"Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us."


Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., has a habit of asking new graduate students to name the largest fundamental breakthrough in climate physics since 1979. It’s a trick question. There has been no breakthrough. As with any mature scientific discipline, there is only refinement. The computer models grow more precise; the regional analyses sharpen; estimates solidify into observational data. Where there have been inaccuracies, they have tended to be in the direction of understatement. Caldeira and a colleague recently published a paper in Nature finding that the world is warming more quickly than most climate models predict. The toughest emissions reductions now being proposed, even by the most committed nations, will probably fail to achieve “any given global temperature stabilization target.”

More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it. In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. By 2017, the figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons, a record. Despite every action taken since the Charney report — the billions of dollars invested in research, the nonbinding treaties, the investments in renewable energy — the only number that counts, the total quantity of global greenhouse gas emitted per year, has continued its inexorable rise.

Like the scientific story, the political story hasn’t changed greatly, except in its particulars. Even some of the nations that pushed hardest for climate policy have failed to honor their own commitments. When it comes to our own nation, which has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians.

The mustache-twirling depravity of these campaigns has left the impression that the oil-and-gas industry always operated thus; while the Exxon scientists and American Petroleum Institute clerics of the ’70s and ’80s were hardly good Samaritans, they did not start multimillion-dollar disinformation campaigns, pay scientists to distort the truth or try to brainwash children in elementary schools, as their successors would. It was James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988 that, for the first time since the “Changing Climate” report, made oil-and-gas executives begin to consider the issue’s potential to hurt their profits. Exxon, as ever, led the field. Six weeks after Hansen’s testimony, Exxon’s manager of science and strategy development, Duane LeVine, prepared an internal strategy paper urging the company to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions.” This shortly became the default position of the entire sector. LeVine, it so happened, served as chairman of the global petroleum industry’s Working Group on Global Climate Change, created the same year, which adopted Exxon’s position as its own. The American Petroleum Institute, after holding a series of internal briefings on the subject in the fall and winter of 1988, including one for the chief executives of the dozen or so largest oil companies, took a similar, if slightly more diplomatic, line. It set aside money for carbon-dioxide policy — about $100,000, a fraction of the millions it was spending on the health effects of benzene, but enough to establish a lobbying organization called, in an admirable flourish of newspeak, the Global Climate Coalition. It was joined by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 14 other trade associations, including those representing the coal, electric-grid and automobile industries. The G.C.C. was conceived as a reactive body, to share news of any proposed regulations, but on a whim, it added a press campaign, to be coordinated mainly by the A.P.I. It gave briefings to politicians known to be friendly to the industry and approached scientists who professed skepticism about global warming. The A.P.I.’s payment for an original op-ed was $2,000. The chance to enact meaningful measures to prevent climate change was vanishing, but the industry had just begun. In October 1989, scientists allied with the G.C.C. began to be quoted in national publications, giving an issue that lacked controversy a convenient fulcrum. “Many respected scientists say the available evidence doesn’t warrant the doomsday warnings,” was the caveat that began to appear in articles on climate change.

Cheap and useful, G.C.C.-like groups started to proliferate, but it was not until international negotiations in preparation for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit began that investments in persuasion peddling rose to the level of a line item. At Rio, George H.W. Bush refused to commit to specific emissions reductions. The following year, when President Bill Clinton proposed an energy tax in the hope of meeting the goals of the Rio treaty, the A.P.I. invested $1.8 million in a G.C.C. disinformation campaign. Senate Democrats from oil-and-coal states joined Republicans to defeat the tax proposal, which later contributed to the Republicans’ rout of Democrats in the midterm congressional elections in 1994 — the first time the Republican Party had won control of both houses in 40 years. The G.C.C. spent $13 million on a single ad campaign intended to weaken support for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed its parties to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 5 percent relative to 1990 levels. The Senate, which would have had to ratify the agreement, took a pre-emptive vote declaring its opposition; the resolution passed 95-0. There has never been another serious effort to negotiate a binding global climate treaty.

The G.C.C. disbanded in 2002 after the defection of various members who were embarrassed by its tactics. But Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) continued its disinformation campaign for another half decade. This has made the corporation an especially vulnerable target for the wave of compensatory litigation that began in earnest in the last three years and may last a generation. Tort lawsuits have become possible only in recent years, as scientists have begun more precisely to attribute regional effects to global emission levels. This is one subfield of climate science that has advanced significantly since 1979 — the assignment of blame.

A major lawsuit has targeted the federal government. A consortium of 21 American children and young adults — one of whom, Sophie Kivlehan of Allentown, Pa., is Jim Hansen’s granddaughter — claims that the government, by “creating a national energy system that causes climate change,” has violated its duty to protect the natural resources to which all Americans are entitled.

In 2015, after reports by the website InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times documented the climate studies performed by Exxon for decades, the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York began fraud investigations. The Securities and Exchange Commission separately started to investigate whether Exxon Mobil’s valuation depended on the burning of all its known oil-and-gas reserves. (Exxon Mobil has denied any wrongdoing and stands by its valuation method.) The rallying cry of this multipronged legal effort is “Exxon Knew.” 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. But the automobile industry knew, too, and began conducting its own research by the early 1980s, as did the major trade groups representing the electrical grid. They all own responsibility for our current paralysis and have made it more painful than necessary. But they haven’t done it alone.

