Thirty years ago, we had a chance to save the planet.
This 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
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.
Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. 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. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect” — a metaphor dating to the early 1900s — was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Why didn’t we act? A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. An entire subfield of climate literature has chronicled the machinations of industry lobbyists, the corruption of scientists and the propaganda campaigns that even now continue to debase the political debate, long after the largest oil-and-gas companies have abandoned the dumb show of denialism. But the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. During the preceding decade, some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.
Nor can the Republican Party be blamed. Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that “most scientists believe global warming is occurring,” and that percentage is falling. But during the 1980s, many prominent Republicans joined Democrats in judging the climate problem to be a rare political winner: nonpartisan and of the highest possible stakes. Among those who called for urgent, immediate and far-reaching climate policy were Senators John Chafee, Robert Stafford and David Durenberger; the E.P.A. administrator, William K. Reilly; and, during his campaign for president, George H.W. Bush. As Malcolm Forbes Baldwin, the acting chairman of the president’s Council for Environmental Quality, told industry executives in 1981, “There can be no more important or conservative concern than the protection of the globe itself.” The issue was unimpeachable, like support for veterans or small business. Except the climate had an even broader constituency, composed of every human being on Earth.
It was understood that action would have to come immediately. 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. More than 30 percent of the human population lacked access to electricity. Billions of people would not need to attain the “American way of life” in order to drastically increase global carbon emissions; a light bulb in every village would do it. A report prepared at the request of the White House by the National Academy of Sciences advised that “the carbon-dioxide issue should appear on the international agenda in a context that will maximize cooperation and consensus-building and minimize political manipulation, controversy and division.” If the world had adopted the proposal widely endorsed at the end of the ’80s — a freezing of carbon emissions, with a reduction of 20 percent by 2005 — warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees.
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 inaugural chapter of the climate-change saga is over. In that chapter — call it Apprehension — we identified the threat and its consequences. We spoke, with increasing urgency and self-delusion, of the prospect of triumphing against long odds. But we did not seriously consider the prospect of failure. We understood what failure would mean for global temperatures, coastlines, agricultural yield, immigration patterns, the world economy. But we have not allowed ourselves to comprehend what failure might mean for us. How will it change the way we see ourselves, how we remember the past, how we imagine the future? Why did we do this to ourselves? These questions will be the subject of climate change’s second chapter — call it The Reckoning. There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.
That we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels can be credited to the efforts of a handful of people, among them a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist who, at great personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming. They risked their careers in a painful, escalating campaign to solve the problem, first in scientific reports, later through conventional avenues of political persuasion and finally with a strategy of public shaming. Their efforts were shrewd, passionate, robust. And they failed. What follows is their story, and ours.
1.‘This Is the Whole Banana’Spring 1979
The first suggestion to Rafe Pomerance that humankind was destroying the conditions necessary for its own survival came on Page 66 of the government publication EPA-600/7-78-019. It was a technical report about coal, bound in a coal-black cover with beige lettering — one of many such reports that lay in uneven piles around Pomerance’s windowless office on the first floor of the Capitol Hill townhouse that, in the late 1970s, served as the Washington headquarters of Friends of the Earth. In the final paragraph of a chapter on environmental regulation, the coal report’s authors noted that the continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the global atmosphere.
Pomerance paused, startled, over the orphaned paragraph. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. He reread it. It made no sense to him. Pomerance was not a scientist; he graduated from Cornell 11 years earlier with a degree in history. He had the tweedy appearance of an undernourished doctoral student emerging at dawn from the stacks. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a thickish mustache that wilted disapprovingly over the corners of his mouth, though his defining characteristic was his gratuitous height, 6 feet 4 inches, which seemed to embarrass him; he stooped over to accommodate his interlocutors. He had an active face prone to breaking out in wide, even maniacal grins, but in composure, as when he read the coal pamphlet, it projected concern. He struggled with technical reports. He proceeded as a historian might: cautiously, scrutinizing the source material, reading between the lines. When that failed, he made phone calls, often to the authors of the reports, who tended to be surprised to hear from him. Scientists, he had found, were not in the habit of fielding questions from political lobbyists. They were not in the habit of thinking about politics.
