No, we did not “lose Earth” in the 1980s

The history of the climate change issue is disappearing down the memory hole. Instead, we are getting narratives that are both dramatic and fact-filled, but give a misleading impression of what actually happened.

During the 1980s, the idea that humans might be changing the global climate started to capture the interests of politicians and the public. There are several different, sometimes contradictory versions of what happened in the early days, but the common denominator is that something wrong happened or started during that time that derailed the issue and kept the world from dealing effectively with climate change.

One version is given in Oreskes and Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt, which I wrote about at length in a series of blog posts seven years ago. Another is a 2018 New York Times piece by Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. It’s extremely long and detailed (over 30,000 words), but it chronicles many of the key events during that time.

One similarity between the two accounts is that they are both very hard to question unless you study them carefully. They both present lots of facts. In actual science, facts (data) are treated systematically so that it (ideally) is clear to the reader how those facts lead to the conclusions that are presented. In Merchants of Doubt and Losing Earth, those facts are instead embedded in a complex, dense narrative that makes it harder to see how they relate, what’s relevant and what might be missing.

As I said in my discussion of Merchants of Doubt: “The mass of detail and the number of different characters makes it hard to keep track of who did what”. Similarly, Losing Earth is full of descriptions of people and events, all the way down to gestures, as in this passage:

MacDonald’s voice was calm but authoritative, his powerful, heavy hands conveying the force of his argument. He was a geophysicist trapped in the body of an offensive lineman — he had turned down a football scholarship to Rice in order to attend Harvard — and seemed miscast as a preacher of atmospheric physics and existential doom.

The problem is that only a few of the facts presented actually pertain to the overall message that we “lost Earth”, which is captured in this paragraph:

…in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Exactly when did this happen, and how? This paragraph seems to be the answer:

A broad international consensus had settled on a solution: a global treaty to curb carbon emissions. The idea began to coalesce as early as February 1979, at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva, when scientists from 50 nations agreed unanimously that it was “urgently necessary” to act. Four months later, at the Group of 7 meeting in Tokyo, the leaders of the world’s seven wealthiest nations signed a statement resolving to reduce carbon emissions. Ten years later, the first major diplomatic meeting to approve the framework for a binding treaty was called in the Netherlands. Delegates from more than 60 nations attended, with the goal of establishing a global summit meeting to be held about a year later. Among scientists and world leaders, the sentiment was unanimous: Action had to be taken, and the United States would need to lead. It didn’t.

The ambiguity of “action” or “act” seems to be the central rhetorical device in Losing Earth. Rich keeps pointing out scientists’ calls for “action” without mentioning that they are calling for research, monitoring or further discussions, not concrete steps to reduce CO2 emissions. This is apparent here and also in the discussion of the 1985 WMO report.

William M. Connelly has done a fine job debunking the first of these claims, about the World Climate Conference in 1979: “So in the end I think the detailed text resolves the ambiguity; the urgently necessary to act paraphrase is wrong.”

The next claim is much more deceptive, and perhaps the fishiest in the entire piece. “…the leaders of the world’s seven wealthiest nations signed a statement resolving to reduce carbon emissions.” According to the declaration from the meeting, what they resolved was to use less oil because of “higher oil prices and oil shortage”. Carbon emissions and climate change had nothing to do with it.

The third event mentioned is “ten years later”, in 1989. That was at the very end of the “losing Earth” decade. Rich is not wrong about the facts in this case, but the relevance to the idea of a lost opportunity during that decade is hard to see. It happened “during that decade” in much the same way that the iPhone was launched in the century from 1907 to 2007.

As for “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge.”, the banal truth is that preventing humans from emitting CO2 is fiendishly difficult and expensive, and would have been even more difficult then.