The United States government knew. Roger Revelle began serving as a Kennedy administration adviser in 1961, five years after establishing the Mauna Loa carbon-dioxide program, and every president since has debated the merits of acting on climate policy. Carter had the Charney report, Reagan had “Changing Climate” and Bush had the censored testimony of James Hansen and his own public vow to solve the problem. Congress has been holding hearings for 40 years; the intelligence community has been tracking the crisis even longer. Everybody knew. In 1958, on prime-time television, “The Bell Science Hour” — one of the most popular educational film series in American history — aired “The Unchained Goddess,” a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra, a dozen years removed from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” warning that “man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate” through the release of carbon dioxide. “A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,” says the film’s kindly host, the bespectacled Dr. Research. “An inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.” Capra’s film was shown in science classes for decades.

Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.

Could it have been any other way? In the late 1970s, a small group of philosophers, economists and political scientists began to debate, largely among themselves, whether a human solution to this human problem was even possible. They did not trouble themselves about the details of warming, taking the worst-case scenario as a given. They asked instead whether humankind, when presented with this particular existential crisis, was willing to prevent it. We worry about the future. But how much, exactly?

The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount; the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster. The Yale economist William D. Nordhaus, a member of Jimmy Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in the 1970s that the most appropriate remedy was a global carbon tax. But that required an international agreement, which Nordhaus didn’t think was likely. Michael Glantz, a political scientist who was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at the time, argued in 1979 that democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem. The competition for resources means that no single crisis can ever command the public interest for long, yet climate change requires sustained, disciplined efforts over decades. And the German physicist-philosopher Klaus Meyer-Abich argued that any global agreement would inevitably favor the most minimal action. Adaptation, Meyer-Abich concluded, “seems to be the most rational political option.” It is the option that we have pursued, consciously or not, ever since.

These theories share a common principle: that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. When I asked John Sununu about his part in this history — whether he considered himself personally responsible for killing the best chance at an effective global-warming treaty — his response echoed Meyer-Abich. “It couldn’t have happened,” he told me, “because, frankly, the leaders in the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.” He added, “Frankly, that’s about where we are today.” If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.

Rafe Pomerance with some of his family. Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Like most human questions, the carbon-dioxide question will come down to fear. At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help.

The distant perils of climate change are no longer very distant, however. Many have already begun to occur. We are capable of good works, altruism and wisdom, and a growing number of people have devoted their lives to helping civilization avoid the worst. We have a solution in hand: carbon taxes, increased investment in renewable and nuclear energy and decarbonization technology. As Jim Hansen told me, “From a technology and economics standpoint, it is still readily possible to stay under two degrees Celsius.” We can trust the technology and the economics. It’s harder to trust human nature. Keeping the planet to two degrees of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees, would require transformative action. It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.

Hansen’s most recent paper, published last year, announced that Earth is now as warm as it was before the last ice age, 115,000 years ago, when the seas were more than six meters higher than they are today. He and his team have concluded that the only way to avoid dangerous levels of warming is to bend the emissions arc below the x-axis. We must, in other words, find our way to “negative emissions,” extracting more carbon dioxide from the air than we contribute to it. If emissions, by miracle, do rapidly decline, most of the necessary carbon absorption could be handled by replanting forests and improving agricultural practices. If not, “massive technological CO₂ extraction,” using some combination of technologies as yet unperfected or uninvented, will be required. Hansen estimates that this will incur costs of $89 trillion to $535 trillion this century, and may even be impossible at the necessary scale. He is not optimistic.

Jim Hansen with his wife, Anniek, and one of their granddaughters, Sophie Kivlehan. Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times Like Hansen, Rafe Pomerance is close to his granddaughter. When he feels low, he wears a bracelet she made for him. He finds it difficult to explain the future to her. During the Clinton administration, Pomerance worked on environmental issues for the State Department; he is now a consultant for Rethink Energy Florida, which hopes to alert the state to the threat of rising seas, and the chairman of Arctic 21, a network of scientists and research organizations that hope “to communicate the ongoing unraveling of the Arctic.” Every two months, he has lunch with fellow veterans of the climate wars — E.P.A. officials, congressional staff members and colleagues from the World Resources Institute. They bemoan the lost opportunities, the false starts, the strategic blunders. But they also remember their achievements. In a single decade, they turned a crisis that was studied by no more than several dozen scientists into the subject of Senate hearings, front-page headlines and the largest diplomatic negotiation in world history. They helped summon into being the world’s climate watchdog, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and initiated the negotiations for a treaty signed by nearly all of the world’s nations.

It is true that much of the damage that might have been avoided is now inevitable. And Pomerance is not the romantic he once was. But he still believes that it might not be too late to preserve some semblance of the world as we know it. Human nature has brought us to this place; perhaps human nature will one day bring us through. Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope. Correction August 2, 2018

An earlier version of this article misstated the type of solar panels installed by President Jimmy Carter on the White House roof. They were solar thermal panels, not photovoltaic panels.

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