“Losing Earth”: How Humanity Came to Understand Climate Change & Failed to Act in Time

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“Losing Earth.” That’s the title of The New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich published August 1 in a special edition of the magazine dedicated entirely to climate change. The story tracks the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989, the decade Rich claims that humankind first came to a comprehensive understanding of climate change but failed to address its extreme dangers while there was still time. The story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center. We speak with Nathaniel Rich, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring in Nathaniel Rich, as well, to this conversation, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, his piece “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” published August 1st in a special edition of The New York Times Magazine dedicated to climate change. It’s just the second time in the magazine’s history that it dedicated an issue to just one article, the story tracking the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989, the decade Nathaniel Rich claims humankind first came to a comprehensive understanding of climate change but failed to address its extreme dangers while there was still time, the story produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center.

Nathaniel, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

NATHANIEL RICH: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this major piece that you wrote and why you chose this time period, ’79 to ’89.

NATHANIEL RICH: So, by 1979, there is a strong scientific consensus about the fundamental science of climate change. And there were major reports by the—at the highest levels of the government about the problem, and there started to emerge an effort by a handful of scientists and activists and some politicians to move the issue. And over the course of the decade, they developed a plan, which was essentially a global treaty, which would become the IPCC process, and they made steady—if, you know, with some up and downs—progress towards the end of the decade.

And other things that’s significant about that period is that the issue was not a partisan issue. There were prominent Republicans in Congress and in the administration, Republican administrations, who were strongly supportive of a major climate policy. And the fossil fuel industry had not locked arms and coordinated the—what we now see as this history of propaganda, disinformation campaigns, bribing politicians and the entire Republican Party. And so that there was this 10-year period where we came very close to a serious consideration of a binding emissions treaty. And we failed. So I wanted to tell the story of how that came to be and why we didn’t succeed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what happened in 1989? Like, what changed so dramatically?

NATHANIEL RICH: So, there’s—I guess the most narrow political answer is that George Bush took the White House, George Bush one. In 1988, he campaigned saying things like, “Those who are worried about the greenhouse effect—solving the greenhouse effect haven’t heard of the White House effect. And when I’m in the White House, we’re going to solve it.” Dan Quayle, in the vice-presidential campaign, also spoke about this. And the head of his EPA, William Reilly, was a strong proponent of the IPCC—beginning the IPCC process.

As they start to meet at the first—the piece ends, essentially, at the first high-level diplomatic meeting, that’s held in the Netherlands, to discuss the idea of emissions reductions and hard targets for the treaty that would become the Rio—or, at the Rio Earth Summit. And within the White House, Governor John Sununu, who was the chief of staff, was very skeptical of the science, had some conspiracy theories about the whole movement, and, essentially, single-handedly won an infighting with William Reilly and others in the administration, and got—made sure that there was no binding target that the U.S. would agree with. And that is the beginning of the derailing. And shortly thereafter, the industry gets involved.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to turn to some of the criticism that the piece, The New York Times Magazine piece that you wrote, has received from InsideClimate News, which won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how Exxon knew fossil fuels caused global warming as early as the 1970s but hid that information from the public. In a series of tweets Wednesday, InsideClimate News wrote, quote, “The tale of U.S. climate inaction spans 70 years and it continues to this day.” In a subsequent tweet, they went on to write, quote, “Once the serious threat of political action to control GHG emissions”—that’s greenhouse gas emissions—”emerged, fossil fuel interests worked hard to undermine the scientific basis for urgent action, using tools like misinformation campaigns and campaign donations. 2) It worked,” they say, unquote. They went on to write, quote, “As early as the 1950s oil companies worked on strategies to sow doubt about science that could lead to regulation of their own air emissions. The Smoke and Fumes committee at the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s main lobbyist, worked to discredit the science surrounding smog that its own researchers ultimately confirmed.” So, could you respond to those points?

NATHANIEL RICH: Yeah, I don’t see that as a criticism. Everything you just mentioned is in the article. You know, I don’t expect people to have read a 35-40,000-word article on the day it’s published. But I think—

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain those points.

NATHANIEL RICH: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely. So, as I write about, you start to see industry, American Petroleum Institute, Exxon—as was well documented in their series, which is fantastic and was a great source for my piece, and I credited them—they start to understand—it’s clear they understand the science, as early as at least the 1950s. And repeatedly, over the decades, they publish re-evaluations of the science, come to the exact same conclusions, which are the same conclusions that have been reached by government scientists and independent scientists and so on, and they don’t take action. And that continues through the ’80s. There are a couple other, you know, details there.

