Excerpts from Losing Earth, Winner of the 2018 Energy Writer of the Year

From the New York Times Magazine, Editor’s Note: The narrative by Nathaniel Rich is a work of history, addressing the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989: the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos, all shot over the past year by George Steinmetz. With support from the Pulitzer Center, this two-part article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe. It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it. – Jake Silverstein

 

Losing Earth, Prologue

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because 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.

The original article, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, was originally published in the New York Times Magazine. By Nathaniel Rich; photographs and videos by George Steinmetz. Published August 1, 2018.

 

Last year, the California fire season was the most destructive in the state’s history, culminating in a series of wine-country blazes that killed 40 people and leveled more than 8,000 homes and other buildings. That winter had been one of California’s rainiest, which caused grass to grow in areas it normally doesn’t; in the summer those grasses dried out, adding kindling to a fire-prone state.

Image by George Steinmetz for The New York Times.

 

Mauritania is one of the regions in Africa most vulnerable to recurrent drought. Winds sweep desert sands and dust over formerly arable land, creating dunes that blanket roads and demolish homes. Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, was designed to accommodate 15,000 people. Today, more than one million people live there, because decades of severe drought and extreme weather have driven farmers to the area.

Image by George Steinmetz for The New York Times.

 

When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in late August 2017, record rainfall caused catastrophic flooding. In six days, as much as 60 inches of rain fell, leaving at least 68 people dead and $125 billion in damages. One study found that climate change has made cataclysmic rain events like Harvey three times as common as they were.

Photograph by George Steinmetz for The New York Times.

 

In March, Geophysical Research Letters reported that the western part of Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at its fastest rate in at least 450 years. Some scientists believe that the Arctic hasn’t seen ice melt like this in 5,000 years. If the ice sheet melts entirely, sea levels would rise 20 feet, leaving Lower Manhattan underwater. Jason Gulley, a geologist, and Celia Trunz, a Ph.D. student in geology, have been conducting meltwater research by releasing a fluorescent red dye to determine how and why more rivers form on the surface of the ice sheet and what will happen as a result of these new and turbulent flows. So far, they have found that the rivers lubricate the ice slab, making the sheets move faster toward the coasts, which could cause even more icebergs to calve into the ocean.

Image by George Steinmetz for The New York Times.

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