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Authors for #ClimateVisionaries project

Nathaniel Rich on our Climate in Crisis

An Essay for the #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project for Greenpeace

by Nathaniel Rich

How did one prepare the public for the complexity of the crisis ahead? It wasn’t easy to make government officials and journalists read government reports, let alone the American public. But a thrilling game, disseminated through high schools and colleges, might have an effect.

Nathaniel Rich, Author and contributor to our #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project

Global Warming: The Board Game

Shortly after Jesse Ausubel became the first American to accept a full-time job devoted to preventing climate change, he found himself thinking about board games. He was partial to Monopoly, Risk, and the Game of Life, games in which chance was as influential on the outcome as strategy. That was how life worked, after all: best laid plans and so on. Chess, for that reason, had never interested him. It was too obsessive, a frigid intellectual exercise closer to higher mathematics than philosophy. He hated the way chess players insisted on total silence and avoided eye contact with their opponents. He preferred games that encouraged players to debate each other, negotiate, bicker, games in which the players could not be replaced by machines—games, in other words, that took as their subject human nature itself.

Ausubel was unaware of the growing consensus that the planet was warming until 1977, when he received a fellowship to work at the National Academy of Sciences. Before then, he had believed the world to be cooling. And it was: Between 1940 and 1970, average global temperatures decreased by a half degree Celsius. Scientists had blamed man for altering the global climate through the profligate emission of industrial airborne pollutants, which reflected sunlight away from Earth’s surface. Some worried that the pollution would bring on a new ice age. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Ausubel and two friends had been inspired by this idea to write a “musical melodrama” featuring Fu Manchu, the diabolical villain of Sax Rohmer’s novels. In FU (Or the Yellow Peril), Fu installs a giant air conditioner inside Big Ben, freezing the Thames. Fu’s favorite assassin is a penguin who pecks victims to death. An army of yeti float on icebergs from Tibet, invade London, and square dance. The second-act showstopper is “The Ice Age Waltz”:

The weatherman’s prognostications are failing,

London’s as cold as a cast-iron railing,

Out of the north the insidious chill

Is creeping down on us to numb and to kill!

Ausubel at 27: tall, tidy, and professorial of dress, with a strong nose, a soft chin, and a dreaminess around the mouth. He had an inquisitive, patient demeanor that Roger Revelle, an early supervisor at the Academy, described in recommendation letters as “gentle.” He looked, and was careful to behave, older than his age. Ausubel treated his mentors with reverence, none more so than Robert White, the nation’s top weatherman under the previous five presidents. As director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, White was one of the first scientists to warn of the dangers of overfishing, a subject of great interest to Ausubel. In protest of White’s outspokenness, tuna fishermen in San Diego had hung a life-size effigy of White from a lamppost in the harbor. Above his desk, White kept a framed photograph of his lynching. Perhaps, he told Ausubel, indicating the bloodthirsty fishermen, instead of bothering with the oceans, you might have a go at the climate problem?

What problem?

White prepared a syllabus for Ausubel: Global Warming 101. It began at the Academy’s library, where Ausubel pulled the original studies of John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle and Hans Seuss—the documents that, in the previous century, had established the fundamental science of climate change. He also unearthed the proceedings of a 1963 Conservation Foundation symposium, Implications of Rising Carbon Dioxide Content of the Atmosphere, warning that the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuels would remain for millennia, destroying habitats, driving species to extinction. “Fossil fuels,” the scholars concluded, “will change earth for the worse.”

White next drew, from his private files, a series of public reports and gray papers—unpublished studies circulating at the highest levels of the government. These included a classified 1974 CIA report proposing that a decisive climatic change began to take place around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts of this change would be “almost beyond comprehension.” There was a confidential 1977 report by SRI, a Pentagon-funded research center, on the “sociopolitical impacts of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel combustion.” The sixty-page report warned of large fluctuations in global food supply, chronic water shortages in the U.S., increased regulation of immigration, the disruption of the U.S. economy, shifts in power balance among nations, and other “intolerable” results. The only solution was to reduce energy demand through conservation and shift to alternative fuel sources. “The difficulty,” the authors acknowledged, “is that any government action requires political consensus. Such consensus may be difficult to achieve.” White produced a draft of a 174-page National Academy of Sciences report from the same year, Energy and Climate: “It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that human capacity to perturb inadvertently the global environment has outstripped our ability to anticipate the nature and extent of the impact.” Man was an infantile species, bouncing around the walls of his living room, upsetting vases and picture frames, sticking his finger into outlets, pulling bookshelves down over his head.

