In August 2018, The New York Times published a history of the critical decade — 1979-1989 — in relation to the science and politics of climate change. The piece, written by Nathaniel Rich, is called Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.
The narrative is compelling reading, but also strangely disheartening given how close “we” (some humans in the USA) got to making the right decisions regarding climate change.
About half way through there’s a great moment when President Jimmy Carter’s top scientist Frank Press requests a “full assessment of the carbon-dioxide issue”. This assessment was led by Jule Charney (“the father of modern meteorology”), and “would gather the nation’s top oceanographers, atmospheric scientists and climate modelers to judge whether … the world was, in fact, headed to cataclysm.”
The scientists summoned by Jule Charney to judge the fate of civilization arrived on July 23, 1979, with their wives, children and weekend bags at a three-story mansion in Woods Hole, on the southwestern spur of Cape Cod. They would review all the available science and decide whether the White House should take seriously Gordon MacDonald’s prediction of a climate apocalypse. The Jasons had predicted a warming of two or three degrees Celsius by the middle of the 21st century, but like Roger Revelle before them, they emphasized their reasons for uncertainty. Charney’s scientists were asked to quantify that uncertainty. They had to get it right: Their conclusion would be delivered to the president. But first they would hold a clambake.
In the essay, Nathaniel Rich describes the following exchanges during that crucial three day meeting. It’s funny, bizarre, unsurprising and distressing.
Yet Slade, the director of the Energy Department’s carbon-dioxide program, considered the lag a saving grace. If changes did not occur for a decade or more, he said, those in the room couldn’t be blamed for failing to prevent them. So what was the problem?
“You’re the problem,” Pomerance said. Because of the lag between cause and effect, it was unlikely that humankind would detect hard evidence of warming until it was too late to reverse it. The lag would doom them. “The U.S. has to do something to gain some credibility,” he said.
The next day, they would have to draft policy proposals.
But when the group reconvened after breakfast, they immediately became stuck on a sentence in their prefatory paragraph declaring that climatic changes were “likely to occur.”
“Will occur,” proposed Laurmann, the Stanford engineer.
“What about the words: highly likely to occur?” Scoville asked.
“Almost sure,” said David Rose, the nuclear engineer from M.I.T.
“Almost surely,” another said.
“Changes of an undetermined —”
“Changes as yet of a little-understood nature?”
“Highly or extremely likely to occur,” Pomerance said.
“Almost surely to occur?”
“No,” Pomerance said.
“I would like to make one statement,” said Annemarie Crocetti, a public-health scholar who sat on the National Commission on Air Quality and had barely spoken all week. “I have noticed that very often when we as scientists are cautious in our statements, everybody else misses the point, because they don’t understand our qualifications.”
“As a nonscientist,” said Tom McPherson, the Florida legislator, “I really concur.”
Yet these two dozen experts, who agreed on the major points and had made a commitment to Congress, could not draft a single paragraph. Hours passed in a hell of fruitless negotiation, self-defeating proposals and impulsive speechifying. Pomerance and Scoville pushed to include a statement calling for the United States to “sharply accelerate international dialogue,” but they were sunk by objections and caveats.