Power plant
Credit: iStock

Boy, talking about killing the messenger.

Possibly one of the strangest media controversies of 2018 is the vicious backlash toward New York Times Magazine writer Nathaniel Rich following the online publication of “Losing Earth,” an extended analysis of the political dynamics that forestalled needed national and international action on human-caused climate change between 1979 and 1989. 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:

The New York Times Magazine is hyping a massive new story claiming that the period from 1979 to 1989 was “The decade we almost stopped climate change.”

But the just-released, roughly 30,000 word article by Nathaniel Rich is already being widely criticized by leading scientists, historians, and climate experts. As physicist Ben Franta, who studies the history of climate politics, put it, “Rich’s exoneration of fossil fuel producers as well as the Republican party seem based on logical non sequiturs.”

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.”

In particular, “its treatment of industry actors is limited to their official statements, and neglect their political actions,” Brulle said. Those political actions have always been to oppose action on climate change and spread disinformation. The article’s thesis is that the reason we failed to act during this supposedly “decisive decade” was neither Republican intransigence nor Big Oil’s efforts to downplay the issue and block action, but just human nature.

That framing is clear from the front page of the paper’s website Wednesday morning, which claims “We knew everything we needed to know, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing — except ourselves.”

The problem with this line of criticism is that Rich’s piece does, in fact, fault the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party for intransigence on climate in the 1980s and beyond. Rich points out that the corporate predecessor to ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute, knew as far back as the 1950s that the burning of fossil fuels threatened the planet:

The company had been studying the carbon-dioxide problem for decades, since before it changed its name to Exxon. In 1957, scientists from Humble Oil published a study tracking “the enormous quantity of carbon dioxide” contributed to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution “from the combustion of fossil fuels.” Even then, the observation that burning fossil fuels had increased the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was well understood and accepted by Humble’s scientists. What was new, in 1957, was the effort to quantify what percentage of emissions had been contributed by the oil-and-gas industry.

The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s largest trade association, asked the same question in 1958 through its air-pollution study group and replicated the findings made by Humble Oil. So did another A.P.I. study conducted by the Stanford Research Institute a decade later, in 1968, which concluded that the burning of fossil fuels would bring “significant temperature changes” by the year 2000 and ultimately “serious worldwide environmental changes,” including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap and rising seas. It was “ironic,” the study’s authors noted, that politicians, regulators and environmentalists fixated on local incidents of air pollution that were immediately observable, while the climate crisis, whose damage would be of far greater severity and scale, went entirely unheeded.

The ritual repeated itself every few years. Industry scientists, at the behest of their corporate bosses, reviewed the problem and found good reasons for alarm and better excuses to do nothing. Why should they act when almost nobody within the United States government — nor, for that matter, within the environmental movement — seemed worried? Besides, as the National Petroleum Council put it in 1972, changes in the climate would probably not be apparent “until at least the turn of the century.” The industry had enough urgent crises: antitrust legislation introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy; concerns about the health effects of gasoline; battles over the Clean Air Act; and the financial shock of benzene regulation, which increased the cost of every gallon of gas sold in America. Why take on an intractable problem that would not be detected until this generation of employees was safely retired? Worse, the solutions seemed more punitive than the problem itself. Historically, energy use had correlated to economic growth — the more fossil fuels we burned, the better our lives became. Why mess with that?

Rich also specifically notes that the Reagan administration, as well as President George H. W. Bush’s first White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, steadfastly opposed even modest efforts to address the climate crisis:

After the [1980] election, Reagan considered plans to close the Energy Department, increase coal production on federal land and deregulate surface coal mining. Once in office, he appointed James Watt, the president of a legal firm that fought to open public lands to mining and drilling, to run the Interior Department. “We’re deliriously happy,” the president of the National Coal Association was reported to have said. Reagan preserved the E.P.A. but named as its administrator Anne Gorsuch, an anti-regulation zealot who proceeded to cut the agency’s staff and budget by about a quarter. In the midst of this carnage, the Council on Environmental Quality submitted a report to the White House warning that fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” alter Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “a warming of the Earth, possibly with very serious effects.” Reagan did not act on the council’s advice. Instead, his administration considered eliminating the council…

Bush had chosen Sununu for his political instincts — he was credited with having won Bush the New Hampshire primary, after Bush came in third in Iowa, all but securing him the nomination. But despite his reputation as a political wolf, he still thought of himself as a scientist — an “old engineer,” as he was fond of putting it, having earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. decades earlier. He lacked the reflexive deference that so many of his political generation reserved for the class of elite government scientists. Since World War II, he believed, conspiratorial forces had used the imprimatur of scientific knowledge to advance an “anti-growth” doctrine. He reserved particular disdain for Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” which prophesied that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death if the world took no step to curb population growth; the Club of Rome, an organization of European scientists, heads of state and economists, which similarly warned that the world would run out of natural resources; and as recently as the mid-’70s, the hypothesis advanced by some of the nation’s most celebrated scientists — including Carl Sagan, Stephen Schneider and Ichtiaque Rasool — that a new ice age was dawning, thanks to the proliferation of man-made aerosols. All were theories of questionable scientific merit, portending vast, authoritarian remedies to halt economic progress.