Ausubel found that the most clear-eyed conclusions had come from Margaret Mead, who had edited another volume that White kept on his bookshelf. The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering was drawn from a conference Mead convened at the National Institutes of Health in 1975, two years before her death, to consider the consequences of a 2º C warming. Mead’s prose was stark, immediate, unadorned with the caveats that dominated the professional literature. “Never before have the governing bodies of the world been faced with decisions so far reaching in their immediate consequences and so potentially disastrous and momentous in their long-term consequences,” she wrote. “It is inevitable that there will be a clash between those concerned with immediate problems and those who concern themselves with long-term consequences.” It was crucial, she emphasized, that every nation in the world—even those under authoritarian rule—be made aware of what was at stake.

It was taken for granted that parents worried about their children’s and their grandchildren’s future. But how much did they worry about the lives of their great grandchildren? Enough to sacrifice their living standards or fund major new energy research? This type of question had to be asked not only of individuals but nations. How much value did a democracy assign to the future?

Yet as Ausubel traveled the world to participate in conferences with White and Revelle, he found that this simple message was not getting out. Worse, the scientists who studied the problem showed no inclination to be messengers. At the first United Nations World Climate Conference in Geneva, which Ausubel helped White to organize, 350 specialists from 54 countries called for an international program to improve understanding of the global climate—as if the science was not yet advanced to a point where policy decisions could be made. Two months later Ausubel attended the first major workshop held by the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide and Climate Division. It concluded by making similar anodyne recommendations for research. Ausubel encountered this diffidence firsthand when he served as rapporteur for the conference’s economic working group. A dozen scientists and economists, among them Exxon’s climate researcher Henry Shaw, issued a final statement that cautioned against reaching any conclusions about climate change’s economic consequences.

There was no panel in Annapolis, or anywhere else, on human psychology. Nobody asked whether the threat of inflicting catastrophe on future generations was sufficient to motivate change. It was taken for granted that parents worried about their children’s and their grandchildren’s future. But how much did they worry about the lives of their great grandchildren? Enough to sacrifice their living standards or fund major new energy research? This type of question had to be asked not only of individuals but nations. How much value did a democracy assign to the future?

Ausubel found that only a handful of social scientists were asking whether humanity could ever, under any plausible circumstances, bring itself to address a long-term problem of this magnitude: William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale; a German philosopher named Klaus Meyer-Abich; and Michael Glantz, a young political scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. They had been able to look beyond the disagreements about the details of warming—whether temperatures would increase by 2º Celsius or 3.5º in fifty years, or if oceans would continue to absorb excess carbon dioxide for another two decades or five—and addressed questions of will, forethought, fear. But when they spoke up at climate conferences, no one seemed to care. The physical scientists nodded along and then went back to arguing about clouds. Someone had to bring these issues before the American public. But how?

That’s what made Ausubel think about Risk. He thought about Monopoly, and the Game of Life. Most people didn’t understand the intricacies of the carbon cycle, thermocline, the tropopause. But they understood board games.

How did one prepare the public for the complexity of the crisis ahead? It wasn’t easy to make government officials and journalists read government reports, let alone the American public. But a thrilling game, disseminated through high schools and colleges, might have an effect.

By night, Jesse Ausubel worked on his game. He called it “The Greenhouse Effect.” The board resembled the Game of Life, with a segmented snaking trail, garlanded with drawings of fish, birds, oceans, forests, and licking flames. The Turn Counter was shaped like a thermometer; each turn represented another degree of warming. The game token was a plastic globe the size of a ping-pong ball, detached from a convenient store bauble. Since there was only one Earth, there was one token. All the players were on the same team.

