What The New York Times Magazine Got Right, and Wrong, In Its Climate Change History

While it expands the conversation to include a broader audience, the piece lets the industries that worked to hinder progress mostly off the hook.

The New York Times Magazine has just published an ambitious and heavily-promoted issue entitled “Losing Earth,” which is entirely devoted to telling a single complicated story: How the world missed its window to address climate change. Nathaniel Rich’s historical narrative looks at the politicians, scientists, public officials, and others who, from 1979 to 1989, were central to raising the alarm on a subject that scientists had already been studying for years.

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The early criticisms of the story zero in on Nathaniel Rich’s unwillingness to assign clear blame.

In revealing the choices they did and did not make, Rich pinpoints the markers that led us to today, in which the attempt to address climate change is a story of failure. George Steinmetz’s photography of receding glaciers and extreme weather around the world accompanying the issue is a window to the consequences of largely ignoring the early warnings. Today we’re in what Rich says is the “second chapter — call it The Reckoning. There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

Thirty years ago, in his famous testimony to Congress, NASA climate scientist James Hansen warned that we were running out of time to address the consequences of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions. ‘‘Major greenhouse climate changes are a certainty,’’ he had written. “By the 2010s [in every scenario], essentially the entire globe has very substantial warming.’’

Rich’s story starts even before that testimony, in 1979 when environmental activist Rafe Pomerance discovered mentions of the effect of rising carbon emissions on the future climate in a generally ignored EPA report on coal. He wondered why no one else seemed to be talking about it. From there, Rich unspools a detailed history of how NASA scientist James Hansen and a number of scientists, activists, and politicians, organized around global warming, and how others, namely President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff John Sununu, tried to scuttle progress. Notably, almost everyone in the story is a man with the exception of some peripheral characters — a female scientist who speaks up in a meeting, and the men’s wives. Rich concludes with the first major global conference in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in 1989, which became the first in a very long series of meetings that have avoided taking binding action to slash emissions.

This all took place before partisan lines had calcified. Indeed, by today’s standards, there was unheard of agreement across party lines. George H.W. Bush’s EPA chief William Reilly and Republicans like Rhode Island Representative John Chafee were early leaders, even though today we mostly remember the role of then-Tennessee representative Al Gore, who has since become the embodiment of climate change activism.

The early criticisms of the story, some of which came up at a preview event the Times hosted on Tuesday night for a few dozen scientists, academics, sources, and reporters, zero in on Rich’s unwillingness to assign clear blame. He writes:

A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. An entire subfield of climate literature has chronicled the machinations of industry lobbyists, the corruption of scientists and the propaganda campaigns that even now continue to debase the political debate, long after the largest oil-and-gas companies have abandoned the dumb show of denialism. But the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. During the preceding decade, some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.

Al Gore, who was then chair of an oversight science committee, clearly saw the need to simplify the narrative in order to both dramatize environmental stories and create compelling political theater. “Environmental and health stories had all the elements of narrative drama: villains, victims and heroes. In a hearing, you could summon all three, with the chairman serving as narrator, chorus and moral authority,” Rich writes, summarizing Gore’s approach.

But Rich doesn’t follow that narrative trope, and he presents the fossil fuel industry as a willing partner in action in those early years. That account is contested by the story’s critics, who point to industry efforts beginning in the 1980s to seed confusion. 

In the early 1990s, industry interests including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute formally launched the Global Climate Coalition, which was responsible for a series of misinformation campaigns and lobbying efforts to derail action. (Please read Inside Climate News‘ blockbuster investigation into Exxon to complement the Times story).

In asking how we got to this point, this retelling could provide fuel to both side’s arguments in the new liability lawsuits against big oil companies for their role in creating this mess.

Specifically, he does not target the oil and coal industries that had the most to lose, or conservative Republicans for scuttling action in these early years. And while you do learn how Reagan and Bush officials helped to block and delay action, Rich ends the story by pointing to human folly, not specific actors. Sununu is quoted saying a strict global deal “couldn’t have happened” anyway, because of the competing national interests of individual countries.

Sununu did have one point. If climate change were as simple as one nation taking the lead — even the nation that is historically the biggest polluter — then slashing emissions would not continue to be so difficult. And there are important omissions. The Times story doesn’t address how a more meaningful agreement in the mold of the earlier Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons could have changed China’s or India’s course adopting fossil fuels. (Perhaps that could be the subject of another 30,000 words). 

Much as New York Magazine’s “Uninhabitable Earth” cover story did a year ago, “Losing Earth” expands the conversation to include a broader audience when too few outlets connect the dots to the freakish weather we’re seeing around the globe. In asking how we got to this point, this retelling could provide fuel to both side’s arguments in the new liability lawsuits against big oil companies for their role in creating this mess. 

The history of climate change non-action in the US is a difficult one to tell. A few years ago, I asked four leading environmentalists for their theories on exactly what point climate change became so polarized and received four different answers. One person blamed Al Gore for politicizing the issue, while another blamed Big Oil’s misinformation campaign. Even if reading this 30,000 word exploration doesn’t resolve the issue, it goes a long way to filling in more pieces of the puzzle.


