Editorial: A chilling story about climate change

Published: 08-26-2018 12:05 AM

Last month, the New York Times devoted an entire issue of its Sunday magazine to a single, 30,000-word account of the missed opportunity by the world’s nations to address the dangers posed by global warming.

The article, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” by Nathaniel Rich, spans the years between 1979 and 1989, when the link between humankind’s burning of fossil fuels and climate change became broadly known, as did, to a majority of climate scientists, the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The failure to make more than token reductions in carbon emissions are now being felt globally.

In New Hampshire, they can been seen by warmer winters, a shorter maple syrup season, increased coastal flooding and a longer growing season.

Rich tells the story largely through the eyes of four people, Rafe Pomerance, then director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth; NASA scientist and climate change expert James Hansen; then-Sen. Al Gore, an early herald of climate change; and then New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who tellingly became President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff.

Sununu, whose son Chris currently serves as governor and whose son Michael is one of the state’s more vocal climate change skeptics, emerges as the villain of the piece, the man who almost single-handedly thwarted the first major international effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions. Attempts to reach the former governor were unsuccessful, but we urge him, should he choose to do so, to comment on Rich’s version of history.

As chief of staff, and armed with a doctorate in mechanical engineering from MIT, the senior Sununu felt qualified to declare Hansen’s work on climate change bunk and “technical poppycock.” The science underlying the link between warming and the combustion of fossil fuels, Sununu believed, was insufficient to warrant government action or societal expense. He thus, as Rich tells it, sabotaged that first international meeting held in the Netherlands to produce the basis of a global treaty to limit carbon emissions by appointing a climate change skeptic to the negotiating team. His appointee was given orders to prevent any U.S. commitment to limits. Sununu’s effort was a success and no agreement was forged.

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Meanwhile, global carbon emissions increased.

New Hampshire was party to the debate in those years, and not only because John H. Sununu governed the state between 1983 and 1989. Gore, as one of seven Democrats vying to become their party’s presidential nominee in 1988, attended four Monitor editorial board meetings. One of the things he discussed was climate change. That year, the Monitor published its first editorial urging action to combat global warming. Pomerance, too, came to the paper for an editorial board meeting and echoed Gore’s message. Since then, despite efforts by nations that range from token to substantial, levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere have increased by 15 percent.

Near the end of his account, Rich asked the elder Sununu whether he felt responsible for killing the attempt at a global climate accord. His answer was both cynical and accurate. “It couldn’t have happened,” he told Rich, “because frankly, the leaders of the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking (at) how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.” Sununu’s next sentence is chilling.

“Frankly, that’s about where we are today.”

The relocation of people on low-lying islands has already begun. Glaciers millennia-old are disappearing. Deserts are expanding. Droughts and crop failures are increasing. And seas are rising. If New Hampshire’s former governor is right that governments still lack the will to sacrifice for the sake of the future, the worst is yet to come.