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Climate Hustle

The GOP and Big Oil can't escape blame for climate change

Posted on 6 August 2018 by dana1981

Last week’s issue of the New York Times magazine was devoted to a single story by Nathaniel Rich that explored how close we came to an international climate agreement in 1989, and why we failed. The piece is worth reading – it’s a well-told, mostly accurate, and very informative story about a key decade in climate science and policy history. But sadly, it explicitly excuses the key players responsible for our continued failure.

Culprit #1: The Republican Party

Rich’s piece immediately goes off the rails in its Prologue, where he argues that the GOP isn’t responsible – at least not for the climate failures up to 1989:

Nor can the Republican Party be blamed … 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.

However, his story is peppered with examples that contradict this narrative. The world’s foremost climate scientists had published the groundbreaking National Academy of Sciences ‘Charney Report’ in 1979, concluding that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would most likely cause 3°C of global warming (still the consensus today), and as Rich summarizes:

The last time the world was three degrees warmer was during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were 80 feet higher and horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean.

But Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year and came in with a stark anti-environment agenda, including an effort to eliminate the Energy Department’s carbon dioxide program. In 1983, the National Academy of Sciences published yet another major climate report. It mostly reiterated the Charney report findings, but this time the press briefing was run by Reagan appointee William Nierenberg. In a glaring omission, Rich’s story failed to note that in 1984, Nierenberg founded the fossil fuel-funded, climate-denying George C. Marshall Institute and proceeded to publish a variety of reports denying mainstream scientific findings.

In the key 1983 press briefing, Nierenberg basically lied about the climate report’s findings, claiming it found no urgent need for action. Nierenberg’s false summary made headlines around the world and stymied climate policy efforts for years to come. Only after 1985 when the discovery of ozone depletion captured worldwide attention was climate change able to ride its coattails back into serious policy discussions.

Rich’s story culminates with the first major global climate conference in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in 1989. More than 60 countries were deciding whether to endorse a framework for a global climate treaty. George H.W. Bush had been elected president after promising on the campaign trail, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” But once he was in the White House, Bush expressed little interest in global warming and appointed John Sununu as his chief of staff. Sununu had earned a PhD in engineering from MIT, but developed a conspiratorial view towards mainstream science:

Since World War II, he believed, conspiratorial forces had used the imprimatur of scientific knowledge to advance an “anti-growth” doctrine.

When the Swedish minister briefly emerged from a long and ongoing closed-door negotiation at Noordwijk and was asked by an American environmental activist what was going on, he answered, “Your government is fucking this thing up!” Sununu had pressured the Bush administration representative to force the conference to abandon a commitment to freeze carbon emissions, and the Noordwijk conference became the first in a long line of international climate negotiations failures, thanks largely to the Republican administration.

Culprit #2: the fossil fuel industry

In his unfortunate Prologue, Rich also describes the fossil fuel industry as “a common boogeyman.” He argues that the fossil fuel industry didn’t mobilize to kill the 1989 Noordwijk negotiation. That’s true, because it didn’t have to; had the treaty even succeeded, it would have just been the very first step in global efforts to cut carbon pollution.

Immediately after the Noordwijk shot came across its bow, the fossil fuel industry launched a decades-long, many-million-dollar campaign to undermine public trust of climate science and support for climate policy. For example, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) fossil fuel industry group formed in 1989. By the time the 1992 Rio Earth Summit rolled around, these polluter industry organizations began heavily investing in disinformation campaigns to undermine international and domestic climate policies. Speaking about the Rio summit, Bush sounded like Donald Trump, saying:

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Comments

Comments 1 to 2:

  1. The Nathaniel Rich history is an excellent history and all credit to the LA Times for publishing this. The more climate coverage like this the better!

    However imho the article does indeed make way too many excuses for the fossil fuel industry and the Republicans, and this is so frustrating and peculiar. The writers own conclusions contradict his own history. I think the writer was trying to be nice to everyone and unbiased, and took this too far to the point of sanitising the real history, all perhaps because of the attacks on the media lately by Trump made him reluctant to be too critical of one side of politics. It's good to be unbiased and impartial, but being unbiased should not mean sanitising history.

    Or perhaps the writer is just a political centrist or something. 

    However you have to ask why did the brief political consensus break down? Imho Naomi Klein has it right when she refers to the frustrating and flawed neoliberal ideology that gained traction from the early 1980's, with the Reagon and Thatcher reforms and the anti tax and anti regulation agenda, and tendency to put excessively huge faith in free markets and unlimited economic growth. This was the birth of the "greed is good" generation that falsely believed that all problems will be solved by the unlimited pursuit of profitability, and the near idolisation of wealth aquisition. Neoliberalism has also been an excuse to let money excessively influence political campaigns. If  we blame anything, its probably more useful to blame this neoliberalism, than scapegoating political parties as such.

    Not that all elements of neo liberalism are flawed, for example I personally have no problem with free trade and profit is not an evil thing. In other words, the 'neoliberal' issue is confoundingly complicated, and hard to unpack, especially in a world that deals in simplistic slogans and sound bites.

    The article also tries to lay home blame on "everybody" for the climate problem, and by arguing our lack of action is "human nature". Well we have more confounding complexity here!

    I guess we are all to blame in a very general sense, because we continue to consume products with a high fossil fuel content etc, however some do this more than others, and one side of politics has been more obstructive towards things like a carbon tax and renewable energy development. So some are more responsible than others. Those are the facts of history.

    And solving the climate problem has two sides. Individually we must make voluntary and responsible changes in how we consume, yet the government has a part to play as well. It has to provide energy and transport alternatives, or incentivise the development of these, and ensure fossil fuels are priced to reflect the damage they cause with carbon taxes or something similar. And we need to support political parties which have the strongest climate policies.

    And while humans are governed by our human nature, people do clearly rise above the baser instincts of human nature at times. Whether we do this enough to solve the climate problem is of course the big question. Do we wait until climate change is so severe that it can no longer be ignored, or take a more planned action? I hope for the later, but increasingly fear it will be the former.

    The article ends with an interesting point. It makes the observation that humans are not good at acting to prevent long term problems that involve many future generations, because psychology shows us we are more tuned to respond rapidly to short term threats than long term threats. Again there is some truth in this, yet it's a generalisation and somewhat defeatest in tone, because some people do clearly think and act with consideration to long term issues. We all care about our grand children.

    James Hansen certainly looks far into the future, so for me if we want to leave the planet in sound condition for our children and grand children perhaps people can be encouraged, and taught to think longer term. I dont think we are totally captive to our evolutionary instincts of "short termism".

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Rich's article was published as Sunday's New York Times magazine.

  2. I suspect (and would like to believe!) that the author of the awesome subject article was being a tad sly in the dichotomy of reporting and conclusion. We might do well to consider Abraham Lincoln's rebuttal of an opposing attorney in a trial: “My opponent’s facts are right, but his conclusion is wrong.” (It's a tad off-color; I prefer to let the salaciously-minded look it up themselves.) What I would read is that Rich is trying to make it less difficult for mugwump denyists to walk back their opposition.

    And then, maybe not; nevertheless, to misquote Alexander Pope, hope springs eternal in the [i.e. "this"] old man's breast.

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