Pomerance had one big question about the coal report. If the burning of coal, oil and natural gas could invite global catastrophe, why had nobody told him about it? If anyone in Washington — if anyone in the United States — should have been aware of such a danger, it was Pomerance. As the deputy legislative director of Friends of the Earth, the wily, pugnacious nonprofit that David Brower helped found after resigning from the Sierra Club a decade earlier, Pomerance was one of the nation’s most connected environmental activists. That he was as easily accepted in the halls of the Dirksen Senate Office Building as at Earth Day rallies might have had something to do with the fact that he was a Morgenthau — the great-grandson of Henry Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; great-nephew of Henry Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary; second cousin to Robert, district attorney for Manhattan. Or perhaps it was just his charisma — voluble, energetic and obsessive, he seemed to be everywhere, speaking with everyone, in a very loud voice, at once. His chief obsession was air. After working as an organizer for welfare rights, he spent the second half of his 20s laboring to protect and expand the Clean Air Act, the comprehensive law regulating air pollution. That led him to the problem of acid rain, and the coal report.
He showed the unsettling paragraph to his office mate, Betsy Agle. Had she ever heard of the “greenhouse effect”? Was it really possible that human beings were overheating the planet?
Agle shrugged. She hadn’t heard about it, either.
That might have been the end of it, had Agle not greeted Pomerance in the office a few mornings later holding a copy of a newspaper forwarded by Friends of the Earth’s Denver office. Isn’t this what you were talking about the other day? she asked.
Agle pointed to an article about a prominent geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald, who was conducting a study on climate change with the Jasons, the mysterious coterie of elite scientists to which he belonged. Pomerance hadn’t heard of MacDonald, but he knew all about the Jasons. They were like one of those teams of superheroes with complementary powers that join forces in times of galactic crisis. They had been brought together by federal agencies, including the C.I.A, to devise scientific solutions to national-security problems: how to detect an incoming missile; how to predict fallout from a nuclear bomb; how to develop unconventional weapons, like plague-infested rats. The Jasons’ activities had been a secret until the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed their plan to festoon the Ho Chi Minh Trail with motion sensors that signaled to bombers. After the furor that followed — protesters set MacDonald’s garage on fire — the Jasons began to use their powers for peace instead of war.
There was an urgent problem that demanded their attention, MacDonald believed, because human civilization faced an existential crisis. In “How to Wreck the Environment,” a 1968 essay published while he was a science adviser to Lyndon Johnson, MacDonald predicted a near future in which “nuclear weapons were effectively banned and the weapons of mass destruction were those of environmental catastrophe.” One of the most potentially devastating such weapons, he believed, was the gas that we exhaled with every breath: carbon dioxide. By vastly increasing carbon emissions, the world’s most advanced militaries could alter weather patterns and wreak famine, drought and economic collapse.
In the decade since then, MacDonald had been alarmed to see humankind begin in earnest to weaponize weather — not out of malice, but unwittingly. During the spring of 1977 and the summer of 1978, the Jasons met to determine what would happen once the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled from pre-Industrial Revolution levels. It was an arbitrary milestone, the doubling, but a useful one, as its inevitability was not in question; the threshold would most likely be breached by 2035. The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,” was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings: Global temperatures would increase by an average of two to three degrees Celsius; Dust Bowl conditions would “threaten large areas of North America, Asia and Africa”; access to drinking water and agricultural production would fall, triggering mass migration on an unprecedented scale. “Perhaps the most ominous feature,” however, was the effect of a changing climate on the poles. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.
The Jasons sent the report to dozens of scientists in the United States and abroad; to industry groups like the National Coal Association and the Electric Power Research Institute; and within the government, to the National Academy of Sciences, the Commerce Department, the E.P.A., NASA, the Pentagon, the N.S.A., every branch of the military, the National Security Council and the White House.
Pomerance read about the atmospheric crisis in a state of shock that swelled briskly into outrage. “This,” he told Betsy Agle, “is the whole banana.”
Gordon MacDonald worked at the federally funded Mitre Corporation, a think tank that works with agencies throughout the government. His title was senior research analyst, which was another way of saying senior science adviser to the national-intelligence community. After a single phone call, Pomerance, a former Vietnam War protester and conscientious objector, drove several miles on the Beltway to a group of anonymous white office buildings that more closely resembled the headquarters of a regional banking firm than the solar plexus of the American military-industrial complex. He was shown into the office of a brawny, soft-spoken man in blocky, horn-rimmed frames, who extended a hand like a bear’s paw.
