In 1990, NASA’s Voyager spacecraft beamed back a picture of a tiny blue dot in the blackness of space.
That image of a lonely Earth prompted a philosophical reflection from astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who said it underscored humanity's responsibility “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Sagan made that call to arms in 1994. By then, according to New Orleans-based writer Nathaniel Rich’s new book, "Losing Earth: A Recent History," our best chance to preserve the earth against the worst effects of human-caused climate change had already been squandered.
The book, which expands on a 30,000-word article Rich wrote for The New York Times Magazine last year and is set for release April 9, tells part of the story of why.
Through congressional hearings, global conferences and the halls of U.S. power, Rich follows environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and climate scientist James Hansen, who between 1979 and 1989 first came to understand how carbon-dioxide emissions were changing Earth's climate and then came ever so close to convincing policymakers to act.
For Pomerance and Hansen, the decade progresses in a series of ups and downs reminiscent of the Keeling Curve, a now-famous chart showing the seasonal spikes and dips in atmospheric carbon, each year with higher highs and higher lows.
For the two men, action appears imminent, only to be delayed; a crucial report appears, and then its author recommends waiting for new technologies. Republicans and Democrats are supportive of climate policy, but political will dissolves.
The story builds toward 1989 and negotiations for a global treaty that in Rich’s telling would have put the climate on a safer course but for a few signatures and the work of a single, powerful man: John Sununu, President George H.W. Bush’s skeptical chief of staff, who scuttled the necessary U.S. leadership, and with it, any deal.
The book’s afterword traces how the oil and gas industry, beginning in the 1990s, took the lead creating doubt in what remains scientific consensus on human-caused climate change and helped bring us to the political stalemate of today.
"Losing Earth" is Rich’s fourth book and follows three well-received novels, the latest of which, 2018’s "King Zeno," is set in New Orleans a century ago during the construction of the Industrial Canal.
Unlike many writers who move to New Orleans, Nathaniel Rich never meant to write about the place. “If you’d asked me five or six years ago, I …
That novel is a crime procedural tinged with jazz, an influenza epidemic and a series of ax murders that all occur amid the massive public works project that city leaders called crucial for the city’s future — and that would factor into the flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
While Rich’s nonfiction interests are varied, he has become a reliable chronicler of Louisiana, mostly for national publications, with articles in recent years about Plaquemines Parish and its industrialization, the lawsuits against oil and gas companies over coastal restoration funds and essays on “All the King’s Men” author Robert Penn Warren and other writers.
In this week's New York Times Magazine, Nathaniel Rich explores Louisiana's march into the sea, and "the most ambitious environmental lawsuit …
In an interview, Rich said the failure to act to slow carbon emissions has been a failure to think about climate change as a moral issue.
The moral choice to do nothing, he said, is an area of inquiry in the climate debate where a novelist and critic may be able to contribute.
"The logical argument is not sufficient," Rich said. "You need a moral argument.”
In promoting “Losing Earth,” Rich is often asked how he reconciles the potentially dire impacts of climate change with living in perpetually flood-prone New Orleans, his home since 2010.
It’s a tough question that is likely to confront more people as a changing climate puts more areas at risk, he said.
“New Orleans is a city of the future,” said Rich. “We are comfortable with the uncertainty, and I think that’s in some ways the only human response to it.”
“The character of the city and the character of the people who live here, this kind of sensibility, inevitably, will have to spread,” he said.
Nathaniel Rich will discuss and sign his book with WWNO's Tegan Wendland at 6 p.m. Thursday (April 4) at the Tulane River & Coastal Center, 1370 Port of New Orleans Place. For more information, visit gardendistrictbookshop.com.