“Nothing stood in our way,” says Rich. Actually, what was “standing in our way” is crystal clear. The planet had not warmed significantly since 1940, the scientific study of the matter was in its infancy, the technology to limit CO2 emissions was either primitive by today’s standards (wind and solar) or vehemently opposed by environmentalists (nuclear). The issue only started to gradually break into mainstream public awareness during the ’80s.

That’s not as exciting a story as the ones based on the mythology around the issue. That mythology is better suited to writing gripping narratives suffused with human drama: there are heroes and villains, moral champions versus cynics, visionaries versus bovines, acts of daring, sacrifice, strength and determination. And stories like Losing Earth feed off the emotional attractiveness of such narratives.

Let’s start with the science.

The science was not persuasive

There is a key background fact that makes it much easier to understand what was going on: Until the 1970s, no global warming had been observed for several decades. In fact, it looked more like dramatic cooling.

1975 NAS graph of northern hemisphere temperature record

Temperatures started rising again during the 1980, but it’s clear that global warming must have been a “hard sell” in those days. Scientifically speaking, the data seemed to contradict the theory, and the most important data that the current prevailing view is based on didn’t exist yet: the temperature rise after around 1975–1980. Nor would the public or politicians be likely to accept a theory that the increasing CO2 would cause the world to warm when it in fact it wasn’t happening.

This situation only started to change during the 1980s when global temperatures again seemed to be increasing, as you can see from this current graph:

The problem is fairly clear from the Losing Earth article as well. Observations of global warming don’t even begin to look persuasive until the late 1980s:

Just over halfway into the year, 1988 was setting records. Already it had nearly clinched the hottest year in history.

So what were the scientists thinking? Clearly, they had not always been convinced that the world would become warmer:

Astronomer Fred Hoyle’s 1981 book

…as recently as the mid-’70s, the hypothesis advanced by some of the nation’s most celebrated scientists — including Carl Sagan, Stephen Schneider and Ichtiaque Rasool — that a new ice age was dawning, thanks to the proliferation of man-made aerosols.

But Rich manages to tell a misleading story about how the science developed during the ’80s, partly by using today’s terminology (such as “climate crisis”) to describe events before those terms existed, and partly by outright misrepresentation. First off is this bombastic claim:

It is incontrovertibly true that senior employees at the company that would later become Exxon, like those at most other major oil-and-gas corporations, knew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1950s.

Well…yes but mostly no. What is true is that the theory of global warming from greenhouse gases  was developed in terms of basic physics as far back as the 19th century. What is not true is that it was known how this would actually affect the global climate. Given the complexity of the climate system, there was no way to know whether—or by how much—this warming effect would be counteracted (or amplified) by feedbacks or whether it would be swamped by natural processes, known or unknown at the time. Yet Rich makes a similar claim about the beginning of the 1980s:

The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences.

Which “main scientific questions” this might be is unclear. The IPCC was grappling with some of the “main scientific questions” in the 1990s, chief among them the question “has the planet warmed due to human activity?”

And, we are told later that conclusive evidence of warming was apparently not one of those settled issues:

At the start of the 1980s, scientists within the federal government predicted that conclusive evidence of warming would appear on the global temperature record by the end of the decade, at which point it would be too late to avoid disaster.

Nor did those scientists  have a realistic idea abot how much the world would warm:

Some of the attendees confused uncertainty around the margins of the issue (whether warming would be three or four degrees Celsius in 50 or 75 years [from 1980]) for uncertainty about the severity of the problem.

More than 40 years later, we can say with some certainty that there will not be three or four degrees of warming from 1980 to 2030 or even 2055. We’re now at about 0.8 degrees higher than 1980 (if we believe the current adjusted figures) and 2030 is only 9 years away. Even the highest IPCC projections don’t exceed 2 degrees by 2055.

Rich cites a 1983 report from the National Research Council. This is described in a way that leaves the impression that chairman William Nierenberg was contradicting himself spectacularly, or— perhaps more accurately—shooting himself in the foot.

