How Not to Talk About Climate Change

The New York Times Magazine claims in a blockbuster new article that democracy and human nature are to blame for the climate crisis. They're wrong.

A home burns during the Carr Fire on July 27 in Redding, CA. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Once upon a time, we almost solved climate change, but then human nature got in the way. This is the thesis of novelist Nathaniel Rich’s new article on climate change, comprising an entire issue of the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

The decade in question is the 1980s, when, in Rich’s telling, a “handful of people” — a small group of scientists and policymakers, based entirely in the United States — nobly tried to save the rest of us from the doom now approaching. The story follows the environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and the climate scientist James Hansen as they try to raise the alarm about the greenhouse effect, with help from some surprising allies — the occasional Republican senator and concerned representatives of oil companies. The climax comes in 1989 when the United States, under the “environmental president” George H. W. Bush, torpedoes a promising effort to reach an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

From this narrow look at a brief period of American history, Rich draws the conclusion that we are all — “we” as in humanity, “we” as in the human species — to blame for the catastrophe that we failed to prevent. Interspersed with pictures of our beautiful, wounded planet, the thesis is laid out in stark pull quotes — “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”

It is not the right conclusion. The 1980s were an important decade, but not for the reasons Rich thinks. He’s rightly gotten flak for letting the fossil-fuel industry and Republicans off the hook. But even beyond that, his narrative misses what actually happened in the decade in question: the eighties were when the new right consolidated power and limited democratic control over economic processes in order to reorganize capitalism in service of renewed growth. To turn around and lay the blame on democracy is perverse.

Rich strains mightily throughout the piece to tell a story about climate that will seem revelatory, but mostly he just comes across as naïve. In Rich’s telling, Margaret Thatcher cares about climate change because she studied chemistry as an undergraduate; a handful of Republicans’ occasional support for some kind of action on climate change renders the entire party blameless; and the occasional smooth-talking oil industry executive means that fossil-fuel companies once acted in good faith.

It’s not that the oil industry is inherently evil in the way some other industry isn’t. Like all corporations, oil, gas, and coal companies are driven by the need to make a profit, and they act accordingly. It just so happens that the fossil-fuel industry traffics in a very valuable commodity with very high social and environmental costs — costs that it does not want to pay, and that it cannot afford to. Climate change is the most costly of all.

Capitalism, meanwhile, is mentioned only once — by, of all people, an Exxon representative who acknowledges that the free market may be flawed and pledges support for clean energy, two years before he announces that Exxon will in fact be doubling down on its traditional oil and gas investments.

It’s clear from Rich’s own reporting that the industry has only ever been proactive when state regulation seemed imminent. Oil executives are explicit about this: Rich cites a memo from a researcher at Exxon stating that “[i]t behooves us to start a very aggressive defensive program because there is a good probability that legislation affecting our business will be passed.’’

The same thing happened a few years later in the late 1980s, when some momentum built around a climate bill; it happened again in the mid 2000s, when another bipartisan climate bill was on the horizon. Whenever it looks like climate change will start costing them money, that is, companies either try to get ahead of regulations or block them, depending on what they think they can get away with. So far they have gotten away with even more than they themselves anticipated.

Rich recognizes that the problem is political, but again, he draws the wrong conclusions. At one point, he wonders, “if science, industry and the press could not move the government to act, then who could?” I don’t know — how about the people? They certainly seem more likely to act as a countervailing force to corporate power than corporations themselves. But “the public” enters this story only peripherally; they are either going obliviously about their mundane lives or being manipulated into a frenzy by a sensationalist media. This, it would appear, is the basis for the claim that “we” failed to do anything; that “we” are to blame. In the epilogue, Rich uses the political scientist Michael Glantz to ventriloquize what seems to be his own position: that “democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem.”

But the period Rich examines, when democracy is ostensibly getting in the way, is one in which the Right systematically decimated the only force historically capable of holding capital in check — that is, the labor movement — and overrode democratic constraints on capital in favor of free-market fundamentalism.

