Thirty Years Ago, In These Times Predicted Our Climate Future

A 1989 article sketched out a worst-case vision of the future. Things got even worse than we thought.

In These Times Editors April 22, 2019

The Jan. 11, 1989, issue marked the beginning of a three-part series on climate change.

In the win­ter of 1989, In These Times ran a three-part series on glob­al warm­ing by envi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist Dick Rus­sell. The first, End­less Sim­mer,” sum­ma­rized the sci­ence, mak­ing clear that we’ve known most of what we need­ed to know to con­front cli­mate change for 30 years. The sec­ond, Reagan’s Lega­cy of Hot Air,” crit­i­cizes the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion for kick­ing the can down the road; one won­ders whether Rus­sell could have imag­ined that in 2019, we’d have a pres­i­dent who denies the can’s exis­tence entirely.

By 2010, carbon dioxide emissions had risen by 52 percent over 1989 levels, not 38.

The third piece, Earth Needs You,” points the way toward solu­tions. It begins with two visions of the far­away future, the year 2010:

SCE­NARIO ONE: DATE­LINE 2010. AMER­I­CAN CITIES, LARGE­LY absent of smog, are now lined with trees of numer­ous vari­eties. Homes and offices use one-quar­ter the amount of ener­gy that they con­sumed only 21 years before, yet an effi­cien­cy-con­scious econ­o­my has helped achieve even greater pros­per­i­ty. Elec­tric vehi­cles, pow­ered pri­mar­i­ly by the sun, cruise the streets, while the remain­ing gaso­line-fed auto­mo­biles now get at least 50 and as many as 120 miles per gal­lon. Cen­ters for the recy­cling of paper, alu­minum, plas­tic and oth­er prod­ucts pro­vide jobs for thou­sands of peo­ple. A net­work of small but pro­duc­tive farms oper­at­ing with­out petro­chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides or fer­til­iz­ers dot the rur­al land­scape. Pub­lic schools, church­es and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions busi­ly pro­mote addi­tion­al tree-plant­i­ng efforts. Abroad, an Ecol­o­gy Corps,” mod­eled after the Peace Corps of the 60s, assists in help­ing devel­op­ing nations imple­ment sim­i­lar programs.

Sce­nario two: Date­line 2010. The out­put of car­bon diox­ide (CO2) enter­ing the atmos­phere from the burn­ing of coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas has risen anoth­er 38 per­cent in only 21 years. Mil­lions of lush acres of trop­i­cal rain for­est that once pro­vid­ed the womb for count­less life­forms and sta­bi­lized the Earth’s atmos­phere by absorb­ing vast amounts of CO2 now stand bar­ren, fall­en vic­tim to devel­op­ers. Increased tem­per­a­tures and shift­ing weath­er pat­terns have trans­formed the most pro­duc­tive bread­bas­kets of the world into near-deserts. Around the globe mil­lions are home­less, fac­ing star­va­tion and dying of dis­ease. Nations rav­aged by drought and sea lev­el ris­es fran­ti­cal­ly seek food, shel­ter and water for their cit­i­zens. Yet no vir­gin fron­tiers remain, so there are none to escape to, none to exploit.

Rus­sell was a cyn­ic; he thought the smart mon­ey [was] on the lat­ter” sce­nario. As it turns out, even that pre­dic­tion was too opti­mistic. By 2010, car­bon diox­ide emis­sions had risen by 52 percent over 1989 lev­els, not 38. Not just mil­lions but hun­dreds of mil­lions of acres of rain for­est had been destroyed. While the world’s most pro­duc­tive bread­bas­kets” were not yet deserts, Syr­ia was fac­ing its worst drought in cen­turies— a strain on resources that helped spark the country’s civ­il war. And, while not yet dis­placed, res­i­dents of low-lying islands were see­ing increased flood­ing due to ris­ing seas. Yet the first, opti­mistic sce­nario is not dead yet. The tech­nol­o­gy for elec­tric cars, bus­es and trains is improv­ing, and many schools and church­es do orga­nize tree-plant­i­ng ini­tia­tives. While much U.S. recy­cling is a sham, ambi­tious cities such as San Fran­cis­co are mov­ing toward zero land­fill waste, find­ing ways to reuse, recy­cle and com­post all of their goods. Some cli­mate effects are locked in, but the worst can still be avoided.

Our action or inac­tion will ush­er in one of these sce­nar­ios,” Rus­sell wrote. Right now we’ve got one foot in each — but time is run­ning out to choose.

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