Thirty-three years ago, on a sweltering summer day in 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen stood up in front of Congress and testified about an existential threat to the planet: The climate was changing. Heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels were pushing up the global temperature and would lead to more extreme heat and drought in the future. It wasn’t the first warning about the problem, but it helped spur a response. Even George H.W. Bush, campaigning for president at the time, pledged to take on the “greenhouse effect.” The same year, the United Nations launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the IPCC.
A year later, the fossil fuel industry launched an organization to help sow doubt about the problem, funding researchers who were willing to argue that climate science was uncertain, even as internal research at Shell and Exxon detailed the catastrophes that were likely to come from the use of their products. Governments moved slowly to respond, and emissions continued to grow.