🌎 How the USA lost the Earth?
This page is a timeline of the United States environmental actions to mitigate global warming since the 70’s.
The main source of this page, except for the update of last chapters, is Losing Earth, a recent history by journalist Nathaniel Rich. It is available online on a New York Time dedicated page if you want to get the full picture.
Losing Earth, a recent history goes back in the fifties when scientists funded by oil compagnies in the US discovered the effects of Green House Gas (GHG) like CO2 on the Earth climate; and took this question seriously as an issue that should not be ignored to sustain an industry of responsible and raisonnable people (The successful Clean Air Act (1963) following big smogs in US cities). From there, Nathaniel Rich goes all the way through James Hansen’s congressional testimony on climate change (1988) to the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) symposium in Noordwijk, Netherlands; where hopes for any binding agreement were lost, while climate change denial became the main strategy of US industries & Republicans. Now that we see that no authority can force any country to follow the 2016 Paris Agreement, and that Trump’s government announced his intention to withdraw the US from it; the last hopes seems to be class actions against those companies denial, local alliances for carbon policies and citizens influence on politics and economics with their own morality.
Assessing the risk
In in 1957, the scientist Roger Revelle (scientist part of Manhattan project — hydrogen bomb) wrote that humans were leading a wide geophysical experiment they will never be able to repeat… Later, he commissioned the emblematic “Keeling Curve” showing rising CO2 accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere since 1958.
In the end of the 70’s, the US were not so far from the perfect set up to progress towards real solutions against climate change: there was no denial lobbying from oil companies nor car industries, and even Republicans were considering environment as part of their campaign subjects. Democrat president of the US Jimmy Carter just installed solar panels on the White House and was very popular, and people’s general opinion were rather environmentalist. Environmentalist Rafe Pomerance, from Friends of the Earth GNO, discovered the same year the existence of climate change cause by fossil fuel burning in a report about coil industry in the US. His curiosity led him to volcanologist Gordon Mac Donald, who was part of the eminent Jason comity, created to unite the US scientific elite around military issues. Mac Donald imagined how a climate changing weapon using GHG could be implemented, but was terrified to discover that humans were actually using that weapon against themselves without noticing it: The Jason comity then addressed “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate” to the Energy minister in 1978.
James Hansen was, at first, a NASA scientist studying the burning atmosphere of Venus, thanks to its high carbon concentration; with the help of Pioneer space probe. He was hired by meteorologist Jule Charney to build “Mirror Worlds” simulations of the Earth’s atmosphere. Together with other scientists, they established a precise prediction of 2030’s climate, and published “Carbone Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment” asked by the White House, and called Charney report (1979). The same year, a group of philosophers, anthropologists and economists called “the fatalists”, asserted that human beings reaction to this crisis might be inaction, as the only future worth taking in consideration seems to be short term (Michael Glanz). Nevertheless, economist William Nordhaus worked for the possibility of a carbon tax, while not believing in any world agreement about climate.
After Charney report, oil giant ExxonMobil started funding a research group to determine their responsibility in climate change to come. Henry Shaw was chosen by Exxon, who was cripping out, to join efforts in finding solutions with eminent scientists during the Pink Palace symposium, in 1980. No consensus happen and everyone stood “careful” in their claims; Pomerance was mad.
Now US citizens know the truth
James Hansen came back on the front, hired by Pomerance, for a congressional testimony initiated by Democrat Al Gore: for the first time, an eminent state scientist told politicians that effects of global warming would be seen in the next twenty years. This happen in May 1982 and had a huge impact, making the threat more tangible. At the end of 1984, the Academic report “Changing Climate” commissioned by the government compiled all international studies ever made to conclude on the urge to act — or the impossibility to go back and avoid this crisis to come. However, the authors conclude their press conference with “let’s take our time and not panic” as the great USA would certainly find a solution in the years to come (William Nierenberg).
Since 1974, the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland had identified a problem of weakening of the ozone gas layer (O3) in Earth Atmosphere, near the Antarctic pole. In 1985, he described in a conference a “hole in the ozone layer” caused by the overuse of synthetic gas (CFCs) for refrigeration, deodorants, etc. The NY Time immediately took this expression as a slogan to depict the risk of loosing this ozone layer: our main shield against UVs. Ronald Reagan obtained an agreement to reduce CFCs by 95% with UN approval. As CFCs are part of GHG, this sudden success for environmentalists gave a new hope to global warming lobbyists. The same year, Republican Curtis Moore gave his insights to Pomerance to use the ozone problem — that had concrete solutions— as a way to advocate against global warming. It worked with a 1986 congressional audience, and for the first time since 1982 all medias followed, merging clumsily ozone and climate issues. But at the same time, James Hansen started to experiment a soft censorship from White House in his numerous audiences.
