Nathaniel Rich’s 30,000-word New York Times Magazine piece Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change is engaging and distressing, but it’s also not a complete picture of missed opportunities for the U.S. to slow the global climate crisis that has now become inevitable. Most of the piece takes a chronological approach to documenting events between a series of 1979 briefings organized by Friends of the Earth deputy legislative director Rafe Pomerance and geophysicist Gordon MacDonald and the 1989 Noordwijk Ministerial Conference, where the U.S. scuttled an international commitment to freeze carbon emissions. Rich concludes with an epilogue that focuses primarily on the human tendency to weigh present threats more heavily than future ones. He places remarkably little blame on the fossil-fuel industry:
The mustache-twirling depravity of these campaigns has left the impression that the oil-and-gas industry always operated thus; while the Exxon scientists and American Petroleum Institute clerics of the ’70s and ’80s were hardly good Samaritans, they did not start multimillion-dollar disinformation campaigns, pay scientists to distort the truth or try to brainwash children in elementary schools, as their successors would.
I was indeed surprised to learn that Exxon had been studying climate change since 1957 and that at an early meeting with scientists the company’s position was apparently to plan for an “orderly transition” away from fossil fuels. Physicist and climate expert Joe Romm points out at ThinkProgress a few things Rich doesn’t mention:
As [physicist Ben] Franta explains, this is not the full picture.
“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,” he said in a media statement. This publication came at the same time API’s own analysis warned that, absent immediate action, the world faced “globally catastrophic effects.”And as [Drexel University sociologist] Brulle adds, the article “also neglects the beginning of climate science denial efforts with the publication of Carbon Dioxide, Friend or Foe by Sherwood Idso in 1982.”
Exxon’s activities too, are brushed aside. As previous investigations have revealed, the oil giant knew as early as 1977 about how fossil fuels were impacting the atmosphere. In 1982, the company’s own scientists confirmed the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming.
And yet, just one year, later Exxon cut its climate research funding from $900,000 to $150,000 — the program was eliminated by the end of the 1980s. In the years that followed, Exxon became one of the largest funders of climate science disinformation — evidence suggesting it was not going to support climate action in the 1980s.
Oil companies were simply not making any serious “good faith efforts to… grapple with possible solutions” in the 1980s.
It’s true that the “the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989.” But as climatologist Michael Mann explained to ThinkProgress in an email, the reason the disinformation attack machine wasn’t operating at full capacity at this time was because it wasn’t yet necessary.
At The Intercept, Naomi Klein, who also researched the 1979-1989 time period for her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate, considers capitalism, rather than human nature, to be the main reason we didn’t act forcefully to stave off climate disaster once the problem became clear:
Recall what else was going on. 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.
The U.S. seems to be in the grip of a deregulatory fervor still (or again), and we’ve also missed some other important opportunities to stave off a climate crisis. Rich mentions two in his epilogue, and in both cases the Global Climate Coalition — an industry group launched by the American Petroleum Institute and joined by fossil-fuel trade associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — played a prominent role:
Cheap and useful, G.C.C.-like groups started to proliferate, but it was not until international negotiations in preparation for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit began that investments in persuasion peddling rose to the level of a line item. At Rio, George H.W. Bush refused to commit to specific emissions reductions. The following year, when President Bill Clinton proposed an energy tax in the hope of meeting the goals of the Rio treaty, the A.P.I. invested $1.8 million in a G.C.C. disinformation campaign. Senate Democrats from oil-and-coal states joined Republicans to defeat the tax proposal, which later contributed to the Republicans’ rout of Democrats in the midterm congressional elections in 1994 — the first time the Republican Party had won control of both houses in 40 years. The G.C.C. spent $13 million on a single ad campaign intended to weaken support for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed its parties to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 5 percent relative to 1990 levels. The Senate, which would have had to ratify the agreement, took a pre-emptive vote declaring its opposition; the resolution passed 95-0. There has never been another serious effort to negotiate a binding global climate treaty.
It would be bad enough to have anti-regulatory interests funding disinformation campaigns, but another key aspect of their reprehensible behavior that Rich doesn’t address sufficiently is the pressure they put on politicians. As Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton reported in the New York Times last summer, an industry-funded campaign convinced Republicans to oppose actions that would have been in the world’s best interest:
Republican lawmakers were moved along [to oppose climate action] by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.
When Congress seemed like it might be approaching a deal to adopt a cap-and-trade system (one of those market-based approaches Republicans claim to like), the Koch brothers swung into action. Davenport and Lipton write:
Unshackled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other related rulings, which ended corporate campaign finance restrictions, Koch Industries and [Koch brothers-funded] Americans for Prosperity started an all-fronts campaign with television advertising, social media and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulations.
Their first target: unseating Democratic lawmakers such as Representatives Rick Boucher and Tom Perriello of Virginia, who had voted for the House cap-and-trade bill, and replacing them with Republicans who were seen as more in step with struggling Appalachia, and who pledged never to push climate change measures.
But Americans for Prosperity also wanted to send a message to Republicans.
Until 2010, some Republicans ran ads in House and Senate races showing their support for green energy.
“After that, it disappeared from Republican ads,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “Part of that was the polling, and part of it was the visceral example of what happened to their colleagues who had done that.”
I don’t know whether, as Naomi Klein suggests, replacing capitalism with socialism is the only way to ensure a more appropriate response to climate change. But it’s clear that a system that allows industries and billionaires to lie and spend unlimited sums of money to get the legislative and regulatory outcomes they want is unlikely to address public health problems like climate change effectively.
Humans have a lot of instincts and weaknesses that make it hard to create equitable and sustainable societies. We don’t worry enough about risks in the future, and we like to hope that innovation will allow us to avoid problems that we ought to be addressing now. We also have tribal tendencies that make us want to secure resources for our own group and leave us less sensitive to those we define as being outside our circle. Groups and nations have tried to create political, educational, and cultural systems to overcome these weaknesses, but they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous actors who refuse to play by the rules we set for ourselves — rules like telling the truth and avoiding individual actions that harm the public welfare.
Once an unscrupulous actor decides to take advantage of human instincts, it becomes far harder to advance the kinds of solutions that are in humans’ long-term best interests, despite the systems and institutions we’ve developed to try and overcome human-but-destructive impulses. Racism keeps our society from reaching its full potential, and the U.S. had made strides toward overcoming it — but once Donald Trump and his ilk decided to appeal to white voters’ tribal instincts, people quickly started feeling a lot more free to express the racism they previously kept hidden. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy in the 1980s would have left the world more prosperous and made the hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires we’re seeing today less severe — but once Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries decided to undertake a campaign of lies and political pressure, the hill we had to climb became far steeper.
Rich and Klein both find reason for optimism in the new generation of activists. I hope they figure out ways to make it harder for industry groups and politicians to prey on human weakness and thwart progress.