The Problem With The New York Times’ Big Story on Climate Change

By portraying the early years of climate politics as a tragedy, the magazine lets Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry off the hook.

James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first warned Congress of the risks of climate change, admires an award at MIT. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

The New York Times Magazine has tried to make the release of its new article, which details a decade of climate history, as momentous as possible. It has devoted the entire new issue of the magazine to just this one story, which is written by Nathaniel Rich. It has even produced a video trailer for it.

Having read the story, I am left to wonder: What was the point?

The article tells the tale of three men who, between 1979 and 1989, helped turn climate change into a major political issue. At the beginning of this period, few Washington officials knew much of anything about global warming. By the end, President George H.W. Bush was close to signing a United Nations treaty to address it. Rich writes with gripping, novelistic detail, and he captures the comedy and frustration of scientists struggling to shape the political sphere.

The story is bookended by a prodigious amount of material. There’s an editor’s note, tinged with echoes of The Twilight Zone: “The second part, covering the period from 1983 to 1989 … is the part readers will be likely to find most frustrating.” And there’s a prologue and an epilogue, in which Rich makes sense of his own effort. He sees this sweep of time—this first decade in which climate change was understood to be political—as tragic in the Aristotelian sense. Some small group of men glimpsed humanity’s tragic flaw—but, woe unto us, they could not convince an intransigent and ignorant public before it was too late:

In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions—far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Ah, yes, ourselves. Now settle in, parishioners, for you know what’s coming next. This is a story about humanity, about the frailty and hubris of those tool-wielding primates who realized they could burn old rocks for energy and, in doing so, accidentally cooked the Earth.

It is not a risible idea: Perhaps (as Rich later speculates) climate change really is impossible for our mammalian minds to comprehend, its timescales too grand for our two- and four-year election cycles. But in order to turn a story about the U.S. politics of climate change into a story about the entirety of the human species, Rich has to make a strange argument. He has to dispatch with the two most powerful and prominent enemies of a climate policy in the United States: the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican Party.

He does so, quickly, in the prologue.

“Why didn’t we act? A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry,” he writes. But this can’t be the case: These companies did not actually oppose climate policy in the 1980s. “The coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989,” he claims, adding that Exxon and Shell even made “good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis.”

“Nor can the Republican Party be blamed,” he writes, before naming a smattering of Republicans who endorsed some kind of climate policy at some point during the 1980s. The list includes three senators (one from Rhode Island), an EPA administrator, and President George H.W. Bush “during his presidential campaign.”

“The issue was unimpeachable, like support for veterans or small business,” Rich writes. “Except the climate had an even broader constituency, composed of every human being on Earth.”

By the end of this spiel, it’s not hard to see the ’79-to-’89 decade as a halcyon period for climate politics. For liberals especially, it amounts to a reassuring image: All those reasonable, bipartisan arguments for climate action really were seen as reasonable and bipartisan once.

Is that… remotely true? Rich’s own reporting suggests that it is not. Again and again, he describes the Reagan administration going out of its way to thwart climate science and policy.

In President Reagan’s first year, the White House defunded solar-energy research, considered closing the Energy Department, and expanded coal-mining on federal lands. When an executive agency warned that burning fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” warm the atmosphere, the White House tried unsuccessfully to shutter that agency, too. In 1982, after its bid to close the Energy Department failed, the White House specifically tried to defund the department’s carbon-dioxide research program. Every single one of these facts appears in Rich’s piece.

Nor was President Reagan’s successor blameless. Today, George H.W. Bush is remembered as an unusually eco-friendly Republican: He expanded the scope of the Clean Air Act and signed an important early UN treaty on climate change. He also talked about climate change on the campaign trail. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect,” he told supporters in 1988.

But this interest was shallow. In 1989, Bush’s White House tried to censor the scientific conclusions of NASA and NOAA climate scientists. And Rich reports that Bush, for all his can-do rhetoric, never took “a vigorous interest in global warming and was mainly briefed about it by nonscientists.”

This negligence allowed John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, to control the administration’s climate policy. Sununu is the closest thing that Rich’s story has to a villain: It’s implied that he prevented William K. Reilly, Bush’s EPA administrator, from negotiating a UN treaty that meaningfully limited greenhouse-gas emissions. Today, Sununu is a notorious doubter of mainstream climate science.

The thrust of this history suggests that powerful figures in the Republican Party were already skeptical of human-caused climate change by 1980. These leaders had not yet converted most Republican rank-and-file voters to their view, and indeed there may have been a few supporters of climate action in the party. But by and large, the most influential administration officials muddied climate science and weakened climate policy.

If Rich seems a little too charitable to the G.O.P, he lets fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely. It’s likely that oil executives knew humans were triggering climate change before Rich’s story even picks up. As early as 1977, Exxon executives had been briefed that “mankind is influencing the global climate,” according to a Pulitzer-nominated investigation from Inside Climate News. In 1982, Exxon scientists confirmed mainstream climate theory with their in-house models. Then, in 1983, Exxon cut its budget for climate research from $900,000 to $150,000. By the end of the decade, Exxon had essentially eliminated the research program.

Some historians and researchers of the fossil-fuel industry have scratched their head at this element of Rich’s piece. “For the record, the American Petroleum Institute publicly downplayed the dangers of global warming as early as 1980,” said Ben Franta, a researcher at Stanford, in a statement.*

And Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who studies environmental policy, noted that Rich’s story did not mention that “climate-science denial efforts” began in 1982, with the publication of Sherwood Idso’s Carbon Dioxide, Friend or Foe.

Republicans are surely not alone to blame for our country’s lack of a climate policy. But consider that almost four decades have elapsed since the 1980 presidential election, when Rich roughly begins his tale. Democrats have controlled Congress and the White House for four of those years. During the first of those windows, the Clinton administration proposed a tax on fossil fuels—which passed the House but not the Senate. During the second, the Obama administration proposed a more market-based tax on fossil fuels. It also passed the House but not the Senate.

Republicans, meanwhile, have controlled the two branches for about six and a half years. And not only have they not moved forward with climate legislation, they have resisted every major effort to stanch the bleeding, whether in power or out.

It was a Republican president who, in 2001, declined to implement the Kyoto Protocol, a binding global treaty to reduce carbon pollution. It was a Republican-led EPA that, in 2006, argued the Clean Air Act could not regulate greenhouse gases. It was a Republican administration that, in 2007, insisted that all future climate treaties remain nonbinding and unenforceable. And it is a Republican president who, in 2017, abandoned the Paris Agreement, the nonbinding and unenforceable climate treaty that emerged from that old demand.

Could we really have solved climate change in 1989? I’m not sure. There are too many counterfactuals to consider: Would solar and wind technology have improved in time? Could the United States have rejiggered its economy in the absence of a popular movement calling for it? Could climate mitigation have avoided the hyper-polarization that defines every other partisan issue, like abortion and guns?

Rich’s piece makes for vivid history. It alludes to plenty of real changes: the fracturing of a unified political elite, the breakdown of the alliance between high science and the national-security state. But it’s tempting, when revisiting the past, to assume that everything was better then. The history of just about every major American political issue is contested; it’s not surprising that climate change should be the same. But any sensible narrative of climate politics has to start and finish with the idea that opposition to climate policy grew in parallel with the scientific case for action. Telling the wrong story makes the case for action look easier than it is.

* This article originally misstated Ben Franta’s position at Stanford.