Sununu had suspected that the greenhouse effect belonged to this nefarious cabal since 1975, when the anthropologist Margaret Mead convened a symposium on the subject at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Unless the peoples of the world can begin to understand the immense and long-term consequences of what appear to be small immediate choices,” Mead wrote, “the whole planet may become endangered.” Her conclusions were stark, immediate and absent the caveats that hobbled the scientific literature. Or as Sununu saw it, she showed her hand: “Never before have the governing bodies of the world been faced with decisions so far-reaching,” Mead wrote. “It is inevitable that there will be a clash between those concerned with immediate problems and those who concern themselves with long-term consequences.” When Mead talked about “far-reaching” decisions and “long-term consequences,” Sununu heard the marching of jackboots.

It appears that the backlash towards Rich was caused by Rich’s refusal to embrace the idea that it was only the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party that blocked critical action on climate change. But Rich’s suggestion that there was a failure of US political will to act on climate in the 1980s is not inaccurate. There was indeed a failure of US political will on climate, and it was demonstrated on November 4, 1980 and November 6, 1984.

Have we forgotten that Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign with a November 1979 announcement that explicitly attacked President Carter’s energy-conservation efforts? Have we forgotten his insistence during that campaign that trees cause more pollution than automobiles? Reagan made it blatantly clear during the 1980 election that environmental protection would not be a priority for his administration–and unfortunately, the American electorate enthusiastically embraced that vision twice, choosing to empower the political forces that erected barriers to climate action at what Rich argues was a crucial time on climate. Unless Rich’s critics can introduce evidence that Reagan stole the 1980 and 1984 elections, it’s hard to gainsay the idea that the American electorate simply didn’t place environmental protection high on their list of concerns in the 1980s–a lack of interest that allowed the fossil-fuel industry and its lackeys in the Republican Party to do their dirty work.

Speaking of political forces that erected barriers to climate action, Naomi Klein observes:

Recall what else was going on [in the late 1980s]. In 1988, Canada and the U.S. signed their free trade agreement, a prototype for NAFTA and countless deals that would follow. The Berlin wall was about to fall, an event that would be successfully seized upon by right-wing ideologues in the U.S. as proof of “the end of history” and taken as license to export the Reagan-Thatcher recipe of privatization, deregulation, and austerity to every corner of the globe.

It was this convergence of historical trends — the emergence of a global architecture that was supposed to tackle climate change and the emergence of a much more powerful global architecture to liberate capital from all constraints — that derailed the momentum Rich rightly identifies. Because, as he notes repeatedly, meeting the challenge of climate change would have required imposing stiff regulations on polluters while investing in the public sphere to transform how we power our lives, live in cities, and move ourselves around.

All of this was possible in the ’80s and ’90s (it still is today) — but it would have demanded a head-on battle with the project of neoliberalism, which at that very time was waging war on the very idea of the public sphere (“There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher told us). Meanwhile, the free trade deals being signed in this period were busily making many sensible climate initiatives — like subsidizing and offering preferential treatment to local green industry and refusing many polluting projects like fracking and oil pipelines — illegal under international trade law…

If, on the other hand, we humans really were on the brink of saving ourselves in the ’80s, but were swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism — one that was opposed by millions of people around the world — then there is something quite concrete we can do about it. We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.

And the good news — and, yes, there is some — is that today, unlike in 1989, a young and growing movement of green democratic socialists is advancing in the United States with precisely that vision. And that represents more than just an electoral alternative — it’s our one and only planetary lifeline.

As much as I share Klein’s admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I do wonder if “our one and only planetary lifeline” will be cut off by those in the American electorate who summarily reject the notion that the economic order should be replaced “with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.” Sadly, there is merit in the argument that a country that gave Reagan two Electoral College landslides–and made the 2000 and 2016 elections close enough to allow opponents of climate action to slip into the White House through the Electoral College back door–is a country that is uninterested in applying the necessary political pressure on elected officials (or media entities, for that matter) to prioritize climate protection. In this sense, it is absolutely true that the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party are not exclusively responsible for the climate crisis. As Rich writes:

In 2015, after reports by the website InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times documented the climate studies performed by Exxon for decades, the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York began fraud investigations. The Securities and Exchange Commission separately started to investigate whether Exxon Mobil’s valuation depended on the burning of all its known oil-and-gas reserves. (Exxon Mobil has denied any wrongdoing and stands by its valuation method.)

The rallying cry of this multipronged legal effort is “Exxon Knew.” It is incontrovertibly true that senior employees at the company that would later become Exxon, like those at most other major oil-and-gas corporations, knew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1950s. But the automobile industry knew, too, and began conducting its own research by the early 1980s, as did the major trade groups representing the electrical grid. They all own responsibility for our current paralysis and have made it more painful than necessary. But they haven’t done it alone.

The United States government knew. Roger Revelle began serving as a Kennedy administration adviser in 1961, five years after establishing the Mauna Loa carbon-dioxide program, and every president since has debated the merits of acting on climate policy. Carter had the Charney report, Reagan had “Changing Climate” and Bush had the censored testimony of James Hansen and his own public vow to solve the problem. Congress has been holding hearings for 40 years; the intelligence community has been tracking the crisis even longer.

Everybody knew. In 1958, on prime-time television, “The Bell Science Hour” — one of the most popular educational film series in American history — aired “The Unchained Goddess,” a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra, a dozen years removed from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” warning that “man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate” through the release of carbon dioxide. “A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,” says the film’s kindly host, the bespectacled Dr. Research. “An inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.” Capra’s film was shown in science classes for decades.

Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.

The folks who put deniers in power–or made elections close enough for deniers to seize power–made it clear through their actions at the ballot box that they didn’t give a damn about their children and grandchildren. That’s the ultimate inconvenient truth–and Rich deserves credit, not criticism, for speaking it.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.