GUARDIAN CRITIQUE OF NY TIMES MAGAZINE ARTICLE ON LOSING EARTH

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6 august 2018


The GOP and Big Oil can't escape blame for climate change


The New York Times magazine blames ‘human nature,’ but fingers have already been pointed at the true culprits

Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian, Mon 6 Aug 2018

Last week’s issue of the New York Times magazine was devoted to a single story by Nathaniel Rich that explored how close we came to an international climate agreement in 1989, and why we failed. The piece is worth reading – it’s a well-told, mostly accurate, and very informative story about a key decade in climate science and policy history. But sadly, it explicitly excuses the key players responsible for our continued failure.

Culprit #1: The Republican Party

Rich’s piece immediately goes off the rails in its Prologue, where he argues that the GOP isn’t responsible – at least not for the climate failures up to 1989:

"Nor can the Republican Party be blamed … during the 1980s, many prominent Republicans joined Democrats in judging the climate problem to be a rare political winner: nonpartisan and of the highest possible stakes."

However, his story is peppered with examples that contradict this narrative. The world’s foremost climate scientists had published the groundbreaking National Academy of Sciences ‘Charney Report’ in 1979, concluding that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would most likely cause 3°C of global warming (still the consensus today), and as Rich summarizes:

"The last time the world was three degrees warmer was during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were 80 feet higher and horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean."111

But Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year and came in with a stark anti-environment agenda, including an effort to eliminate the Energy Department’s carbon dioxide program. In 1983, the National Academy of Sciences published yet another major climate report. It mostly reiterated the Charney report findings, but this time the press briefing was run by Reagan appointee William Nierenberg. In a glaring omission, Rich’s story failed to note that in 1984, Nierenberg founded the fossil fuel-funded, climate-denying George C. Marshall Institute and proceeded to publish a variety of reports denying mainstream scientific findings.

In the key 1983 press briefing, Nierenberg basically lied about the climate report’s findings, claiming it found no urgent need for action. Nierenberg’s false summary made headlines around the world and stymied climate policy efforts for years to come. Only after 1985 when the discovery of ozone depletion captured worldwide attention was climate change able to ride its coattails back into serious policy discussions.

Rich’s story culminates with the first major global climate conference in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in 1989. More than 60 countries were deciding whether to endorse a framework for a global climate treaty. George H.W. Bush had been elected president after promising on the campaign trail, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” But once he was in the White House, Bush expressed little interest in global warming and appointed John Sununu as his chief of staff. Sununu had earned a PhD in engineering from MIT, but developed a conspiratorial view towards mainstream science:

"Since World War II, he believed, conspiratorial forces had used the imprimatur of scientific knowledge to advance an “anti-growth” doctrine."

When the Swedish minister briefly emerged from a long and ongoing closed-door negotiation at Noordwijk and was asked by an American environmental activist what was going on, he answered, “Your government is fucking this thing up!” Sununu had pressured the Bush administration representative to force the conference to abandon a commitment to freeze carbon emissions, and the Noordwijk conference became the first in a long line of international climate negotiations failures, thanks largely to the Republican administration.

Culprit #2: the fossil fuel industry

In his unfortunate Prologue, Rich also describes the fossil fuel industry as “a common boogeyman.” He argues that the fossil fuel industry didn’t mobilize to kill the 1989 Noordwijk negotiation. That’s true, because it didn’t have to; had the treaty even succeeded, it would have just been the very first step in global efforts to cut carbon pollution.

Immediately after the Noordwijk shot came across its bow, the fossil fuel industry launched a decades-long, many-million-dollar campaign to undermine public trust of climate science and support for climate policy. For example, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) fossil fuel industry group formed in 1989. By the time the 1992 Rio Earth Summit rolled around, these polluter industry organizations began heavily investing in disinformation campaigns to undermine international and domestic climate policies. Speaking about the Rio summit, Bush sounded like Donald Trump, saying:

"I’m not going to go to the Rio conference and make a bad deal or be a party to a bad deal."

Bill Clinton proposed an energy tax to try and meet the treaty goals anyway, but the GCC invested $1.8m in a disinformation campaign, and Congress voted it down. The GCC then spent $13m to weaken support for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the Senate voted 95-0 to pre-emptively declare its opposition to the treaty. Since then, Exxon alone has given $31m to climate-denying organizations.
It’s been three decades since 1989

The fossil fuel industry is one exceptionally wealthy, influential, and powerful ‘boogeyman.’ As Rich notes in his Epilogue, it’s also been quite successful:

"More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it"

Apparently at a private dinner the night before his piece was published, Rich described the fossil fuel industry as being “guilty of crimes against humanity.” It’s a shame that his story took on such a different tone. As Benjamin Franta, PhD student in the history of science at Stanford summarized it:

"One common mistake in this NYT magazine piece is the idea that companies like Exxon somehow changed from “good” (doing research in the 1970s and ‘80s) to “bad” (promoting denial in the ‘90s and 2000s). Exxon’s own memos show that the purpose of its research program was to influence regulation, not to solve the climate problem per se. The industry-organized disinformation campaign that emerged at the end of the 1980s was in response to binding policies that were just then being proposed. If such policies were proposed earlier, it stands to reason that the industry response would have occurred earlier as well. To say that industry disinformation isn’t the whole story is to knock down a straw man: the fact remains that it is a major--and perhaps the most important--part of the story."

In the alternative universe where the Bush administration didn’t sabotage the Noordwijk climate treaty, the fossil fuel industry would still have crippled global climate policies through its misinformation campaign and by purchasing the Republican Party’s climate denial complicity. 1989 was a missed opportunity, but the fossil fuel industry and GOP can’t escape responsibility for the ensuing three decades of climate failures.


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