ThinkProgress

Scientists aren’t impressed with New York Times’ new story on climate change

Climate cartoon from "The Madhouse Effect," by Tom Toles and Michael Mann. Reprinted with the authors' permission.

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.”

Screenshot of NYTtimes.com touting its climate history article Wednesday, August 1.

But the claim that “nothing stood in our way” is simply ahistorical. The article asks and answers the key question:

Why didn’t we act? 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… But the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. During the preceding decade, some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.

As Dr. 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 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.

Mann, co-author of The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, explains that the real impasse occurred during the 1990s, when the attack machine was in full swing with hundreds of millions of dollars of fossil fuel industry funding.

Indeed, the article’s key assertion that “we almost stopped climate change” in the decade from 1979 to 1989 is simply untrue and ahistorical. The world didn’t even gather to seriously address climate change until the June 1992 Rio Earth Summit — and that did not even lead to any binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. But it did set up a process that ultimately led to serious global action in the ensuing years and decades, especially the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, which GOP President Donald Trump — alone among world leaders — has vowed to withdraw from.

Yet in answering the question “why didn’t we act?,” the article also asserts:

Nor can the Republican Party be blamed. Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that “most scientists believe global warming is occurring,” and that percentage is falling. But 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.

In fact, as Brulle notes, “climate change had become a politicized issue in the Reagan administration, especially with James Watt at Interior and Anne Gorsuch at EPA.”

Rich does unpack the the Reagan-era opposition toward the environment, and as the article makes clear, it was the (unfounded) skepticism of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, that blocked any serious climate action during the George H.W. Bush administration.

But what does the New York Times blame for our inaction — what stood in our way? The Times says, “ourselves.” It was our human nature.

The article concludes, “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.”

That fatalistic view conveniently lets key actors off the hook. The fact is that during the times the United States was seriously contemplating action to address climate change, those efforts were thwarted again and again by by the fossil fuel industry and its multi-decade disinformation campaign, as well as key Republicans dating back to the Reagan administration.

After all, somehow, the world came together in Paris in 2015 to agree to a deal that proved society capable of  “sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” But today the United States stands alone in opposition, and it’s not because humans are incapable of acting together for the future benefit of all.