At the end of 1988, Bush Sr. was elected with a campaign insisting on his will to act against global warming; frightening industries and lobbyists of the White House. That’s when IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) was created by the UN. At the same time, the American Petroleum Institute (API) was boiling: they had to find an answer to defend their interests against possible regulations. That’s where the first anti-regulation arguments were built, relying on the lack of consensus about the speed of climate change. They discovered an ally in the person of John Sununu, Bush Chief of Staff: as an old engineer from MIT, he was full of doubt towards climate change and believed in an anti-growth plot orchestrated by socialist dark forces.
In May 1989, James Hansen warned Al Gore that, once again, White House censored his next audience to underestimate his results and advices. With NY Times help, Gore built a political scandal right in the middle of the Congress audience; depicting this new government as authoritarian (= fascist, socialist).
In November 1989 at Noordwijk, Netherlands, world environment ministers gathered to analyse IPCC results and to build a world treaty. With the help of UK, USSR and Japan, the US managed to avoid any binding agreement; ending up with the announcement that several States were keen on stabilising their CO2 emissions.
Towards instituted climate change denial
When Nathaniel Rich, the journalist, asked Sununu if his goodwill could have led to a real agreement, he answered that every country was using the US as an excuse to avoid any treaty, because they wanted to show good public figure without questioning their actions. And what followed until today showed him right in lotta ways.
Following Hansen’s censorship, API created a lobbying organisation named Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to institutionalise climate change denial; offering $2000 for any scientific publication following their ideology from 1989 to 2002. Other industries followed this efficient, cheap tactic, with new organisations.
- In 1992 at Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, Bush Sr. refused any binding treaty.
- In 1993, Bill Clinton was president of the US and proposed an emission tax to match Rio goals, but API started to invest millions in denial campaigns.
- In 1997, the Kyoto agreement for -5% GHG emissions was signed by the US but never ratified by Congres, then opposed by Senate. Nothing was ever signed again by the US.
- In 2009, new president of the US Barack Obama commits to the Copenhagen Summit to lower emissions from 17% by 2020 by replacing coat with natural gas in power-plants.
- In 2016, Obama signed the Paris Agreement, a new non-binding treaty.
- In 2017, short after his election, new president of the US Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, while erasing EPA’s web pages addressing climate change.
- In 2019, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, created in prevision of the Paris Agreement, was reviewed by Trump administration to become The Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which will slow the closing of coal power-plants in the US.
Hope comes from US local alliances
Now that links between GHG emissions and consequences in given regions can be established, 2015 saw lots of trials against oil compagnies and their massive lobbying campaigns. With the help of Clean Air Act, National Environment Policy Act, or even Public Trust Doctrine, ExxonMobil was sued in 2018 by the State of NY after several investigations proving that “Exxon knew”.
And since a few years, coalitions like We Are Still In, US Climate Alliance, and Climate Mayors or C40 want to fulfil the commitments of US in Paris despite Trump’s denial. Moreover, at the federal level, some States initiated a carbon market in the US to mitigate climate change:
- Western Climate Initiative, created in 2007 by Nova Scotia, California and Quebec, implemented in 2013 an emissions trading system with other observatory states joining the market occasionally.
- US Northeast States started together in 2014 the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a C02 emissions trading program for power generators initiated in 2009.
But this may not be enough for the US to reach Obama’s commitments of 28% emissions decrease in 2015 Paris Agreement.
The US has a huge responsibility in mitigation of climate change
As the US are often seen as the “global policeman”, their soft-power embodied by symbolic political actions as well as movie culture have a great impact on international politics and every humans way of thinking — generally for the worst more than the best. Their apathy towards climate change urgency has been an excuse for countries to do the least they could, if nothing. Ultimately, they know that the biggest economy in the world would keep ignoring carbon negative effects on its market values, while overlooking polluting companies and states, when they are not outsourcing US pollution abroad.
The 11.5% emissions decrease that happened between 2005 & 2015 is not enough to reduce the US outsized role in global emissions, remaining the largest cumulative emitter since 1750 with 397Gt of atmospheric CO2. China recently took the lead in per year emissions, but its population is 4.25 bigger than the US, and its industry largely emits for US leading companies (Apple, Nike, WalMart, IBM, etc.). Moreover, China’s emissions growth is low considering its fast economic growth, and its commitment to the Paris Agreement is real — including a carbon trading system operating since 2013.
- Losing Earth: A Recent History by journalist Nathaniel Rich, published first in 2019 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.