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How We Got Here: Two New Accounts of How Action on Climate Change Was Thwarted

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Sea ice seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast of Greenland on March 30th, 2017. Scientists say that the Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change.

As climate change continues to warm the planet, acidify our oceans, and conjure extreme weather events, two new books attempt to excavate the origins of climate denialism and certain strains of conservative ideology that, together, have thwarted aggressive action on climate change. Written by two of the leading American voices on climate, the books take different approaches to recounting this history—one through near-cinematic storytelling, and the other through urgent, activist prose that draws parallels between global warming and the dangers to humanity posed by Silicon Valley’s more chilling technological advancements.

The first is Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth: A Recent History, which argues that the United States came closer in the 1980s than in any decade before or since to taking aggressive action on climate change—but then didn’t. “There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament,” Rich writes in the introduction, “without an understanding of why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

A wonkish drama ensues, featuring some of the decade’s central players in climate politics: There’s Rafe Pomerance, the environmental lobbyist who helped mobilize his Washington peers around climate; James Hansen, the climate scientist whose famous 1988 testimony before Congress helped make climate change a household topic of discussion; and John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s cunning chief of staff, who worked to undermine political action on climate at every turn. President Ronald Reagan also appears in this history, his 1980 election dealing a particular blow to Pomerance, who thereafter “found himself wondering whether what had seemed to be a beginning [of action on climate change] had actually been the end.” The drama is enriched with novelistic details as adeptly drawn as those in Rich’s 2013 novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, lending the story an almost cinematic quality.

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