Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed Nathaniel Rich’s exposé in the New York Review of Books. It was published in the New York Times Magazine.
Climate despair scored a big, temporary win in early August, with the near-simultaneous release of two major reports on humanity’s failure to date to get climate change under control. But while the initial stories traced the missed opportunities in the 1980s and the looming crisis today, the near-immediate response stressed that the early losses were neither accidental nor inevitable—and the latest science is a call to action, not a declaration of defeat.
The Mix has already written about last week’s Hothouse Earth report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and meteorologist Eric Holthaus’ critique of top-line reporting that emphasized the depth of the challenge, missing the authors’ central point that there’s still time to avert the worst of the climate impacts they foresee.
The earlier Losing Earth exposé in the New York Times Magazine was a deeper, more painful dive: The magazine devoted its entire August 1 edition to novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich’s 18-month, 66-page investigation of the period in the 1970s and 80s when politicians and diplomats understood the science, recognized the crisis, came close to a solid start on climate action—but failed to get the job done.
It traces the early history of climate advocacy in the United States, casting then-Friends of the Earth staffer Rafe Pomerance and NASA scientist James Hansen as early instigators. “In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis,” Rich writes. “The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions—far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favourable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way—nothing except ourselves.”
One memorable vignette from the 1988 U.S. presidential election: Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis as the biggest fossil hawk, proposing tax breaks for domestic oil production and claiming coal can meet three centuries of future electricity demand, leaving Republican candidate George H.W. Bush to don the mantle of climate defender. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” Bush said, “are forgetting about the White House effect.”
While the chronology points to Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu as perhaps the decisive barrier to early action, Rich places the blame on human nature and systems more than political maneuvering.
“Economics, the science of assigning value to human behaviour, prices the future at a discount; the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences,” he writes. “This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster.”
On top of that, citing a 1979 paper for the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, he argues that “democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem. The competition for resources means that no single crisis can ever command the public interest for long, yet climate change requires sustained, disciplined efforts over decades.” At the time, “German physicist-philosopher Klaus Meyer-Abich argued that any global agreement would inevitably favour the most minimal action.”
When Rich asked Sununu whether he “considered himself personally responsible for killing the best chance at an effective global-warming treaty”, Sununu responded that it couldn’t have happened. “Frankly, the leaders in the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources,” the former chief of staff said. “Frankly, that’s about where we are today.”
Rich concludes that “if human beings really were able to take the long view—to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths—we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.”
But however meticulously and evocatively Rich documents a decades-old moment in time, events since have added fossil industry dollars and interference as a decisive piece of the puzzle. Over the last couple of weeks, his critics have been quick to point that out.
The pertinent coverage actually began nearly two weeks before the official publication date for Losing Earth, when Climate Progress Editor Joe Romm pointed to the nearly $2 billion U.S. fossils have spent on lobbying since 2000 to ensure that climate legislation reliably dies in Congress.
“The policy deaths were not from natural causes—they were caused by humans, just like climate change itself is,” he writes, citing a paper by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle in the journal Climatic Change. “Environmental organizations and the renewable energy sector lobbying expenditures were dwarfed by a ratio of 10:1 by the spending of the sectors engaged in the supply and use of fossil fuels,” Brulle concluded.
That finding was entirely consistent with the more direct critiques of Rich’s historical report.
“In order to turn a story about the U.S. politics of climate change into a story about the entirety of the human species, Rich has to make a strange argument,” contends The Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer. “He has to dispatch with the two most powerful and prominent enemies of a climate policy in the United States: the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party.”
The question, Meyer adds, is whether that’s even remotely true. “Rich’s own reporting suggests that it is not. Again and again, he describes the Reagan administration going out of its way to thwart climate science and policy.” And in office, Rich admits, Bush Sr. never took “a vigorous interest in global warming and was mainly briefed about it by non-scientists.” Meyer says it was that “negligence” that allowed Sununu “to control the administration’s climate policy.”
On openDemocracyUK, Climate Migration Coalition Coordinator Alex Randall cites neoliberalism, not human nature, as the underlying cause driving the climate crisis. “It was during the decade—1979 to 1989—that neoliberalism truly entered the political mainstream,” he writes. “We did not lose the Earth in the 1980s. Rather, the tools governments needed to act had been taken from them.”
“What at first seemed like our best shot at lifesaving climate action had in retrospect suffered from an epic case of historical bad timing,” concludes activist and author Naomi Klein for The Intercept, after tracing her own study of the same period of climate policy history.
“What becomes clear when you look back at this juncture is that just as governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.”
On Grist, environmental journalist Shannon Osaka echoes Rich’s central premise that, as she puts it, “humans suck at dealing with wicked problems,” and the time scale attached to the climate crisis makes it tougher to address. But she questions the underlying assumption embodied in Garrett Hardin’s 1968 classic, Tragedy of the Commons, that humanity will always tend toward overuse of resources and overpopulation.
“The thing is: Hardin was wrong,” she writes. “Forty years after his paper debuted in Science, economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing that communities around the world do successfully manage and share resources—even over many generations. They do it through cooperation, communication, and small-scale local institutions. She was famous for showing that environmental problems can be solved from the bottom-up.”
And that, Osaka says, “is what Rich misses, in his otherwise fascinating and in-depth piece for the Times.”