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Who’s to Blame for Global Warming?

The latest issue of New York Times Magazine offers a surprising, controversial answer.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times Magazine has done something unprecedented. On Wednesday, it released an entire issue containing just one article on the subject of global warming. “Losing Earth,” by Nathaniel Rich, chronicles the ten-year period from 1979 t0 1989 in which scientists reached consensus about human-caused climate change, and politicians nearly came to a global-scale solution. Informed by more than 100 interviews and 18 months of reporting, the piece twists and turns around a zany cast of characters who bravely risked their careers to solve the climate crisis.

There’s no spoiler alert needed for the ending: They failed. But it’s a fascinating look at how close the world once came to a binding emissions reduction agreement. Given the polarization on climate change today, it’s almost hard to believe there was a time when a left-wing environmental lobbyist from Friends of the Earth could help persuade Republican members of Congress to consider phasing out coal. That detail alone makes the lengthy story worth reading, along with several others.

But as with most large-scale, pioneering works of climate journalism, “Losing Earth” has quickly come under fire. The bulk of the criticism surrounds Rich’s conclusion: That neither the fossil fuel industry nor Republican politicians can “be blamed” for inaction on climate change. The reason they can’t be, Rich says, is because both entities were on board with climate action in the ten-year period he describes. Thus, the real blame for climate inaction belongs to all of humanity. “Human nature has brought us to this place,” he concludes. “Perhaps human nature will one day bring us through.”

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer was among the first to take issue with this thesis. Not only was Rich’s conclusion wrong, he argued on Wednesday, it paints a false picture about what humanity must overcome to solve the climate crisis. “Telling the wrong story makes the case for action look easier than it is,” Meyer wrote.

In other words, Meyer argues that Rich’s focus—the decade during which consensus was built and action attempted—can’t possibly tell the whole story of who’s to blame for inaction. Because even if the fossil fuel industry and the Republican Party were on board with climate action in 1989, it’s been 30 years since then. And both have engaged in coordinated campaigns to prevent action on the climate crisis within those three decades.

It was a Republican president who, in 2001, declined to implement the Kyoto Protocol, a binding global treaty to reduce carbon pollution” Meyer points out. “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.”

Rich’s conclusion also appears contradicted by his own reporting, Meyer points out, because he shows that Republicans and the fossil fuel industry were trying to undermine action in the 10-year period of 1979 to 1989. The piece explains that, after President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he promptly defunded climate change research, increased coal mining on public lands, and appointed an “anti-regulation zealot” named Anne Gorsuch to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Rich also notes that ExxonMobil had ulterior motives for engaging in climate research at the time. “Exxon didn’t concern itself primarily with how much the world would warm,” Rich writes. “It wanted to know how much of the warming Exxon could be blamed for.”

Rich called Exxon’s research into climate change in the 1980s a “good-faith” effort. But it was that research which ultimately fueled Exxon’s future campaign to mislead the public about it, according to Ben Franta, a history of science doctoral student at Harvard. “Research to understand pollution problems and their solutions does not contradict public denial of them,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Research and denial are parts of the same overall strategy to control the regulatory environment.” Franta added that Rich’s account leaves out some historical information. “For the record,” he wrote, “the American Petroleum Institute publicly downplayed the dangers of global warming as early as 1980.”

I agree with these critiques of Rich’s thesis. The fossil fuel industry, and the Republicans who heed its beck and call, are most certainly at least partly to blame for humanity’s inaction on global warming. Rich appears to agree with that as well, according to remarks he gave on Tuesday night.

But I also believe Rich is correct about human nature—at least, our inherent inability to grasp long-term threats. And “Losing Earth” provides a necessary window into how human nature influenced America’s first big failure to create climate policy. A memorable example is Rich’s description of a 1980 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, where U.S. bureaucrats met to discuss policy recommendations. At the beginning of that meeting, National Climate Program economist Thomas Waltz asked a pointed question: “Do we care?”

“It was not an emotional question ... but an economic one,” Rich wrote. “How much did we value the future?” Not enough, it seemed. The three-day policy meeting ended without any proposals, or even a statement of mutual interest. This failure was not the fault of the fossil fuel industry or the Republican Party. Those would come later. This failure was down to how humans thought about the future.

“Losing Earth” is an impressive piece of journalism for several reasons. One is simply that it’s the Times’ longest-ever article—and it’s about global warming. This comes at a time when much of the news media is failing to live up to its responsibilities covering climate change, an issue that affects the entire population, hundreds of ecosystems, and every economic sector. Rich’s story, too, is proof that the climate story can be told in an engaging—fast-moving, human-centric, funny, and frustrating—way.

And the insights about human nature are worth pondering. “We’re a medium-term species,” he said in April. “We plan ahead, but only so far. We’re willing to sacrifice comfort in the present for security in the future, but within reason.” But the fossil fuel industry and Republicans know that, and have successfully exploited it for the last thirty years. “Losing Earth” is thus not the whole story of human’s failure to act on climate change. Its flaw is that it’s painted as such.