Why should the environment be saved?

When we could save the planet

The earth seen from space. (Photo: NASA)

The situation is anything but rosy: meanwhile, climate change is showing its face all over the world. Despite decades of climate negotiations, people are emitting more and more carbon dioxide. The remaining budget for CO2that we can still release into the air in order to keep global warming below two degrees is negligible. And possibly, as climate researchers say in a recent study, we have already passed the tipping point of irreversible heating of the planet.

Could it have been any other way?

Yes, says the journalist Nathaniel Rich, who is currently im New York Times Magazine published a lengthy essay that caused a sensation.

The thesis of "Losing the Earth - The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change": We could have got climate change under control 30 years ago. Climate science was already established then, the world was ready to act, and in the United States there was not yet the trench warfare between Republicans and Democrats of today, between highly armed climate deniers and environmentalists. Even the oil companies were ready to change, writes Rich. "Almost nothing stood in our way - nothing, apart from ourselves."

Who was the culprit?

The story reads like a thriller. This is mainly due to the question that accompanies you until the end of the article: If we were able to lay the foundation to save the world 30 years ago, why on earth did we not do it?

Rich spent a year and a half researching the article and interviewing over a hundred experts and contemporary witnesses, which is also evident in his reconstruction of the "decisive decade" from 1979 to 1989, with which he captures a piece of contemporary history in an excellent narrative manner. A period about which comparatively little is known in terms of climate policy - in contrast to the time from the beginning of the 1990s, when the IPCC was established and the first UN climate conferences were held.

In the end, however, Rich more or less owes an answer to his original question. Most likely he blames John Sununu, the then Chief of Staff of US President George Bush senior. He helped ensure that the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere failed in 1989. Environment ministers from the most important countries wanted to reduce CO2- Confess emissions by the year 2000 and thus lay the basis for a climate treaty. The USA then backed down after all.

In the course of his research, Rich had asked Sununu whether he felt responsible in retrospect for "killing the best chance for an effective global warming deal".

His answer: There would have been no agreement anyway. "Because honestly, the world's leaders were in a situation back then where they were all trying to make it look like they were backing politics without making tough commitments that would cost their nations serious resources."

You are in the same situation again today, Sununu said.

Oil companies planned the reorientation - and then left it

The question remains: Who in the USA ensured that the small window of opportunity that there might have been to convert the country's energy supply and to press for a climate agreement with ambitious climate targets internationally was not used, if - according to Rich - neither the Republicans were still the oil companies?

Rich acts a little as if the time before 1990 was still a more or less a vacuum in terms of climate policy, in which anything would have been possible. That may be true for a very small window of time and with regard to the oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil or BP. There was a brief period back then when Exxon also invested heavily in solar technology.

Rich's chronicle indicates that the corporations were on the verge of converting their entire business model - in anticipation of social and political pressure for strong climate regulation. However, that changed immediately when they realized that they had nothing to fear from politics.

So nothing from the Ronald Reagan administration and nothing from the George W. Bush administration. What Rich may underestimate here are the influences of the conservative movement on the government, which has been increasingly organized in the USA since the 1960s and mobilized against all kinds of regulations, including against climate guidelines. For example, President Reagan cut the budget for the US environmental agency by a quarter and even tried to abolish the US Department of Energy.

It is correct: It was only when James Hansen warned the Senate of the consequences of climate change in 1988 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was constituted in the early 1990s that this triggered a real alarm mood among oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, which from the early 1990s in set up a perfectly organized network of climate denial organizations to undermine the reputation of climate science and systematically prevent climate regulation.

Bad timing

That does not mean, however, that oil companies were pious in the past and that the conservative networks were friends of climate protection laws. They just didn't need to.

In his study "The organization of denial", the political scientist Peter Jacques from Florida Central University pointed to a change in strategy in the 1980s: Reagan initially tried quite openly to curb environmental regulation. After violent popular protests, the conservatives learned "that it is safer to question the importance of environmental problems and to portray environmentalists as 'radicals'" who exaggerate and distort the facts.

Rich had to accept a lot of criticism for his central thesis that at the end of the 1980s the conditions for a breakthrough in climate protection were almost never and that ultimately "humanity" or "all of us" were responsible for not seizing the opportunity to have.

"On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution when our species is confronted with the harsh truth that the conveniences of our modern consumer capitalism are steadily undermining the habitability of the planet," writes Canadian activist and journalist Naomi Klein in a comment.

Klein provides the following explanation: "The late eighties were the absolute zenith of the neoliberal campaign, a moment of greatest ideological superiority for the economic and social project that deliberately badmouthed collective action - in the name of unleashing 'free markets' in all areas of life."

In other words: it was bad timing that prevented the breakthrough in climate protection.

Who's to blame? The human or the system?

If "human nature" were to blame, as Rich speculates, we would have little hope. A book by the astrophysicist Adam Frank has just been published in which he proposes that civilizations in the entire universe on the threshold of "growing up" fail in most cases and could extinguish themselves - like us at the predetermined breaking point of climate change.

Klein defends himself against the fatalistic view that "man" was to blame for the failure in the 1980s. Rather, she sees the responsibility in neoliberalism. This interpretation has the advantage that we can change something, says Klein. "We can oppose this economic order and try to replace it with something that is based on both human and planetary security and does not focus on the pursuit of growth and profit at all costs."

Unfortunately, Rich's article does not offer satisfactory explanations for his legitimate question as to why nothing happened in the 1980s. However, it is still worth reading, also to trace the history of the early climate protectors around James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance. And to see how little has changed since the time of Ronald Reagan and that even 30 years later governments and fossil fuels are still trying to delay the necessary changes.