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The battle over ‘Losing Earth’: Why a new history of climate inaction has inspired so much pushback

Was there really such broad consensus on what had to be done to address climate change? Was the marquee failure all that pivotal?

Hurricane Harvey pictured off the coast of Texas from aboard the International Space Station on August 25, 2017.
NASA

In case you’ve been avoiding climate news lately, and who could blame you, the New York Times had a pretty big story in its Sunday magazine this week: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

At 30,000 words, consuming an entire 66-page issue (less ads and three pages for puzzles), this novella-sized work by Nathaniel Rich is said to be the longest article ever published in the paper that matters most. And the pushback it’s inspiring from people who know this territory — scientists, academics, policymakers, specialized journalists — is considerable.

Writing in Washington Monthly, D.R. Tucker calls it a “vicious backlash” and “possibly one of the strangest media controversies of 2018”:

It’s hard to recall the last time a magazine article inspired such a social-media beatdown, and one wonders if Rich would have even agreed to write the piece if he knew what sort of negative heat it would generate.

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Being disinclined to follow social media beatdowns, I can’t vouch for that assessment. But I did see plenty of sharp critique in prominent, serious-minded publications, and because “Losing Earth” may matter to the climate discussion as it goes forward, so do these challenges. (Nearly all of them, please note, come from people aligned with Rich’s view, and mine, that global warming is a well-understood, catastrophic threat to our planet).

Some point, plausibly, to factual errors or obvious oversights. Others, inclined to blame most of our foot-dragging on Republicans and fossil-fuel interests, think Rich blames them too little. But the most substantial, and troubling, assert that the biggest, boldest conclusions of “Losing Earth” reach so far beyond the supporting evidence that they become non sequiturs; that the problem is not with the facts but their facile deployment.

Take for starters that grabber of a headline (presumably written by an editor, not by Rich), which becomes all the more intriguing, and counterintuitive, when you learn that the pivotal decade runs from 1979 to 1989. In other words, it’s the anti-environment, climate-skeptical, regulation-dismantling presidency of Ronald Reagan, plus a little on each end.

Nevertheless, Rich writes, this was a decade in which

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 favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge.

Less precisely but more boldly, the editors’ introduction asserts that, in these retrospectively golden years,

The science of climate change was settled. The world was ready to act. Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves. … [This article] tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe.  It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.

Engrossing narrative

Eager for revelation, I read the first half of “Losing Earth” in a single sitting and Rich’s writing made it no slog — as a novelist as well as journalist, the dude knows narrative technique. Even in familiar territory, his retelling unfolded for me as a series of events I often felt I’d missed, misunderstood or forgotten — including, in his judgment, considerable support in the fossil-fuel industries and other business sectors for a robust effort to lead worldwide rollbacks of greenhouse gas emissions.

Then came Part 2, which has set off a larger share of the critical howls with its portrayal of pushback against a supposed crest in our national consensus for climate progress.

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The leading criticism is that Rich overemphasizes Republican support for solutions, citing senators like John Chafee of Rhode Island and Minnesota’s own David Durenberger, while downplaying opposition from the White House and a wide array of industrialists.

Partly this is a function of the tidy 10-year time frame; it enables Rich to assert that industry’s  “coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989”  — so, beyond his scope.

Others beg to differ. Joe Romm, writing at Think Progress, quotes physicist and climate-policy historian Ben Franta:

“Rich’s exoneration of fossil fuel producers as well as the Republican party seem based on logical non sequiturs. … For the record, the American Petroleum Institute (API) publicly downplayed the dangers of global warming as early as 1980 — check out ‘Two Energy Futures: A National Choice for the ’80s‘ which argues fossil fuel production, including coal, could be expanded without deleterious effects on the environment.”

Bob Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist and author of numerous studies on climate politics and lobbying, said in a media statement, “This article strikes me as a highly selective historical account that omits key facts that run counter to its overall narrative. … Its treatment of industry actors is limited to their official statements, and neglects their political actions.”

Romm also says Michael Mann, the Penn State climatologist, told Think Progress that industry efforts in the 1980s were comparatively mild-mannered because the regulation threat was still so small that  full-bore resistance wasn’t yet necessary.

As for the Republicans’ supposed partnership in reaching the decade’s almost-solution, The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer suggests that Rich, in reaching for that conclusion, ignores even the contrary evidence referenced elsewhere in the piece:

In President Reagan’s first year, the White House defunded solar-energy research, considered closing the Energy Department, and expanded coal-mining on federal lands. When an executive agency warned that burning fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” warm the atmosphere, the White House tried unsuccessfully to shutter that agency, too. In 1982, after its bid to close the Energy Department failed, the White House specifically tried to defund the department’s carbon-dioxide research program. Every single one of these facts appears in Rich’s piece.

Nor was President Reagan’s successor blameless. Today, George H.W. Bush is remembered as an unusually eco-friendly Republican: He expanded the scope of the Clean Air Act and signed an important early UN treaty on climate change. He also talked about climate change on the campaign trail. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect,” he told supporters in 1988.

