Day 6

'Losing Earth': Do we have a collective moral responsibility to fight climate change?

This week's edition of the New York Times Magazine consisted of a single story: about humanity's failure to take direct action to prevent climate change in the 1980s. Author Nathaniel Rich says an appeal to human morality may be the only way to spark action.

'I think when it comes to the climate issue, the solutions are not mysterious'

A firefighter battles the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest along a hillside at Temescal Valley in Corona, California. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

As wildfires in Ontario, British Columbia and California continue to make headlines this week, parts of the world are in the midst of an intense heat wave that's broken records.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June was the fifth-warmest on record for the globe. And in July, California's Death Valley endured the hottest month ever recorded on Earth — for the second year in a row.

These are just the latest signs of the turmoil climate change is triggering around the world. But according to Nathaniel Rich, we could have prevented all of this.

Rich is the author of this week's New York Times Magazine cover story, "Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change." It traces the efforts of scientists and politicians to tackle climate change between 1979 and 1989.

Rich's article has raised critical questions about who is accountable for the current crisis, and what share of blame is held by the politicians and oil companies at the heart of the political impasse. He spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about it:

Brent Bambury: In your article, you say that our awareness of the greenhouse gas effect goes all the way back to 1859. That's 160 years ago. But you choose to focus on a very specific point in time — the decade between 1979 to 1989. Why do you zero in on those years?

Nathaniel Rich: By 1979, you have a strong scientific consensus at the highest levels of the scientific community and within the elite corps of scientists within the U.S. government. And, you have the beginning of an effort to move the issue from the scientific realm to policy. Over the course of the decade, that effort advances eventually towards negotiation of a global binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions and to prevent warming.

Children cool off in a public fountain in Barcelona, Spain. Hot air from Africa is bringing a heat wave to Europe, prompting health warnings. (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

BB: And that advancement is striking when you compare it to the divisive arguments that have been going on over climate change for decades now. You portray the '80s as this decade of consensus and goodwill. What evidence is there that oil companies like Exxon and Shell were acting in good faith at the time?

NR: Well, they weren't good Samaritans, as I say in the piece. Exxon was studying the issue since before it was Exxon. When it was Humble Oil in the '50s, they were doing experiments about climate change. And even then, the questions they were asking were not, 'is this happening or what's the problem'? It was how much has the fossil fuel industry contributed to this problem?

The idea was essentially that there's going to be policy coming down the line on this, and if we're going to be part of that conversation...we need to have a strong understanding of the science.

They had a whole carbon dioxide program, as did the American Petroleum Institute, in the early 'Eighties. By 1984, you have the head of Exxon's research division sponsoring a symposium held by James Hansen, the NASA scientist, and he's talking about how Exxon is going... away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and how Exxon has all of these programs set up to do that. They dropped that shortly thereafter. And when they take it up again in '88, there's sort of different people involved. It's more of the business side that starts to get involved and they begin to formulate what will ultimately become a much vaster effort to propagate this denialism campaign.

Republican John Sununu gives his supporters a thumbs up in Bedford, New Hampshire November 5, 2002 as he declares victory in his race for the U.S. Senate against New Hampshire Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. REUTERS/Brian Snyder BS - RP3DRIDLZVAA (REUTERS)

BB: But it's been three decades since the time that you write about. The threat has not diminished. In fact, it's now more intense. How did that consensus fall apart?

NR: There's a narrow political answer, which is that in 1989 there was an internal fight within the Bush White House between the head of George H.W. Bush's EPA, backed up to some extent by Jim Baker, his secretary of state, against John Sununu, the chief of staff, who had essentially taken it upon himself to destroy the possibility of any kind of binding or meaningful commitment to a global treaty. Sununu won that fight and progress has been made here and there, but we haven't come as close again to a solution as we did back then.

We don't talk about climate change, usually at least in the public conversation, in the same way we talk about gun violence or family separations or civil rights.- Nathaniel Rich, writer 

BB: John Sununu does come off as a kind of villain in the piece. How did he justify his decision to kill the climate change treaty that he attacked in 1989?

NR: He had a fascinating answer because I asked him point blank at one point, "Are you the only thing standing between the U.S. and a climate treaty?" I also said...if Jimmy Carter was in the White House or Barack Obama was in the White House — as a hypothetical in 1989 — would we have signed the treaty and what would we have done this? He said no.

He likes the idea of taking responsibility, but his position is that he was the only honest broker on the global stage at that time or that... all the other countries that were lining up to sign a treaty were doing it essentially to look good, but that there was no chance that any of them would actually live up to the terms of an agreement.

BB: But this also brings us to one of the most controversial aspects of your piece, which is that you've chosen not specifically to blame the oil and gas companies or the Republican Party or John Sununu himself. You think that the inaction of the past 30 years is something that everyone can share the blame for. Can you talk a little bit about that?

NR: I think the oil and gas industry and the Republican Party deserves all the blame they can get. All I'm saying is that's not the entire story, and I don't believe we've done a good job of articulating a moral vision of this issue. We don't talk about climate change, usually at least in the public conversation, in the same way we talk about gun violence or family separations or civil rights. We don't talk about it [like] there's a moral imperative to act. It's purely a political conversation, and that seems a very shortsighted way of seeing this.

A volunteer, for recovery work, uses a pack of refrigerant to a cool down as she takes a break in a heat wave at a flood affected area in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

BB: But what would that look like? If the climate change movement was more like the civil rights movement, how would that unfold and what lessons can be learned from what happened with the civil rights in the late 1960s?

NR: [This] is not to say that we've solved civil rights in America by any stretch of the imagination. But, the kind of transformational change that you did see during that period came about not simply because victims of this moral horror spoke out, but also perpetrators did. 

I think when it comes to the climate issue, the solutions are not mysterious. I mean, there are plans that have been laid out about how to prevent this... with technology and renewable energy. But it's about how you muster the political will.

If you have that kind of a social movement, then I don't think industry would be able to stop it.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Nathaniel Rich, download our podcast or click the listen button at the top of this page.

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