“I’m glad you’re interested in this,” MacDonald said, sizing up the young activist.
“How could I not be?” Pomerance said. “How could anyone not be?”
MacDonald explained that he first studied the carbon-dioxide issue when he was about Pomerance’s age — in 1961, when he served as an adviser to John F. Kennedy. Pomerance pieced together that MacDonald, in his youth, had been something of a prodigy: In his 20s, he advised Dwight D. Eisenhower on space exploration; at 32, he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences; at 40, he was appointed to the inaugural Council on Environmental Quality, where he advised Richard Nixon on the environmental dangers of burning coal. He monitored the carbon-dioxide problem the whole time, with increasing alarm.
MacDonald spoke for two hours. Pomerance was appalled. “If I set up briefings with some people on the Hill,” he asked MacDonald, “will you tell them what you just told me?”
Thus began the Gordon and Rafe carbon-dioxide roadshow. Beginning in the spring of 1979, Pomerance arranged informal briefings with the E.P.A., the National Security Council, The New York Times, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Energy Department, which, Pomerance learned, had established an Office of Carbon Dioxide Effects two years earlier at MacDonald’s urging. The men settled into a routine, with MacDonald explaining the science and Pomerance adding the exclamation points. They were surprised to learn how few senior officials were familiar with the Jasons’ findings, let alone understood the ramifications of global warming. At last, having worked their way up the federal hierarchy, the two went to see the president’s top scientist, Frank Press.
Press’s office was in the Old Executive Office Building, the granite fortress that stands on the White House grounds just paces away from the West Wing. Out of respect for MacDonald, Press had summoned to their meeting what seemed to be the entire senior staff of the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy — the officials consulted on every critical matter of energy and national security. What Pomerance had expected to be yet another casual briefing assumed the character of a high-level national-security meeting. He decided to let MacDonald do all the talking. There was no need to emphasize to Press and his lieutenants that this was an issue of profound national significance. The hushed mood in the office told him that this was already understood.
To explain what the carbon-dioxide problem meant for the future, MacDonald would begin his presentation by going back more than a century to John Tyndall — an Irish physicist who was an early champion of Charles Darwin’s work and died after being accidentally poisoned by his wife. In 1859, Tyndall found that carbon dioxide absorbed heat and that variations in the composition of the atmosphere could create changes in climate. These findings inspired Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the combustion of coal and petroleum could raise global temperatures. This warming would become noticeable in a few centuries, Arrhenius calculated, or sooner if consumption of fossil fuels continued to increase.
Consumption increased beyond anything the Swedish chemist could have imagined. Four decades later, a British steam engineer named Guy Stewart Callendar discovered that, at the weather stations he observed, the previous five years were the hottest in recorded history. Humankind, he wrote in a paper, had become “able to speed up the processes of Nature.” That was in 1939.
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. His audience listened in bowed silence. Pomerance couldn’t read them. Political bureaucrats were skilled at hiding their opinions. Pomerance wasn’t. He shifted restlessly in his chair, glancing between MacDonald and the government suits, trying to see whether they grasped the shape of the behemoth that MacDonald was describing.
MacDonald’s history concluded with Roger Revelle, perhaps the most distinguished of the priestly caste of government scientists who, since the Manhattan Project, advised every president on major policy; he had been a close colleague of MacDonald and Press since they served together under Kennedy. In a 1957 paper written with Hans Suess, Revelle concluded that “human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” Revelle helped the Weather Bureau establish a continuous measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide at a site perched near the summit of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, 11,500 feet above the sea — a rare pristine natural laboratory on a planet blanketed by fossil-fuel emissions. A young geochemist named Charles David Keeling charted the data. Keeling’s graph came to be known as the Keeling curve, though it more closely resembled a jagged lightning bolt hurled toward the firmament. MacDonald had a habit of tracing the Keeling curve in the air, his thick forefinger jabbing toward the ceiling.