I would distinguish that from the coordinated disinformation campaign, the bribing of scientists, the bribing of politicians, the enormous PR campaigns modeled after the tobacco industry’s efforts. And it’s certainly true that that didn’t really start happening until you get—with force, until you get in the lead-up to the Rio Earth Summit, when there’s the possibility of real action. At that point, what my reporting shows is the White House had already checked out, and there was no real desire within the White House—

AMY GOODMAN: And this was the White House of?

NATHANIEL RICH: Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: George H.W.

NATHANIEL RICH: George H.W. Bush. And so, I don’t dispute any of that. And my point is simply that by the time you get to the end of the '80s, that the robust effort hasn't started and that not only did Exxon know and API, but the government knew. There were articles in Time and Life in the 1950s and on through. So this wasn’t a secret. And I think there’s a confusion, even among people who follow the issue fairly closely, that this started with Jim Hansen’s testimony. And Jim Hansen is one of the two main figures in my piece.

AMY GOODMAN: This was in 1988.

NATHANIEL RICH: Sorry, 1998, a hearing during the hottest summer ever and droughts and wildfires.

AMY GOODMAN: James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, who was head of the Goddard—the NASA center for studies on climate.

NATHANIEL RICH: Right. So the piece follows his story going back to the late '70s. And he was testifying at hearings throughout the decade. And so, there's a long history that I find actually more damning, that leads up even to that point. So, there was a failure even before industry could then essentially cement the paralysis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I think some of the key points that people seem to have taken—climate researchers and activists have taken issue with is that you write, “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.” And you also say that the Republican Party cannot be blamed. So, could you explain why—why—

NATHANIEL RICH: I think that’s a bit of a—I wouldn’t say the Republican Party can’t be blamed for the inaction that we’ve seen, of course. I’m not disputing—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Not recently, but in the period that you cover, ’79 to ’89.

NATHANIEL RICH: Oh, in the period. So, I don’t think it can—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s when Reagan was in the White House—

NATHANIEL RICH: Yes, absolutely.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: —who’s apparently the most anti-environmentalist administration since Trump.

NATHANIEL RICH: Right. And I think they certainly were anti-environmental. And you saw—and there’s a major part of the piece about when the Reagan administration takes over, and it’s a all-hands-on-deck crisis within the environmental movement and anyone who cares about these issues.

So, no, they were certainly not happy with the idea of environmental regulations. But there was no denying the issue. And there were—you know, they did sign the ozone treaty. Now, there are some corporate pressures that helped along the way. But essentially, by the end of the decade, you have a Republican administration that is making regular public statements in support of signing treaties. You have people within that administration who think it’s going to happen. William Reilly was a—I spoke to at length. And there was—let’s put it this way: There was a much stronger possibility than there has been ever since. And I think that’s an important story that needs to be told.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have, by 1989, these corporations coming together, like Exxon, forming the climate change coalition.

NATHANIEL RICH: Right. And so I have the story of how that happens, which is, after 1988, Hansen testifies. I interviewed the head of the American Petroleum Institute’s environmental section and his boss, the number two in the whole company, who had been the head of the environmental program the whole decade, Bill O’Keefe. And they told me—and they’re very, you know—they don’t equivocate about what happened in the '90s, and they're are proud of it.

But they said, after Hansen’s hearing, people started to perk up. There started to be concern. There were 32 bills filed in Congress about climate policy. And they started to hold meetings, informational meetings at API, and similar work was being done at Exxon, to try to formulate a strategy. And that was the beginning of a hard turn. But there were—you know, it progressed. Originally, it was, “Let’s make sure to highlight uncertainty. Let’s make sure to be a participant in any conversation about regulation. And let’s make sure not to endorse any policy that hurts the bottom line.” So you see the formation of it. But then it gets into pure fantasy, denialism and all of that. And that’s a story that’s been very well told, and I felt like there was—by great reporters, and I didn’t feel like I could add anything to that narrative. But I did feel like I could add something to the prehistory of that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are—well, the guest that we’re talking to right now, Nathaniel Rich, has written the entire issue of The New York Times Magazine on climate change, the piece called “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” And when we come back, climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel will also join the discussion, as well, Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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