• Environmental Law and Regulation Society

Can we save the planet before it’s too late?

Part 1: Looking back to the past

Review: ‘Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change’ by Nathaniel Rich

Written by: Wesley Chan, final year Politics, Philosophy and Law student

Monday, October 10, 2022

This decade has been said to be the make-or-break moment that would determine the fate of humanity for years to come: either we reverse the course of rapid industrial growth and looming environmental catastrophe, or risk extraordinary loss of human lives and societal collapse. [1] The recent disastrous flooding in Pakistan caused one third of the country being under water [2], with millions at risk of becoming climate refugees [3] and an imminent threat of widespread famine [4]. Despite the lack of media attention, it is very clear that what has happened to Pakistan will be happening more frequently in different parts of the world – one may wonder, can we save the planet before it’s too late?

In this mini-series, I will seek to answer this question by looking back to the past when we could have solved the climate crisis, as well as looking forward to the future with a long-term framework on imagining a better future for generations to come.

An insider’s look into past international climate negotiations - falling for the prospect of bold promises so that we do nothing

Nathaniel Rich’s book ‘Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change’ is a necessary read for those who want to understand why the international community failed to combat climate change in the past and continue to do so. By examining the missed window of opportunity when the international community could have acted earlier to address the climate crisis, we can avoid repeating such failures and create meaningful changes this decade, so that we don’t risk losing Earth again.

In this crucial decade of climate change action, Nathaniel Rich’s book recounted the earlier days in the 1980s where there was emerging political and scientific consensus on the necessity of addressing our changing climate. With incremental progress made by lobbyists, activists and scientists in the US, the first major climate conference held in the Netherlands in November 1989, as he suggested, was the world’s closest attempt in reaching a binding international climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Were it not for obstructionist US officials, particularly John Sununu the White House Chief of Staff who pressurised the US representatives to abandon emission reduction commitments, necessary global initiatives to address the climate crisis could have been created to prevent the catastrophic destruction that is unfolding before our very eyes.

While it is easy to play the blame-game and absolve ourselves of the sense of guilt of not doing enough (‘it was this singular individual who have caused us to be in this mess!’), Nathaniel Rich’s interview with John Sununu struck me as profoundly revealing of the tremendous failures on our part as well for not holding those in power accountable not just for their promises but most importantly concrete actions. When asked about his efforts in sabotaging the international effort aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, he suggested that such changes could not have happened.

In his words, the IPCC process is merely ‘a face-saving act of meaningless symbolism that could lead to nothing but false promises’ [5]. While we might think that bold promises should and will be made to create necessary structural changes, he argued that ‘leaders at the time were all looking to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make commitments that would cost their nations serious resources. Frankly, that’s about where we are today.’ [6]

Although I find it difficult to agree with his cynical view on world affairs, it made me realise that it is never one person that can be wholly to blame for the status quo, but a collective failure to realise our responsibility and demand significant action. We are so suspensible to the prospect of bold political promises that could save us from the consequences of our own actions that we just lure ourselves into believing the politicians to do the right thing for us.

It also dawns on me that current climate inaction is perhaps not as much an unfortunate mishap but a deliberate delay on meaningful structural changes in response to the scale of the crisis. This is made even more evident in the author’s interviews with climate summit delegates on their plan to achieve their targets: ‘who knows? It’s only a piece of paper and they don’t put you in jail if you don’t actually do it.’ [7]

As we gradually get to grips with the frustrating and seemingly futile annual climate conferences that make bold pledges without engaging the public, it begs the question of whether these are merely narratives for change to obfuscate their real intention to do nothing. As the author reveals the dangerous ramifications when we blindly trust people in power to do the right thing, it falls on us to demand and initiate meaningful action this decade as our last fighting chance for a liveable future.

We are responsible for the consequences of our action

At the end of the book, the author demanded us to understand the gravity of the crisis and the enormous responsibility on us to save the planet, with the realisation that the future will be far less hospitable than the present.

‘The first requirement is to speak about the problem honestly: as a struggle for survival. Once the stakes are precisely defined, the moral imperative is inescapable.’ [8] Our collective failure to work with each other on the climate crisis, as the author quoted from Pope Francis, is rooted in ‘a loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.’ [9] Presented with the choice between unbearable suffering and drastic transformations, we are so often dictated by narrow self-interests that we risk obsessing about ways to alleviate our individual pains, rather than seeing the fuller picture of climate collapse that spares no mercy. While we may not be guilty, we are all responsible for the status quo.

By realising our collective responsibility to ensure a livable future, we have to start organising and re-build our community. Starting from the university, King’s College London claimed that ‘they have fully divested from fossil fuels in 2021’. [10] However, it has been alleged that the university doesn’t actually have a plan for immediate divestment which became a subject of litigation earlier this year. [11] While the litigation failed, the university’s lack of real intention to act upon their promises points to a real need for students to mobilise and demand accountability from the university management.

At the domestic level, environmental organisations successfully challenged the UK government’s climate strategy at the High Court in July 2022. It was found to be ‘unlawful’ for the lack of concrete plans to achieve their own net-zero targets. [12] In the publication of the latest IPCC report, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned us that there has been ‘a litany of broken climate promises’ by governments and corporations, which reminds us that we must always be focused on concrete actions and demand change from the bottom up. [13] As we enter into the winter of discontent, trade unions and climate activists are joining hands with ordinary people to demand for meaningful changes. For instance, ‘Don’t Pay UK’ is calling for a mass non-payment strike of energy bills, and ‘Just Stop Oil’ is engaging in direct action of occupying Westminster until the government ceases its support of fossil fuel production. [14]

We must not risk losing earth again, because there wouldn’t be another decade for us if we can’t do it right this time.


[1] World faces ‘decisive decade’ to fix global warming, former UN climate chief says https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/02/24/world-faces-decisive-decade-fix-global-warming-former-un-climate-chief-says/

[2] Pakistan floods: One third of country is under water - minister https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-62712301

[3] Pakistan: More than 6.4 million in ‘dire need’ after unprecedented floods https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1126001

[4] Half of Pakistan may face famine: Report


[5] 179, Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Earth. Macmillan Publishers, 2019.

[6] 179-180, Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Earth.

[7] 179, Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Earth.

[8] 203, Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Earth.

[9] 199, Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Earth.

[10] King's fully divests from fossil fuels https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/kings-fully-divests-from-fossil-fuels

[11] McGaughey and Davies v Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd [2022] EWHC 1233

[12] R. (on the application of Friends of the Earth Ltd) v Secretary of State for the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [2022] EWHC 1841 (Admin)

[13] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, is a litany of broken climate promises.| UN Secretary General, https://samoa.un.org/en/176797-intergovernmental-panel-climate-change-report-litany-broken-climate-promises-un-secretary

[14] Just Stop Oil activists blockade four London bridges https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/oct/01/climate-and-cost-of-living-campaigners-descend-on-london-on-same-day


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