From The Intercept
The Aug. 5, 2018, issue of the New York Times Magazine.
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This Sunday, the entire New York Times Magazine will be composed of just one article on a single subject: the failure to confront the global climate crisis in the 1980s, a time when the science was settled and the politics seemed to align. Written by Nathaniel Rich, this work of history is filled with insider revelations about roads not taken that, on several occasions, made me swear out loud. And lest there be any doubt that the implications of these decisions will be etched in geologic time, Rich's words are punctuated with full-page aerial photographs by George Steinmetz that wrenchingly document the rapid unraveling of planetary systems, from the rushing water where Greenland ice used to be to massive algae blooms in China's third largest lake.
The novella-length piece represents the kind of media commitment that the climate crisis has long deserved but almost never received. We have all heard the various excuses for why the small matter of despoiling our only home just doesn't cut it as an urgent news story: "Climate change is too far off in the future"; "It's inappropriate to talk about politics when people are losing their lives to hurricanes and fires"; "Journalists follow the news, they don't make it -- and politicians aren't talking about climate change"; and of course: "Every time we try, it's a ratings killer."
None of the excuses can mask the dereliction of duty. It has always been possible for major media outlets to decide, all on their own, that planetary destabilization is a huge news story, very likely the most consequential of our time. They always had the capacity to harness the skills of their reporters and photographers to connect abstract science to live extreme weather events. And if they did so consistently, it would lessen the need for journalists to get ahead of politics because the more informed the public is about both the threat and the tangible solutions, the more they push their elected representatives to take bold action.
Which is why it was so exciting to see the Times throw the full force of its editorial machine behind Rich's opus -- teasing it with a promotional video, kicking it off with a live event at the Times Center, and accompanying educational materials.
That's also why it is so enraging that the piece is spectacularly wrong in its central thesis.
According to Rich, between the years of 1979 and 1989, the basic science of climate change was understood and accepted, the partisan divide over the issue had yet to cleave, the fossil fuel companies hadn't started their misinformation campaign in earnest, and there was a great deal of global political momentum toward a bold and binding international emissions-reduction agreement. Writing of the key period at the end of the 1980s, Rich says, "The conditions for success could not have been more favorable."
And yet we blew it -- "we" being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now "losing earth," Rich's answer is presented in a full-page callout: "All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves."
Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)
This misreading has been pointed out by many climate scientists and historians since the online version of the piece dropped on Wednesday. Others have remarked on the maddening invocations of "human nature" and the use of the royal "we" to describe a screamingly homogenous group of U.S. power players. Throughout Rich's accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich's text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker -- and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.
All of these flaws have been well covered, so I won't rehash them here. My focus is the central premise of the piece: that the end of the 1980s presented conditions that "could not have been more favorable" to bold climate action. On the contrary, one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late '80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating "free markets" in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.
WHEN I DELVED into this same climate change history some years ago, I concluded, as Rich does, that the key juncture when world momentum was building toward a tough, science-based global agreement was 1988. That was when James Hansen, then director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before Congress that he had "99 percent confidence" in "a real warming trend" linked to human activity. Later that same month, hundreds of scientists and policymakers held the historic World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto, where the first emission reduction targets were discussed. By the end of that same year, in November 1988, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the premier scientific body advising governments on the climate threat, held its first session.
But climate change wasn't just a concern for politicians and wonks -- it was watercooler stuff, so much so that when the editors of Time magazine announced their 1988 "Man of the Year," they went for "Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth." The cover featured an image of the globe held together with twine, the sun setting ominously in the background. "No single individual, no event, no movement captured imaginations or dominated headlines more," journalist Thomas Sancton explained, "than the clump of rock and soil and water and air that is our common home."
(Interestingly, unlike Rich, Sancton didn't blame "human nature" for the planetary mugging. He went deeper, tracing it to the misuse of the Judeo-Christian concept of "dominion" over nature and the fact that it supplanted the pre-Christian idea that "the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature -- the soil, forest, sea -- was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it.")
When I surveyed the climate news from this period, it really did seem like a profound shift was within grasp -- and then, tragically, it all slipped away, with the U.S. walking out of international negotiations and the rest of the world settling for nonbinding agreements that relied on dodgy "market mechanisms" like carbon trading and offsets. So it really is worth asking, as Rich does: What the hell happened? What interrupted the urgency and determination that was emanating from all these elite establishments simultaneously by the end of the '80s?
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