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But this interest was shallow. In 1989, Bush’s White House tried to censor the scientific conclusions of NASA and NOAA climate scientists. And Rich reports that Bush, for all his can-do rhetoric, never took “a vigorous interest in global warming and was mainly briefed about it by nonscientists.”

When was the pivot?

So why did Rich choose the years 1979 and 1989 for his brackets, you might ask. The case for 1979 is clearer, but also driven by the needs of narrative:

In February, a 50-nation World Climate Conference in Geneva agrees it is “urgently necessary” to reach global agreement on reducing emissions. Shortly afterward, one of Rich’s two protagonists — Rafe Pomerance, of Friends of the Earth — finds an alarming reference to coal-burning’s threat to climate stability in an obscure EPA report, and begins taking it to meetings at the Energy Department, Council on Environmental Quality and the Times’ Washington bureau. In July, a group of climate-minded scientists meets on Cape Cod to discuss the prospect of climate apocalypse, and teleconference in Rich’s second protagonist: James Hansen of NASA, about to become the leading voice in U.S. science on the pace of impending disaster.

As for 1989 …  well, that’s the year of an international conference of environmental ministers. Not the one in Rio, or Kyoto, those came later, but in Noordwijk, a Dutch resort town. Surely you remember. The aim was to reach consensus on whether to endorse a framework for a global treaty on emissions control and reduction. But that proved unattainable, an outcome widely attributed to U.S. noncooperation, probably directed from the White House by George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu.

Andrew Revkin, the longtime and now former climate specialist at the Times, is among those who question this choice, saying, “Nowhere does the piece demonstrate that what is cast as a pivotal moment was in fact pivotal.”

Taking on Rich’s assumption that the global ozone-protection treaty of 1987 had provided a framework that could be adapted to address global warming, Revkin says, “It was clear even in 1988 to many … that the Montreal Protocol, despite a lot of wishful hoping, was not going to serve well as a template for CO2.”

Which raises this inconvenient question: Even if the Noordwijk meeting had come to consensus, thanks to a supposedly cresting wave of international cooperation, could an agreement so thoroughly preliminary really be taken as a sweeping solution? Can its defeat really be treated as the watershed moment Earth’s future was lost?

Let’s remember that the quickest way to get off coal and oil was to expand nuclear  — a nonstarter not only with environmentalists but also with utilities, investors, insurers and a public for whom Three Mile Island was a recent memory.

Renewables had not begun to demonstrate their capability at scale. China and India were accelerating industrial expansion on coal power, and a host of small, poor countries were still hoping for a smidgen of rural electrification.

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Blaming the species

Rich acknowledges these enormous technical obstacles, while minimizing the political hurdles, in reaching his most contentious and widely mocked conclusion: that failure to find a solution was, and remains, an inevitable consequence of human nature.

Unable to face the enormity of  the truly long-term impact of our actions, he says, “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.” Therefore, as economists note, we price the future costs of our problems at a discount, perhaps transferable to others, “which makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster.”

Much truth in that, but a very long leap to “almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves.” Are we all really equally culpable, whether presidents or plumbers, physicists or pharmacists? Even if a clear understanding of this intricate problem and its potential remedies were equally shared, do we each have one vote to cast among the options?

We do not, and the vast majority of us do not want one. We want instead to put our trust in leaders who will investigate, deliberate and act, wisely and courageously if not always transparently, in our behalf. And we have trained ourselves, culturally if not evolutionarily, to believe this is still possible on the issues that matter most.

For me, an enduring charm of Rich’s chronicle is the opportunity to revisit a time in our political culture when the players still felt that forward movement was possible, even on matters so fraught as climate change. When contending interests tried to hash things out in a civil way. When policy choices drove  the politics, or seemed to; not the other way around.

Early on, a Republican congressional aide explains to Pomerance why global warming isn’t a “problem” in the way Washington uses the term:

Of course, it was an existential problem, the fate of the civilization depended on it, the oceans would boil, all of that. But it wasn’t a political problem. Know how you could tell? Political problems had solutions. And the climate issue had none. Without a solution — an obvious, attainable one — any policy could only fail. No elected politician desired to come within shouting distance of failure. So when it came to the dangers of despoiling our planet beyond the range of habitability, most politicians didn’t see a problem.

This is a perspective that carries far too little weight in “Losing Earth”; you could argue it is slighted. An improved narrative might feature a third main character: the antagonist who embodies cynically self-interested decision-making, pretending to pursue solutions while making sure nothing much actually happens.

Rich may even have possessed an apt candidate in Sununu, the White House staff chief, a Ph.D. engineer and “enthusiastic contrarian” who ridicules the climate consensus of other scientists and makes sure others in the administration toe his line. The man was available for at least one candid interview; Rich writes that he “asked John Sununu about his part in this history — whether he considered himself personally responsible for killing the best chance at an effective global-warming treaty.”

“It couldn’t have happened,” he told me, “because,  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.” He added, “Frankly, that’s about where we are today.”