Humanity has never faced an existential threat as severe as climate change, and while the exact nature of the issue is becoming better understood and more dire, the fact that leaders across business, politics, and science knew about it decades ago and did nothing (or not enough) is particularly distressing. John Lanchester provides a timely review of Nathaniel Rich's Pulitzer Center-supported book Losing Earth in a The New York Times book review.
Lanchester begins by noting the unprecedented nature of the challenge we face. "The demand climate change makes on us is to feel empathy for the unborn poor of the global south, and change our economies to act on the basis of their needs. That's something humanity has never done before."
But understanding the magnitude of the solution is only "part of the tragedy. It's not just that we know what's happening, it's that we've known for years and done nothing." This is the central premise of Rich's Losing Earth. He covers a period between 1979 and 1989, during which scientists brought some noteworthy attention to climate change, only to have their efforts scuttled, leading directly to "more carbon [being] emitted into the atmosphere since that 1989 [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] conference than in the preceding history of civilization."
For Rich, the failure to act was essentially twofold. First, scientists struggled to send forth a clear message with sufficient force—the issue was complex, probability models inconsistent, and the potential disaster felt too far off. "The effect of all this was that the fight against climate change lost momentum at a critical point."
Of course, climate scientists only deserve part of the blame, and the lion's share rightly belongs with fossil fuel companies and their allies in Washington, DC. "The big fossil fuel firms knew the realities of human-caused climate change but chose to ignore them," Lanchester writes. They also funded enormous lobbying efforts which found them willing accomplices in the Republican Party. Efforts to deregulate environmental protections throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s accelerated the damage and pushed the world precipitously closer to the point of no return.
"Climate change is a tragedy, but Rich makes clear that it is also a crime — a thing that bad people knowingly made worse, for their personal gain. That, I suspect, is one of the many aspects to the climate change battle that posterity will find it hard to believe, and impossible to forgive."
Other reviews have echoed Lanchester's observation. Writing for National Public Radio, Adam Frank commented that "reading like a Greek tragedy, Losing Earth shows how close we came to making the right choices — if it weren't for our darker angels. It's a story of 'heroes, villains and victims,' and when it comes to the villains, Rich...does not pull punches."
Kirkus Review also called Losing Earth "a maddening book full of what-ifs and the haunting suspicion that if treated as a political problem and not as a matter of life and death, climate change will cook everyone's geese."