After nearly a decade of observation, Revelle had shared his concerns with Lyndon Johnson, who included them in a special message to Congress two weeks after his inauguration. Johnson explained that his generation had “altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale” through the burning of fossil fuels, and his administration commissioned a study of the subject by his Science Advisory Committee. Revelle was its chairman, and its 1965 executive report on carbon dioxide warned of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters — changes that would require no less than a coordinated global effort to forestall.
In 1974, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on the carbon-dioxide problem. It concluded that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.” Yet emissions continued to rise, and at this rate, MacDonald warned, they could see a snowless New England, the swamping of major coastal cities, as much as a 40 percent decline in national wheat production, the forced migration of about one-quarter of the world’s population. Not within centuries — within their own lifetimes.
“What would you have us do?” Press asked.
The president’s plan, in the wake of the Saudi oil crisis, to promote solar energy — he had gone so far as to install 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House to heat his family’s water — was a good start, MacDonald thought. But Jimmy Carter’s plan to stimulate production of synthetic fuels — gas and liquid fuel extracted from shale and tar sands — was a dangerous idea. Nuclear power, despite the recent tragedy at Three Mile Island, should be expanded. But even natural gas and ethanol were preferable to coal. There was no way around it: Coal production would ultimately have to end.
The president’s advisers asked respectful questions, but Pomerance couldn’t tell whether they were persuaded. The men all stood and shook hands, and Press led MacDonald and Pomerance out of his office. After they emerged from the Old Executive Office Building onto Pennsylvania Avenue, Pomerance asked MacDonald what he thought would happen.
Knowing Frank as I do, MacDonald said, I really couldn’t tell you.
In the days that followed, Pomerance grew uneasy. Until this point, he had fixated on the science of the carbon-dioxide issue and its possible political ramifications. But now that his meetings on Capitol Hill had concluded, he began to question what all this might mean for his own future. His wife, Lenore, was eight months pregnant; was it ethical, he wondered, to bring a child onto a planet that before much longer could become inhospitable to life? And he wondered why it had fallen to him, a 32-year-old lobbyist without scientific training, to bring greater attention to this crisis.
Finally, weeks later, MacDonald called to tell him that Press had taken up the issue. On May 22, Press wrote a letter to the president of the National Academy of Sciences requesting a full assessment of the carbon-dioxide issue. Jule Charney, the father of modern meteorology, would gather the nation’s top oceanographers, atmospheric scientists and climate modelers to judge whether MacDonald’s alarm was justified — whether the world was, in fact, headed to cataclysm.
Pomerance was amazed by how much momentum had built in such a short time. Scientists at the highest levels of government had known about the dangers of fossil-fuel combustion for decades. Yet they had produced little besides journal articles, academic symposiums, technical reports. Nor had any politician, journalist or activist championed the issue. That, Pomerance figured, was about to change. If Charney’s group confirmed that the world was careering toward an existential crisis, the president would be forced to act.
2.The Whimsies of The Invisible WorldSpring 1979
There was a brown velvet love seat in the living room of James and Anniek Hansen, under a bright window looking out on Morningside Park in Manhattan, that nobody ever sat in. Erik, their 2-year-old son, was forbidden to go near it. The ceiling above the couch sagged ominously, as if pregnant with some alien life form, and the bulge grew with each passing week. Jim promised Anniek that he would fix it, which was only fair, because it had been on his insistence that they gave up the prospect of a prewar apartment in Spuyten Duyvil overlooking the Hudson and moved from Riverdale to this two-story walk-up with crumbling walls, police-siren lullabies and gravid ceiling. Jim had resented the 45-minute commute to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan and complained that such a gross waste of his time would soon be unsustainable, once the Pioneer spacecraft reached Venus and began to beam back data. But even after the Hansens moved within a few blocks of the institute, Jim couldn’t make time for the ceiling, and after four months it finally burst, releasing a confetti of browned pipes and splintered wood.
Jim repeated his vow to fix the ceiling as soon as he had a moment free from work. Anniek held him to his word, though it required her to live with a hole in her ceiling until Thanksgiving — seven months of plaster dust powdering the love seat.
