Essay / 17 May 2019


A Hell of Our Own Making

Losing Earth is a revelation. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the story last summer in The New York Times. It’s not common these days for a newspaper to print a small book as an extra edition and keep it, with photos and videos, freely accessible online. While reading, my mouth was constantly agape. I got furious and combative. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I wanted to know more.

Since then I’ve read Losing Earth many times. I posted the text on Facebook, reactions were modest. I wanted to translate it and find a publisher, only to learn from my agent that the German version was being published in April. It should be translated into every language! To summarize without hyperbole: Losing Earth is the best that critical journalism can achieve.

The epilogue starts with a climate scientist at the University of Stanford asking his students what had been the major breakthrough in climate science since 1979. At that concluding point, my students at Bowling Green State University, with whom I’d read the text over the preceding weeks, paused for a moment. The past classes they had been appalled, devastated, furious and combative; now they seemed annoyed with themselves—maybe, despite everything, they hadn’t been reading attentively enough. The answer is: Concerning the paradigms of climate science, nothing has changed. What has changed is more reliable data, more exact models and the dismal illustration of what has been known for decades—or could have been known for decades.

The reportage starts in 1979. That is the year of the Iranian Revolution, which changed the face of the earth, of Saddam Hussein taking power in Iraq, of Margaret Thatcher getting elected British Prime Minister and starting the brutal campaign of neoliberalism, but it is also the year of Rudi Dutschke drowning in his bath tub, at Christmas, a late consequence of being shot by a fascist in 1968. Nathaniel Rich, however, tells the story of the environmentalist Rafe Pomerance who, in 1979, stumbled upon a sentence in a technical report of the Environmental Protection Agency to the US government: the continued use of fossil fuels might bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the global atmosphere. The environmentalist had never heard of that.

When we talk about the Green New Deal, climate strikes and climate change today, most people—including myself, until I read Losing Earth—consider it a contemporary debate, stemming from more recent insights. In reality it is a question of power, money and influence—a question of the media economy, political and social struggles. The history of climate change discovery has been a history of forgetting. Or really: a history that powerful interests want to be forgotten.

In 1859, John Tyndall found that carbon dioxide absorbed warmth and that changes in the atmosphere could trigger changes in global climate. In 1896, the later Nobel laureate Svante Arkennius explained that the burning of oil and coal raised global temperatures. In 1939, Guy Stewart Callendar pointed out that the recent five years had been the hottest in recorded history since humankind accelerated natural processes. In 1957, Roger 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.” In 1958, the popular science film The Unchained Goddess, hosted by Frank Capra and watched by millions in the US, warned about the dangers of burning fossil fuels with images of a flooded Miami, not so far in the future. In 1965, a report on climate change predicted that New England could soon be without snow, coastal cities could be flooded, harvests could decrease significantly, while a quarter of the world’s population might be forced to leave their homes in search of lands and places that were still habitable and could still sustain human livelihood. Skip ahead half a century: Today the UN projects 200 millions of climate refugees by 2050. The possible flooding of Bangladesh alone could force ten times more people to flee than the civil war in Syria. Not to mention Sub-Saharan Africa, which is and will be most damagingly hit by climate change.

Nathaniel Rich is to be praised for having written a compelling history of climate change, its science and the struggles to attract media attention for the crimes against our planet. That his reportage reads like a detective story, that one wants to jump up every now and then to grab the perpetrators—at least—by the collar, lies in the nature of the matter. Rich narrates how in the 1980s scientists desperately tried to explain their disturbing findings to the responsible parties in business and politics in order to have them take urgent action, before it was too late. And how they, when all of that didn’t change a thing, teamed up with activists and movements to win over a broader public.

Contrary to what one might think today, the issue of climate change was not a primarily partisan one in the 1980s. Conservative Republicans found that there could be nothing more conservative than conserving nature itself. George H. W. Bush started his electoral campaign at Lake Erie declaring himself an environmentalist: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect, are forgetting about the White House effect.” At the same time, the Democratic candidate saw the country’s future in more domestic oil production and coal-based energy supply. Even Exxon and the coal industry took for granted that they had to change their business model sooner rather than later, really over the next few years instead of decades. Why everything turned out differently is what Nathaniel Rich tells us.

Losing Earth’s second hero is James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In him, Pomerance found a scientist who could explain to a non-scientific audience what triggered climate change, and what its consequences were. The first half of the 1980s had seen little progress and much setback, owing to the Reagan administration’s siding with high-emission industries. With the appearance of the so-called ozone hole, the time seemed ripe to put the issue of climate change on the agenda. Even though the ozone hole was not an actual hole, it had created a symbol that caused a lot of discomfort. Climate change and the changing atmosphere, however, could not be symbolized so easily. They were still not as visible as a poisoned river or polluted air or acid rain. In the summer of 1988, the hottest in recorded US history, James Hansen told the Senate that the greenhouse effect had set in and was already triggering climate change. He announced this on the hottest June 23 Washington had seen since records began—in the hottest June Washington had seen since records began. The next day, James Hansen and climate change were on the front page of The New York Times.