By day, Ausubel oversaw the production of Changing Climate, the U.S. government’s first comprehensive assessment of the climate problem. With a budget of more than $2 million, and at least two years to complete it, the final report was intended to offer major policy suggestions. Ausubel worked eighty-hour weeks. While he hoped that a unified statement about climate from the National Academy would penetrate the public consciousness, he feared it would not be enough. It was only a matter of time, he figured, before the issue became polarized, the source of anxiety, partisan bickering, and confusion. How did one prepare the public for the complexity of the crisis ahead? It wasn’t easy to make government officials and journalists read government reports, let alone the American public. But a thrilling game, disseminated through high schools and colleges, might have an effect.

He mailed a paper describing his game to his mentor. Bob White was puzzled by the whole idea. “Who would play it?” he asked. “Would they do it for fun, money, or educational credits? If for any of these reasons, I doubt that the right people would become involved. The idea is a sub-critical timewaster.” Ausubel received similarly baffled, if polite responses from Robert Anderson, chairman of the Atlantic Richfield oil company, who in 1980 had told a Times reporter that climate change was one of his major concerns (“We are in for a global warming trend…in ten to fifteen years we’ll run into serious problems.”), and Exxon’s Henry Shaw, who replied to Ausubel: “We are very interested in the general subject but do not understand how we can cooperate in your effort.”

Wounded, Ausubel defended his efforts. “Anyone becoming involved in analysis of the CO2 issue must be willing to make imaginative leaps,” he wrote in one response. “The gaming approach, at the least, points out the shocking absence of behavioral and strategic elements” in conversations about the problem, which instead tended to focus, to an inane degree, on narrow technical questions. Besides, nobody had come up with a better idea of communicating the problem to the masses.

Still Ausubel admitted to himself that the Greenhouse Effect had some kinks. Game play was slow, overly deliberative. On each move, the players advanced the Earth marker a single square. Nearly every turn presented a new existential threat. It was like Monopoly if on every roll of the dice you landed at a hotel on Boardwalk. Square 8, for instance, was called Evidence of Climatic Change: “In the news, disasters dominate…Public pressure for preventive measures increases, no matter what the cost.” Square 16 was Frozen North: “permafrost is melting.” Square 20 was Water Resources: “If you lacked water, you may get more or the shortage may become worse…Earlier this was a regional problem. Now everyone is feeling it.” Square 29: Pests and Pathogens. Square 35: Species Extinction. Square 46: Civil Strife. Square 56: Migration. The worst results could be mitigated by a prudent use of Prevention Unit Cards, which you collected as you circled the board, or by a lucky role of a twelve-sided die, with help from a Scientific Uncertainty card. But you could only put off the worst temporarily.

The game ended when the plastic Earth arrived at the spiral’s final position, Square 59, colored fire-engine red: Imminent Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Players were ordered to turn in their chips. It was impossible to win The Greenhouse Effect. You could only lose.

— 

As we begin this critical new year in the fight against climate change, Greenpeace is giving over space on our channels to authors and artists working within the climate crisis. Acclaimed author Lauren Groff prompted artists and thinkers to write essays and art about climate change for us, and so every day this month we’ll have a new piece from that project that addresses, in some form, what it means to create in the midst of this crisis. The forces fueling climate change have the most powerful networks in history pumping out their devastating propaganda at unimaginable scale. It’s going to take everything we have from all of us – imagination equal to the task – to create the climate we’ll need to stop the crisis.

We need these voices and these visions, but they won’t be enough. We need you, too. We encourage you to check back on the Climate Visionaries Artists’ Project every day to see what’s new, and to join the conversation by sharing your work on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and tagging it #ClimateVisionaries.


Nathaniel Rich

By Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich is the author of Losing Earth: A Recent History, a chronicle of the birth of climate politics, as well as the novels King Zeno and Odds Against Tomorrow. “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” an article published in The New York Times Magazine, has been adapted into the film Dark Waters.

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