Another promise Jim made to Anniek: He would make it home for dinner every night by 7 p.m. By 8:30, however, he was back at his calculations. Anniek did not begrudge him his deep commitment to his work; it was one of the things she loved about him. Still, it baffled her that the subject of his obsession should be the atmospheric conditions of a planet more than 24 million miles away. It baffled Jim, too. His voyage to Venus from Denison, Iowa, the fifth child of a diner waitress and an itinerant farmer turned bartender, had been a series of bizarre twists of fate over which he claimed no agency. It was just something that happened to him.
Hansen figured he was the only scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who, as a child, did not dream of outer space. He dreamed only of baseball. On clear nights, his transistor radio picked up the broadcast of the Kansas City Blues, the New York Yankees’ AAA affiliate. Every morning, he cut out the box scores, pasted them into a notebook and tallied statistics. Hansen found comfort in numbers and equations. He majored in math and physics at the University of Iowa, but he never would have taken an interest in celestial matters were it not for the unlikely coincidence of two events during the year he graduated: the eruption of a volcano in Bali and a total eclipse of the moon.
On the night of Dec. 30, 1963 — whipping wind, 12 degrees below zero — Hansen accompanied his astronomy professor to a cornfield far from town. They set a telescope in an old corncrib and, between 2 and 8 in the morning, made continuous photoelectric recordings of the eclipse, pausing only when the extension cord froze and when they dashed to the car for a few minutes to avoid frostbite.
During an eclipse, the moon resembles a tangerine or, if the eclipse is total, a drop of blood. But this night, the moon vanished altogether. Hansen made the mystery the subject of his master’s thesis, concluding that the moon had been obscured by the dust erupted into the atmosphere by Mount Agung, on the other side of the planet from his corncrib, six months earlier. The discovery led to his fascination with the influence of invisible particles on the visible world. You could not make sense of the visible world until you understood the whimsies of the invisible one.
One of the leading authorities on the invisible world happened to be teaching then at Iowa: James Van Allen made the first major discovery of the space age, identifying the two doughnut-shaped regions of convulsing particles that circle Earth, now known as the Van Allen belts. At Van Allen’s prodding, Hansen turned from the moon to Venus. Why, he tried to determine, was its surface so hot? In 1967, a Soviet satellite beamed back the answer: The planet’s atmosphere was mainly carbon dioxide. Though once it may have had habitable temperatures, it was believed to have succumbed to a runaway greenhouse effect: As the sun grew brighter, Venus’s ocean began to evaporate, thickening the atmosphere, which forced yet greater evaporation — a self-perpetuating cycle that finally boiled off the ocean entirely and heated the planet’s surface to more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. At the other extreme, Mars’s thin atmosphere had insufficient carbon dioxide to trap much heat at all, leaving it about 900 degrees colder. Earth lay in the middle, its Goldilocks greenhouse effect just strong enough to support life.
Anniek expected Jim’s professional life to resume some semblance of normality once the data from Venus had been collected and analyzed. But shortly after Pioneer entered Venus’s atmosphere, Hansen came home from the office in an uncharacteristic fervor — with an apology. The prospect of two or three more years of intense work had sprung up before him. NASA was expanding its study of Earth’s atmospheric conditions. Hansen had already done some work on Earth’s atmosphere for Jule Charney at the Goddard Institute, helping to develop computerized weather models. Now Hansen would have an opportunity to apply to Earth the lessons he had learned from Venus.
We want to learn more about Earth’s climate, Jim told Anniek — and how humanity can influence it. He would use giant new supercomputers to map the planet’s atmosphere. They would create Mirror Worlds: parallel realities that mimicked our own. These digital simulacra, technically called “general circulation models,” combined the mathematical formulas that governed the behavior of the sea, land and sky into a single computer model. Unlike the real world, they could be sped forward to reveal the future.
Anniek’s disappointment — another several years of distraction, stress, time spent apart from family — was tempered, if only slightly, by the high strain of Jim’s enthusiasm. She thought she understood it. Does this mean, she asked, that you’ll able to predict weather more accurately?
Yes, Jim said. Something like that.
3.Between Catastrophe and ChaosJuly 1979
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.