Rebecca Leber is a reporter in Mother Jones’ DC bureau, where she covers environmental politics and policy. She’s covered climate and energy for The New Republic, Grist, and ThinkProgress, and her writing has been published by more than a dozen outlets.

This article was originally published on Mother Jones. It was republished as part of Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, and political — of a changing climate.

Top visual: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
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17 comments / Join the Discussion

    I cannot believe how people in the comments here continue to deny what climate science tells us and to resist taking action to alleviate climate change. Their arguments are misleading or don’t make sense at all. How can they live with themselves? How do they sleep at night?

    Reply

    A modest proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

    Sunday’s New York Times magazine was entirely devoted to global warming and our lack of response to it. Doubtless it was read with great approval by the denizens of the upper East and West Sides as they sat in the million dollar apartments, vowing to fight until the last coal minor and oil field roughneck was out of work. This will cost them nothing.

    Virtue signaling notwithstanding, it’s time they had some skin of their own in the game. Having practiced medicine in the People’s Republic of New York, I know the love of New York state government for regulations and mandates, and the approval with which they have been met by the above denizens.

    So here is a modest proposal for fighting global warming. Mandate that governors be placed on air conditioners so that room temperatures can be no lower than 80 in the summer. Similar governors should be placed on heating, allowing room temperatures no warmer than 60 in the winter. Start in the upper East and West sides of Manhattan, and if met with general approval extend it further.

    I think it will be accepted as well as the wind farms proposed off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

    Reply

    Michael Johnson says:
    ‘‘Major greenhouse climate changes are a certainty,’’ he had written. “By the 2010s [in every scenario], essentially the entire globe has very substantial warming.’’ – You do realize there has been no substantial warming since then, right?

    Despite your confident tone, you are misinformed. The last 4 years are the 4 warmest on record. The 8 hottest years on record have all been since 2005. 1998 in 9th place and 2012 in 10th place. 1998 used to be considered an unusually hot year due to el nino that climate deniers used to cherry pick the temperature record and claim a lack of warming. Now 1998 is dwarfed by current trends. We are heading for catastrophe and major social upheaval.

    Reply

    “Climate change is extraordinarily complex and difficult to model. It is ludicrous to pretend that there can be anything resembling precision in predictions. We just don’t know what is going to happen.”

    But you can overstate the complexity as well. Predictions have been reasonably accurate. Assertions to the contrary rely on cherry-picking dates on short time scales.

    It’s like saying if I turn the stove on and leave something on it unattended and go away somewhere then a reasonable prediction is that my house will burn down. However, it’s also possible that someone else might happen to come along and turn the stove off for me thus saving my house. But the unpredictable thing was the other person happening to come along. If someone does happen to come along and turn the stove off it doesn’t mean that the prediction (leaving the stove on unattended burns down houses) was wrong.

    There is a big problem with people WANTING to ignore what is happening to the climate by relying on fanciful contingencies like solar output reducing or whatever.

    Reply

    Eric Johnosn says:
    “The irony is that the US is the only nation in the world to reach the pre-1995 CO2 emission levels of the Kyoto Accord. The US has successfully lowered CO2 emissions and has done it without regulation. Yet the US is still portrayed as the villain in climate change while China, the EU and India have ever increasing emissions and are the real contributors to climate change.”

    The US has the highest cumulative emissions from 1970 to the present of any country. Per capita US cumulative emissions are also higher than China the EU and India. Even today, with overall reductions, per capita the US still emits more than China, the EU and India.

    So yes the US is the biggest villain and yes it shoulders more responsibility than other nations.

    Reply

    The thermodynamic chaos of the atmosphere is self determinant. Climate change can neither be predicted, nor directed. A great example is the current state of hurricane path modeling. The hurricane path cone is based on probabilities. Math, physics, thermodynamics, and the greater sciences can not reduce the predicted hurricane path to a singular line, nor can we “push” the hurricane away from humanity. Such is the state of climate prediction. Better modeling with better computers is great, …. but the cone is still there. There is no “fix” to climate change. Only adaptation. Let’s make things cleaner, but also understand that when we told the Millennials that they could do anything, it didn’t include hurricane path modification as a practical means of employment.

    Reply

    I think one issue is that virtually everyone on both sides of the issue is pretending to have a level of certainty that just isn’t possible. Climate change is extraordinarily complex and difficult to model. It is ludicrous to pretend that there can be anything resembling precision in predictions. We just don’t know what is going to happen.

    I think those that want government intervention on this issue probably should have made an argument similar to Nassim Taleb’s argument. His position is essentially that prediction is for suckers. Instead we need to act because a climate change Black Swan could be catastrophic. It’s kind of like how we try to make skyscrapers that can withstand a large earthquake even though the probability of a large earthquake is very small.