The committee’s chairman, William Nierenberg — a Jason, presidential adviser and director of Scripps, the nation’s pre-eminent oceanographic institution — argued that action had to be taken immediately, before all the details could be known with certainty, or else it would be too late.

That’s what Nierenberg wrote in “Changing Climate.” But it’s not what he said in the press interviews that followed. He argued the opposite: There was no urgent need for action. The public should not entertain the most “extreme negative speculations” about climate change (despite the fact that many of those speculations appeared in his report).

Except that’s not what he wrote in the report. From the beginning of his preface to the report:

These problems can also be so important that they should not be avoided or ignored until the fog lifts. We simply must learn to deal more effectively with their twists and turns as the unfold. We require sensible regular progress to anticipate what these developments might be with a balanced diversity of approaches.

And in the next paragraph:

Our stance is conservative: we believe there is reason for caution, not panic.

Yes, he called for action, but not in the sense that would phrase would be understood today: as concrete measures to cut CO2 emissions.

The next report Rich misrepresents is one from the World Meteorological Organization in 1985:

The formal report ratified at Villach contained the most forceful warnings yet issued by a scientific body…Though some warming was inevitable, the scientists wrote, the extent of the disaster could be “profoundly affected” by aggressive, coordinated government policies.

From today’s perspective, that certainly looks like a dramatic call for aggressive action to curtail CO2 emissions. But here is what they actually wrote:

The rate and degree of future warming could be profoundly affected by governmental policies on energy conservation, use of fossil fuels, and the emission of some greenhouse gases.

No mention of a “disaster”, nor of aggressive, coordinated policies. Not surprising, perhaps, that Rich does not include a link to the report.

The report’s recommendations concerned “public information efforts”, climate research and “an active collaboration” between scientists and politicians “to explore the effectiveness of alternative policies and adjustments”.

In other words, they called for more research. But according to Losing Earth, this was an “old canard” only a year later, in a Senate hearing in 1986:

The old canard about the need for more research was roundly mocked — by Woodwell, by a W.R.I. colleague named Andrew Maguire, by Senator George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine. “Scientists are never 100 percent certain,” the Princeton historian Theodore Rabb testified. “That notion of total certainty is something too elusive ever to be sought.” As Pomerance had been saying since 1979, it was past time to act. Only now the argument was so broadly accepted that nobody dared object.

It’s not clear from the article how much of this refers to the ozone layer or possibly other environmental concerns rather than global warming. Anyway, what occurred later shows that the problem was not a lack of 100 percent certainty. Rather, there was no certainty at all according to most scientists at the time.

The narrative continues into 1987, 1988 and 1989, focusing on James Hansen who was one scientist who was convinced that the world was warming due to greenhouse gases and that this would lead to disaster if left unchecked. What does not get mentioned the skepticism of his colleagues in climate science. A 1989 news item from Science puts the entire Losing Earth narrative into perspective:

If many of Hansen’s colleagues find his first point about the warming trend regrettable, they view his second—that the warming could, with “high confidence”, be linked to the greenhouse effect—as unforgivable. None of the select greenhouse researchers at the meeting could agree with him. “Taken together, his statements have given people the feeling the greenhouse effect has been detected with certitude,” says Michael Schlesinger, himself a modeler and Oregon State University. “Our current understanding does not support that. Confidence in detection [of the greenhouse] is now down near zero.”

This is roughly the same view as the IPCC expressed in the attribution statement in its First Assessment Report from 1990:

The size of this [observed] warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability, alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.

In summary, the idea of human-caused climate change gradually gained some acceptance during the 1980s. But there was never any scientific or political consensus strong enough allow a massive undertaking involving billions of dollars of government spending to reduce CO2.

Rich never makes clear why he thinks there was a chance of achieving one at that time. But he seems to believe that the forces that prevented it only started marshaling in earnest later. He speaks of “the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians.” Even if this were a fair description of how it happened, it still overlooks the fact that “the other side”, climate science, coordinated climate policy and climate activism also grew dramatically from the early 1990s.