They gathered with their families on a bluff overlooking Quissett Harbor and took turns tossing mesh produce bags stuffed with lobster, clams and corn into a bubbling caldron. While the children scrambled across the rolling lawn, the scientists mingled with a claque of visiting dignitaries, whose status lay somewhere between chaperone and client — men from the Departments of State, Energy, Defense and Agriculture; the E.P.A.; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They exchanged pleasantries and took in the sunset. It was a hot day, high 80s, but the harbor breeze was salty and cool. It didn’t look like the dawning of an apocalypse. The government officials, many of them scientists themselves, tried to suppress their awe of the legends in their presence: Henry Stommel, the world’s leading oceanographer; his protégé, Carl Wunsch, a Jason; the Manhattan Project alumnus Cecil Leith; the Harvard planetary physicist Richard Goody. These were the men who, in the last three decades, had discovered foundational principles underlying the relationships among sun, atmosphere, land and ocean — which is to say, the climate.
The hierarchy was made visible during the workshop sessions, held in the carriage house next door: The scientists sat at tables arranged in a rectangle, while their federal observers sat along the room’s perimeter, taking in the action as at a theater in the round. The first two days of meetings didn’t make very good theater, however, as the scientists reviewed the basic principles of the carbon cycle, ocean circulation, radiative transfer. On the third day, Charney introduced a new prop: a black speaker, attached to a telephone. He dialed, and Jim Hansen answered.
Charney called Hansen because he had grasped that in order to determine the exact range of future warming, his group would have to venture into the realm of the Mirror Worlds. Jule Charney himself had used a general circulation model to revolutionize weather prediction. But Hansen was one of just a few modelers who had studied the effects of carbon emissions. When, at Charney’s request, Hansen programmed his model to consider a future of doubled carbon dioxide, it predicted a temperature increase of four degrees Celsius. That was twice as much warming as the prediction made by the most prominent climate modeler, Syukuro Manabe, whose government lab at Princeton was the first to model the greenhouse effect. The difference between the two predictions — between warming of two degrees Celsius and four degrees Celsius — was the difference between damaged coral reefs and no reefs whatsoever, between thinning forests and forests enveloped by desert, between catastrophe and chaos.
In the carriage house, the disembodied voice of Jim Hansen explained, in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, how his model weighed the influences of clouds, oceans and snow on warming. The older scientists interrupted, shouting questions; when they did not transmit through the telephone, Charney repeated them in a bellow. The questions kept coming, often before their younger respondent could finish his answers, and Hansen wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier for him to drive the five hours and meet with them in person.
Among Charney’s group was Akio Arakawa, a pioneer of computer modeling. On the final night at Woods Hole, Arakawa stayed up in his motel room with printouts from the models by Hansen and Manabe blanketing his double bed. The discrepancy between the models, Arakawa concluded, came down to ice and snow. The whiteness of the world’s snowfields reflected light; if snow melted in a warmer climate, less radiation would escape the atmosphere, leading to even greater warming. Shortly before dawn, Arakawa concluded that Manabe had given too little weight to the influence of melting sea ice, while Hansen had overemphasized it. The best estimate lay in between. Which meant that the Jasons’ calculation was too optimistic. When carbon dioxide doubled in 2035 or thereabouts, global temperatures would increase between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, with the most likely outcome a warming of three degrees.
The publication of Jule Charney’s report, “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment,” several months later was not accompanied by a banquet, a parade or even a news conference. Yet within the highest levels of the federal government, the scientific community and the oil-and-gas industry — within the commonwealth of people who had begun to concern themselves with the future habitability of the planet — the Charney report would come to have the authority of settled fact. It was the summation of all the predictions that had come before, and it would withstand the scrutiny of the decades that followed it. Charney’s group had considered everything known about ocean, sun, sea, air and fossil fuels and had distilled it to a single number: three. When the doubling threshold was broached, as appeared inevitable, the world would warm three degrees Celsius. The last time the world was three degrees warmer was during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were 80 feet higher and horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean.
The Charney report left Jim Hansen with more urgent questions. Three degrees would be nightmarish, and unless carbon emissions ceased suddenly, three degrees would be only the beginning. The real question was whether the warming trend could be reversed. Was there time to act? And how would a global commitment to cease burning fossil fuels come about, exactly? Who had the power to make such a thing happen? Hansen didn’t know how to begin to answer these questions. But he would learn.