire administration. Many administrations have done nothing or very little. Nigel thinks bad-mouthing Republicans will help – that’s how deluded HE is – and he’s not alone. That’s about ALL he and millions of other Trump haters do!

    Trump ain’t your problem – YOU ARE! Stop spewing CO2. NOW! You have the power. Ride that bike to work, or ride an electric motorcycle, or take a bus/train/carpool. Local governments can force changes – don’t wait on the feds. People with concealed carry permits want the feds to pass reciprocity for all states, but they haven’t done it – they aren’t helping US! It’s not just environmental wackos. Trump voters want them to make it legal for insurer’s to offer non-Obamacare-compliant HC policies and they ain’t done it – we’ve screamed and yelled for 2 years and they ain’t done s#!+ for us and we put them in power!

    Don’t wait on a bunch of dumbazz bureaucrats – do it yourselves!

    Lots of smart folks here that might, if they applied their talents, find some solutions to help start removing CO2, but instead they fart around with computer programs about AGW, when they claim IT’S SETTLED SCIENCE – SO WHY WASTE TIME WITH IT – PUT THOSE POWERFUL BRAINS TO WORK FINDING SOLUTIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. 204
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mr. KIA: “Trump ain’t your problem – YOU ARE!”

    Nice try. However, policies matter. The economy matters. Improving fuel economy for cars and trucks matters. How we produce our energy matters. It is not a choice between the status quo and a stone-age economy. Rather it is a choice between a 21st century economy and a temporary 19th century economy. Donald Trump is not just implementing wrongheaded and reactionary policies, he is denying the problems even exist and thereby giving aid and comfort to self-satisfied ostriches like you.

  5. 205

    Mike, #201–

    Can we really expect humans to act differently from how they’ve acted up to now?

    Yes, we can. Normative human behavior has changed quite dramatically over time. The question is, can we change again, fast enough?

    The Paris climate accord brought forth lots of apparent commitments (including one to make best efforts to avoiding 1.5C) but, at a macro level, all we see are actions which just make things worse.

    Can’t agree. We do see many actions that make things better, as well. (For instance, the ongoing death of coal-fired power generation.) Is it enough now, on balance? Of course not. But denying the existence of helpful action tends toward a useless despair that immobilizes–“Despair is not adaptive.”

    39 days to the US mid-term elections. Go to the polls and

    VOTE CLIMATE!

    (And don’t stop there–talk climate, organize for climate, act for climate, choose for climate, and keep on thinking about climate.)

  6. 206
    Chris O'Neill says:

    Mr. Know Nothing:

    “we love our FF warm homes in winter”

    Blatant straw man argument. There’s no law of physics that says significant quantities of FF are necessary to keep homes warm in winter.

  7. 207

    #202, Nigel–

    Excellent piece. Thanks for linking it.

    It demonstrates, yet again, that the ‘war on the environment’ isn’t a fluke; it’s at the heart of America’s culture wars, right in there with ‘traditional’ gender and racial politics and power structures. And that’s something that I think needs to be more widely understood. I don’t think I really ‘got it’ til I read “Dark Money”, by Jane Mayer.