So there’s a story to tell about the 1980s and climate change all right, but it’s not this one. The story that matters is one about an ascendant neoliberalism being put into practice: about the crushing of trade unions and the loss of counters to corporate power; the insistence on market solutions to replace regulation by governments being actively starved of resources. It’s about inequality and ever more conspicuous consumption; about the replacement of public with private goods, propped up by private debt instead of wage growth. It’s about moving more goods made with cheaper labor further and further around the globe, all while trumpeting the end of material limits. It’s about efforts to restart stagnant growth by removing all politically imposed constraints on capital, and moving the costs of doing business back onto people and the planet.

After the breakdown of economic growth in the 1970s, Reagan was elected in 1980 essentially on the promise to make America great again. He pledged to boost growth by attacking regulations of all kind — scapegoating environmental regulations in particular for jobs that had been outsourced to cheaper labor. Where in the 1960s and ’70s environmentalists and labor had served as capitalism’s major critics, even if never fully in alliance, in the 1980s they were actively pitted against each other, and too often took the bait.

Rich’s interest in refuting the contemporary “Republicans versus Democrats” frame to find a bygone bipartisan era obscures more than it illuminates. What Republicans did most energetically in the 1980s was push the free market as a solution to all ills, including environmental ones. By the 1990s many Democrats — including Al Gore, who makes a brief but heroic appearance in Rich’s article — got on board with the likes of pollution trading and privatization as the means to save the planet. With labor unions decimated, environmental NGOs turned to pragmatic partnerships with “industry” instead. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the US had an open field to push market-based solutions worldwide.

But this is precisely when Rich’s story ends, as United States delegates sabotage a potential international agreement on emissions reductions for the very first time. This, Rich suggests, is the crucial moment when everything could have been different — the time when “thirty years ago we almost saved the planet.”

Frankly, this is absurd. Of course, it would have been much better if the US had supported international action on climate decades ago instead of blocking it from the start. That doesn’t mean it’s too late, as the framing of the piece (“Losing Earth”) heavily implies. (Remember: it can always get worse!) But it’s also essential to remember there was no magic time when getting off fossil fuels would have been easy. Though Rich leans on the example of the Montreal Protocol, which phased out CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in order to address the ozone problem, fossil fuels are not CFCs and addressing climate change was never going to look like stopping ozone depletion. The postwar American economy was built on cheap fossil fuels, and globalization runs on them. There are important conjunctures within those broader trajectories, of course, but there was never going to be a singular moment when it was possible to “solve climate change” with one weird trick.

The epilogue notes briefly that the next two decades would see the oil industry dig in its heels, and halfheartedly gestures toward the fossil-fuel industry’s concerted efforts to spread “uncertainty” and outright misinformation about the severity and causes of climate change. When Exxon realized that action on climate change would likely hurt profits, in other words, it started to act like the villain we know so well. (As many people have pointed out, such efforts started much earlier than Rich suggests.)

But Rich isn’t really interested in Exxon. To charges that “Exxon knew,” Rich counters, “everyone knew.” It’s not the oil industry; it’s not Republicans; it’s not capitalism: it’s all of us. It’s democracy. It’s the human species. “We can trust the technology and the economics,” Rich writes a few lines from the end (don’t get me started), but “it’s harder to trust human nature.” Better leave it to the experts.

It’s not that a more democratic world would magically make action on climate easy. Democracy is hard at the best of times, and climate change is a hideously daunting problem. But it’s also one of the only things that has historically proved capable of limiting capitalism’s drive to expand at all costs to human life and other kinds. I’ll take my chances.

So yes, it’s good that the New York Times is putting serious resources into climate reporting. But it is way too late in the game to be running pieces like this. This isn’t just a missed opportunity or a partial story — it is the wrong story. It is frankly irresponsible to tell readers that once, a team of elites almost “solved” climate change until “we” got in the way, particularly when the story in question suggests nothing of the kind. It is even more irresponsible to suggest that the time to save the planet passed over three decades ago, all while sighing grandiosely about tragedy and the human condition. The earth is not lost yet, and neither are we.

But if we’re going to do something about it, we have to know how we got here. And you cannot tell the story of climate change without telling the story of twentieth-century capitalism — at the very least. You cannot understand the politics of the 1980s in the United States without understanding neoliberalism. So if you find yourself reading about climate change and come across a phrase like “we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels,” take a minute to ask: which “civilization,” exactly?