A few days later, in Toronto, the first World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere was held, then referred to as the “Woodstock for climate change.” Scientists and activists from all over the world came together to demand a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2000. The common goal was to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees—a warming that was and is still believed to be somehow fixable or otherwise coped with. Today we are holding at 1.1 degrees warming since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The current emissions trajectory points to 4 degrees by 2100.

In May 1989, the following year, James Hansen testified before Congress. However, he noted that there was no scientific evidence for the link between greenhouse gases and climate change; climate change could also be subject to natural processes. He demanded that Congress only take those actions that were good for the economy. Senator Al Gore asked why Hansen had suddenly contradicted himself so blatantly. The action was meticulously planned: Hansen had received an absurdly revised version of his report. He’d been forbidden to read the original version. He was waiting for Senator Gore's question. Hansen explained what was actually contained in his report.

The White House’s attempt at censorship stirred a wave of outrage, the climate issue was out in the public and seemed to be gaining momentum. In Noordwijk, on the Netherlands’ coast, the first international Conference on Climate Change took place in November 1989, with more than 80 countries participating. It was assumed that the respective environmental ministers finally came to a binding decision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most probably changing Toronto’s goal to 20 percent reduction by 2005. Getting the Soviet Union and Japan on their side, however, the US torpedoed this goal, whatever President Bush might have said on his campaign trail when pollsters had shown that the environmental question resonated with the public. There was no decision. No binding reductions. Nothing but the declaration of a shared concern. A decade of struggle had been crushed – or, in Rich’s words, “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

How it came about that politicians, corrupt scientists and lobbyists today can deny climate change outright is revealed in Losing Earth. Since the hope of Noordwijk got crushed, the amount of money the big companies in the atmosphere-destroying industries spent in the early 1980s on research into causes and consequences of climate change, has now been multiplied and is widely used for disinformation campaigns. An op-ed against the notion of climate change, for instance, was rewarded with 2000 dollars - science should be discredited and portrayed as ideologically biased. The climate researcher and director of the Department of Geography at Bowling Green State University, Arthur N. Samel, said that he would not engage in ideological discussions with anyone on this issue. Instead he’d invite people who want to disagree to provide numbers and facts contradicting climate research. There are none. It’s not an ideological question. It’s not something you can choose to believe in or not.

Yet, there are different models that project, on the basis of collected data, man-made global warming into the future. In a summary study published by Patrick T. Brown and Ken Caldeira in Nature in 2017, we find four of them. The most unlikely model, which would emerge in the event of a sudden radical change in global production and consumption, does not exceed the limit of two degrees of global warming, the absolute “point of no return,” perhaps to settle down at a little over 1.5 degrees, which still sees a drastically changed global temperature with unpredictable consequences. The next optimistic model sees the threshold exceeded by 2040. The fourth model, based on emissions continuing to rise, also sees the threshold crossed around 2040, but with a sharp and dramatically quick rise in warming. What happens, and what could happen, according to different degrees of warming, is described by David Wallace-Wells in his breathtaking account The Uninhabitable Earth: “The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia.”

Here, too, Donald Trump is a symptom of the madness of our times and of catastrophic capitalism. He embodies the wrong class compromise—especially on the climate issue. On the one hand, with his primitive jokes about the TV that doesn’t work when the wind’s not blowing, he stands for the powerful interests of the present, on whose altar the future of the planet and the next generations are being sacrificed; on the other hand, he appeals to the fears and resentments of the supposedly or really disadvantaged whose lifestyle, with cars and air conditioning and free plastic bags and cheap meat and cheap flights would be jeopardized. Yet, it is the poor and the poorest, in the global north, and much more so in the global south, who are hit and will be hit most severely by climate change. Wallace-Wells talks about a “climate caste system,” about “environmental apartheid.” The rich have created gated communities. It’s safe to assume that they will be able to better cope with climate change and its consequences than the rest.

That emissions must be radically reduced, and global energy supply and global production radically changed, should not be lost on anyone. Radical, in this case, is merely reasonable. The monstrous fetish of growth as well as the devastating lifestyle that Ulrich Brand and Markus Wisse call the “Imperial Mode of Living” must be renounced. This should be undertaken neither anxiously nor self-accusingly, but rather cheerfully. We are at an historic threshold. Future generations will—and should—blame us for our decisions today. (Some, and the most important ones, of them are not ours: while the United States emits around five gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, China emits a little over nine. The first decision Jair Bolsonaro took, after he was elected President of Brazil, was to lift the ban against deforestation in the rain forests. Big business was happy. For the atmosphere it means emissions of over 13 gigatons of carbon dioxide between 2021 and 2030.)