    Personally, I wish more interventionists would listen to Bjorn Lomborg. As he points out, the preferred policies of interventionists will have an extremely small impact for a large cost. He suggests we would be better off investing in clean energy research. I think he makes a compelling case.

    Reply

    hey you’re about 50 years too late in your assertion…..”Population numbers may very well see a significant drop of some 60% to 70% in the next 20 to 30 years.” Paul Erlich already wrote that narrative….we’re to have starved to death 20+ years ago. So your predictive analysis is off.

    Reply

    The irony is that the US is the only nation in the world to reach the pre-1995 CO2 emission levels of the Kyoto Accord. The US has successfully lowered CO2 emissions and has done it without regulation. Yet the US is still portrayed as the villain in climate change while China, the EU and India have ever increasing emissions and are the real contributors to climate change.

    Reply

    ‘‘Major greenhouse climate changes are a certainty,’’ he had written. “By the 2010s [in every scenario], essentially the entire globe has very substantial warming.’’ – You do realize there has been no substantial warming since then, right?

    Reply

    Much of the problem with fighting global warming is the lack of willingness to actually do what was needed to deal with the problem. Two primary groups would have had to change their core beliefs. Fossil fuel proponents would have needed to back away from coal much earlier and anti-nuclear people would have needed to let progress in nuclear technology grow.

    As it stands now, all of the wind and solar being brought on line is just replacing the (carbon free) nuclear power that is being taken off line.

    Coal is primarily being replaced by natural gas.

    If Dr Hansen’s ideas had been followed we would be replacing coal with nuclear, solar and wind power. And then we would actually have a chance…

    Reply

    Needless to say, our redemption is in science, research, and technology. All organisms and organizations rely, in some way, on leveraging the catalytic advantage of burning fuels, whether fossil or glucose, whether 8 cylinder engines or cytochrome oxidase – each has its mechanical/chemical levers. Plants have the same challenge as solar panel technology, storing the energy during the day and managing the consumption of energy through the night. Too little energy and the organism/organization languishes and dies – shut down the energy consumption of the NYT organization and we have a foretaste of what is possible. As always, it’s a case of a pioneer demonstrating “what is possible” – replacing words with action, proving that an organism will prosper when the catalytic action is modified. The organization that proves the technology does not have to be a nation. So, which organization will be first?

    Reply

    The Climate Crisis has an inertia (physical forces) that guarantee its continuity probably for several hundred years. We need to be concerned about adaptation and resilience, not so much about CC history.

    Reply

    There is a well-known “rule” – to scientists at least – that the time taken from the identification of an issue to the formalisation of collective action is 20 years. Think fluorocarbons and the ozone hole – problem identified in the early 70’s, remedial action with the Montreal protocol effectively implemented by 1990.
    It took from 1979 (Hansen) to 1997 (Kyoto Accord) to formalise some sort of response to climate change, and even the the USA and Australia were notable non-signatories. And now it has taken a further 20 years for the world at large to realise that it is too little too late. In the popular imagination, climate change was regarded as rising seas a few hundred years on, largely ignoring that this would be a minor issue compared to the devastating climate changes likely in a much shorter timeline.
    The fundamental problems are threefold:
    (1) A lifespan of 80 years leads people to not face up to consequences if the problem does not resolve itself in their lifetime.Sad about the children and their children’s children
    (2) Excessive conservatism in scientific ranks leading to seriously understated impacts vis climate modelling, and discord masquerading as academic freedom
    (3) Self-serving behavior among scientists, politicians, bureaucrats and corporations, with no effective means of holding any of them accountable.

    Reply

    Yes, I agree. But in this case “we” is a very great number of “us” including me.

    Reply

    I would yell “FIRE!’ but our theater has no exit. The positive feedback loops have started. It is to late to do anything. The Exxon scientist saw this during the 1980’s. If I was the CEO of Exxon at that time I would have done just what he did. The best we can do is to maintain social stability as long as possible.

    The forces of nature are in place and beyond our control. Just three too hot and or too wet or too dry springs and food for billions of people disappears.

    We humans have enjoyed @ 10,000 years of stable weather. That window for agriculture is closing.

    Soon, ten to fifteen years or so, world food production will fail. When do we plant our corps? Any culture is three days of hunger from disintegration.

    There is no place to migrate to. Where are you going to go?

    Scientist are not politicians, theologians, philosophers, or poets. Their knowledge of or use of rhetoric to warn of our situation is at best poor.

    It is now clear that homo-hubris-sapiens are about to disappear. Population numbers may very well see a significant drop of some 60% to 70% in the next 20 to 30 years.

    Our society is just another about to disappear. Nothing new here, this is quite natural. We humans are just part of a natural cycle. Any scientist can tell you this. But no politician will or can tell you the truth;dictator or democrat, no politician can, will, or should tell us these obvious facts regarding our habitat.

    Reply

    “There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

    As always when discussing climate change, the most misleading word in the English language, that does the most work to mystify, obfuscate, and diffuse responsibility, is “we.”

    Reply
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