“Green” technology was much more primitive in the 1980s

Even if there had been a clear consensus on political action to limit CO2 emissions, no progress could have been possible unless there were technologies available to replace fossil fuels. Solar was fashionable even then, but the technology was much less developed than today. The idea that it could easily take over for other forms of energy fizzled out:

Amory Lovins wrote in 1976: “Recent research suggests that a largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic.” Lovins was a sensation, and around the globe governments gave solar (and wind and ethanol) companies billions of dollars in the hope that they would be able to generate cheap, plentiful, reliable energy. But they were completely wrong.

Wind power is an even clearer example of technology that was far more primitive then than now. From 1980 to 2011–2013, the maximum diameter of wind turbine rotors increased by a factor of seven, while the levelized cost decreased by almost as much.

A similar situation existed for other “green” technologies. A prime example: most current electric vehicles use lithium-ion or lithium polymer batteries. Neither was commercially available during the 1980s. There were electric cars around 1980, but they were pathetic by today’s standards: they were slow, their range was short and charging took all night or longer.

By studying what was said in the 1980s, it may be easy to get the impression that a transition to renewable energy would have been possible or even easy. There was plenty of unwarranted optimism. But even now, wind and solar are only about 3% of the global energy mix. Seeing how little has been achieved by now, even with massive subsidies, it’s hard to imagine that they could have revolutionized energy consumption at a time when the technology was far less workable.

Environmentalists would never have embraced nuclear power

Nuclear and hydropower were the main non-fossil energy sources then as now. Nuclear power plants were still being built, and clearly it would have been technically feasible to massively increase the pace. But politically, it would have been impossible.

1970s anti-nuclear button

Nuclear power is still generally frowned upon by environmentalists, but it’s nothing compared to the heat the issue generated at the time. I remember how people used to wear buttons to protest nuclear power. Protests mobilized hundreds of thousands.

In 1979, the movie The China Syndrome dramatized the possibility of a reactor meltdown. Only twelve days after its release, there was an accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island:

The accident crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public and resulted in new regulations for the nuclear industry. It has been cited as a contributor to the decline of a new reactor construction program, a slowdown that was already underway in the 1970s.

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986, seven years later, was a far more serious nuclear accident. If at that time any environmentalists were contemplating changing their stance on nuclear power due to the danger of global warming, they would surely have been laughed out of their circle of comrades. More generally, it’s unthinkable that the environmental movement would have reversed their approach to nuclear power and called for accelerated development instead of a halt to the construction of nuclear power plants.

The other significant non-fossil fuel source, hydropower, also came under fire. In my country, Norway, there were protests against large hydropower projects such as the damming of Mardøla and the Alta river. (Just as now, predictably, there are protests against the building of wind turbines.)

There was not yet much public or political awareness

This is actually apparent from the Losing Earth narrative itself. It chronicles how the issue gradually became more prominent, but there was nothing approaching the media coverage we have today. According to Losing Earth, by 1986 Rafe Pomerance “had become, as far as he knew, the nation’s first, and only, full-time global-warming lobbyist”. Now there are thousands.

I myself remember how calls for CO2 cuts were framed more cautiously in the early 1990s than today. There was much more of an emphasis on uncertainty, and on the idea that we should act from a precautionary attitude in case the scary scenarios were to come true. This was in keeping with the scientific conclusions in the IPCC’s First Assessment Report. And in fact, I argued that way myself at the time. Only later did I realize just how difficult it would be.

The idea that there was a shortcut to carbon neutral bliss that was open in the 1980s and closed later is pure fiction and not at all supported by the actual historical record. The truth may not be as dramatic as a tale of tragic heroes who tried and failed to save the planet, but it remains important. It has no direct bearing on the current debates about climate change and climate policy, although it may perhaps help suggest a more realistic view of the present situation.

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