After we read the last sentence of Losing Earth, it was silent in the classroom for a while. After that, the students immediately started discussing what one, what they could change in Bowling Green, Ohio. It was about traffic, energy supply, food and housing. (Global food production, for instance, accounts for one third of the world’s emissions. Studies show that global meat and dairy production have to be cut in half by 2050. Everything points in the other direction.) The semester assignment was to write a story starting from where Rafe Pomerance comes to the conclusion that a movement was needed for the struggle against climate change—and that every movement needed a hero. I was hoping that the students would come up with a social movement, rather than a hero, that shifted history. Instead dystopias predominated—burnt and ravaged planets after the big catastrophe. Isn’t it strange that we can rather imagine the end of the world than the end of a production and consumption system that has existed for a little more than a hundred years? Of course no one had heard about the major demonstration in US cities against automobiles in the early 1920s.

I was born in the year in which Rafe Pomerance stumbled upon a sentence in a scientific report. I was ten when the hope in Noordwijk, a few days before the Berlin Wall fell, was crushed. In the thirty years since then, more carbon dioxide has been pumped into the atmosphere than in the entire human history before. If things continue as they are, emissions will continue to rise, the two-degree threshold will soon be reached, while even the current warming has changed the climate in ways that are felt but not yet fully grasped. Anyone who wants to know what will happen to us and the next generations—that will not be easy on us—when the earth warms at three, four, six, or eight degrees, should read The Uninhabitable Earth. It suffices to look at the titles of the book’s chapters: “Heat Death,” “Hunger,” “Drowning,” “Wildfire,” “Disasters No Longer Natural,” “Freshwater Drain,” “Dying Oceans,” “Unbreathable Air,” “Plagues Of Warming,” “Economic Collapse”—Wallace-Wells, who had been collecting stories about catastrophes linked to climate change, presents us, in addition to accounts of recent climate change-induced disasters and to the devastating effects of more optimistic estimates, with those of more realistic and darker possibilities. As of today, the optimists always had it wrong. Even James Hansen, who has all but retired from his struggle, suggested in 2016 that sea level could rise several meters over fifty years, if ice melt doubled every decade. A major study in 2018 found that the melt rate of the Antarctic ice sheet tripled in the past decade. It’s five past twelve, but maybe it's possible to turn the clock back a bit. The sad truth is: the hands are flying by.

Any kind of green capitalism, the straw to which the liberals of the world cling, won’t solve the problem. Electronic cars, for instance, still produce a lot of carbon emissions in their production, not to mention the lithium that’s needed for their batteries and extracted under atrocious conditions in Africa. To hope for the rethinking of the big industries is, in the strict sense, perverse: then, again, those who knowingly worsened the planet’s condition in the name of profit would benefit from the transformation that was made inevitable by their lunacy and greed. The question of climate and the habitability of the planet is today more than ever tied to the social question. Anyone who studies the science of climate change, reads the data and begins to understand their environmental and social consequences, will see but one thing: it is much worse than expected.

We are all accomplices in the destruction of the atmosphere. We were all made accomplices in the destruction of the atmosphere. That’s the dilemma we’re facing today. But while those who own the big corporations and industries and have known for a long time what they are doing to the planet and its populations and weren‘t doing anything about it—on the contrary—and while they still aren‘t doing anything and want to fade out gradually and adjust slowly, when there really is no time, there’s but one solution: The atmosphere-destroying industries must be socialized in order to think collectively about what should be produced, how and why. That would be a Global Forum and a Global Counsel of a completely new kind! That would really be the time of experts entering a conversation to take action. The experts here are those who suffer climate change and will suffer it a lot more if we carry on as we are; those who produce the goods that change our climate for the worse; and those who’ve studied it and can provide data. Parliaments and governments, not to mention the CEOs and share holders of the earth-destroying industries, have failed time and again. But then again, they have to be mentioned: parliaments and governments didn’t take the actions that could have prevented the worst if they hadn’t succumbed to “the only game in town”, to “There is no alternative.”

The sad stupidity of aggressive nationalisms; the unholy alliance of the right and neo-fascists with the earth-destroying industries, who at the same time promise the subaltern as well as the most privileged they will defend their respective lifestyles at the expense of other, always poorer people; the illusions of the liberals in green capitalism; the demonstrations of the moral superiority of sensibly living ecologically, do not make the task easier. But it is here and now. It requires courage, outrage, collectivity and individual footprint verification at the same time. Neither nihilism nor cynicism, neither downheartedness nor hoping for the great technological miracle that will turn everything around, will save us. If there is one global question today, it’s that of justice—for the planet and for the human animal that has brought it and itself to the brink of destruction. If you don't want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about climate change.


  • Degrees here always mean, as is custom, Celsius.

  • You can access Losing Earth here



Clemens Berger

born 1979 in southern Burgenland, Austria, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He’s a writer, essayist and playwright. Recent publications: „Und hieb ihm das rechte Ohr ab“ (2009), „Das Streichelinstitut“ (2010), „Ein Versprechen von Gegenwart“ (2013), „Im Jahr des Panda“ (2016),