Looking for the Enemy

NYT Magazine’s Nathaniel Rich Goes Full Pogo

According to Jake Silverstein, the editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine, “the August 5 issue of @NYTmag will be dedicated entirely to a single story, a captivating, revelatory history about the decade we almost stopped climate change, but didn’t.”

And the breathless hype doesn’t stop there, Silverstein lauds the author, Nathaniel Rich, tweeting the piece as: “a remarkable piece of historical journalism that will change the way you think about global warming.”

Unfortunately the early hints suggest that Rich’s piece will do anything but that.

On April 20, Rich spoke at a Boston University Symposium where he appeared to preview his thesis. Rich spoke to one of the key questions about climate change: why have we delayed so long in taking action?

And in contrarian style, Rich threw down a challenge to the assembled. Mid-way through his presentation, Rich offered:

“I question whether partisanship is really our biggest problem. And I question whether the industries’ misinformation campaign, as cynical and clownish as it is, is the problem.”

And a bit later, Rich doubles down, going on to say:

“I question additionally whether a lack of public concern is our biggest problem.”

“What is our problem? The shortest, most simple answer, I believe, is human nature. We’re a medium-term species. We plan ahead, but only so far. We’re willing to sacrifice comfort in the present for security in the future, but within reason.”

It is at this point that Rich effectively throws out thirty years of political history, and blames you and me for climate change. He’s gone full Pogo, declaring he has met the enemy and it is us.

Forget the fossil-fuel industry, forget the ideological mind-lock of the Republican party in the United States. Forget the clean energy investments Germans have made, forget the spectacular investments being made in China right now. Humans just can’t do it.

One might be willing overlook this re-write of history and accept Silverstein’s hype simply on the basis of originality. But there is nothing new here. Promoting climate change as a problem beyond the ability of humans to overcome goes back decades. The idea gets recycled regularly, coming out under new labels such as “super wicked.”

Normally it might make sense to wait and read all of what Rich has to say. After all a 5-minute preview presentation is not the same thing as an entire NYT Magazine dedicated to a single story.

I hope I’m wrong about Rich, and I would love to be pleasantly surprised by the NYT Magazine special issue. But I don’t think it makes sense to wait before speaking up.

It’s important to start the conversation now, before the special single-issue splashes down and the tsunami follows. The mighty NYT Magazine machine is already in full promotion mode, hyping both the coming special issue and a launch event at the Times.

Others, far more well versed than I, will no doubt parse Rich’s thesis in detail. But to help prime the pump, below are some comments on his symposium presentation, offered as annotations to transcript excerpts.

[And one can watch the entirely of Rich’s 5-minute symposium presentation here, going from time marks 49’30” to 54”20”.]

Rich begins his version of history here:

“…By 1979, the basic scientific picture was well established and accepted by those at the highest levels of the federal government and industry, and attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to a refinement of the predicted consequences.

Global warming was not a partisan issue. Many Republicans, including some in the executive branch, argued in favor of taking action…” This line of thinking held throughout the 1980s. George Bush, during his presidential campaign, promised that he would solve climate change….”

Up to this point, Rich’s account, while rosy to the point of setting one’s teeth on edge, might be deemed faithful enough to reality to keep reading. But from here, he goes off the rails entirely:

“The fossil fuel industry itself had not yet brazenly embraced the role of comic book villain. As late as 1989, the American Petroleum Institute’s publicly declared position on climate change was to promote international cooperation and to encourage any policy measures that were consistent with broader economic goals, which is to say actions with other immediate benefits, including public health benefits.”

Here’s it worth noting that Scientific American shares a different history: “In June 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen told a congressional hearing that the planet was already warming, Exxon remained publicly convinced that the science was still controversial. Furthermore, experts agree that Exxon became a leader in campaigns of confusion. By 1989 the company had helped create the Global Climate Coalition (disbanded in 2002) to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change.”

And Rich goes on straight from there to say:

“Yet the US and the world failed to pass any binding international climate treaty, and we’ve never really come close again. So I question whether partisanship is really our biggest problem. And I question whether the industries’ misinformation campaign, as cynical and clownish as it is, is the problem.”

And it is precisely here that Rich waves away thirty years of political history, from 1990 to now. While action stopped in the U.S. thanks to Republican leadership, Europe and other developed countries took a much different course, and started working to de-carbonize. The poster child of that Kyoto movement might be Germany which embarked on it’s Energiewende. The Germans made sweeping investments in solar power that drove production of solar power panels to economies of scale that sent prices plunging (just as economists predicted), much to the delight of consumers in America where utility-scale solar power is now cheaper than coal-fired power.

Meanwhile back in the U.S., George Bush Jr. ran for President telling voters he would move forward on climate change and then performed an about-face after winning the election, reneging on his campaign pledge according the New York Times after “a cabinet-level review had concluded that Mr. Bush’s original promise had been a mistake inconsistent with the broader goal of increasing domestic energy production.” Does that sound like the limitations of the human species or more like the greed of the fossil fuel industry?

From here Rich moves on to polling to make his argument about the limitations of our species:

“What about concern over climate change?…Today two-thirds of Americans are concerned about climate change, yet a majority of Americans in every state, starting with West Virginia, say that the United States should participate in the Paris climate agreement. Overall, Americans support joining the Paris Accord by a factor of five to one. So I question additionally whether a lack of public concern is our biggest problem.”

What Rich doesn’t acknowledge is that while public support in the U.S. for action is a mile wide, it’s also only an inch deep. Poll after poll reports that climate change ranks dead last as a priority for American voters, voters who for the most have no clue as to the depth of the hole into which we’ve dug our-selves, no appreciation of the staggering carbon debt we are passing to our children, and little understanding of the firm link between fossil fuel pollution and the amplification of climate disasters that has inflicted billions of dollars in damages already.

This kind of playing field, where voters are half-blind and largely see the issue as a problem for tomorrow, is perfect for deeply-invested and extremely powerful political players who are trying to block action today.

And from there Rich moves to his thesis conclusion.

What is our problem? The shortest, most simple answer, I believe, is human nature. We’re a medium-term species. We plan ahead, but only so far. We’re willing to sacrifice comfort in the present for security in the future, but within reason.

I don’t think we’ll be able to change human nature, but we can do better to prepare ourselves for the changes that await us, and to moderate their severity. As we do so, as we try to exploit our species’s greatest strengths, we will also have to reckon with our greatest weaknesses.

Ironically Rich himself would appear to be exhibit A for his argument about the limitations of human vision. However, I hope I’m wrong about that, and I look forward to reading the NYT special issue. Regardless, there is a huge range in the natural variability of the human species. Better pundits with clearer vision are out there.

P.S./July 28 — for those wondering about the Pogo reference, see this history of corporations driving anti-littering campaigns to divert attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out.

P.P.S./July 29–while we are still days away from the release of Rich’s story, he appeared on PBS News Hour tonight to discuss his story. And indeed it does seem that this BU symposium presentation was a preview of his thesis, but the picture is still not fully resolved.

You can watch the interview here at the 18'35" mark.

Here are a couple key excerpts from the PBS transcript:

Hari Sreenivasan: so why did we fail? what was it that created that paralysis that we are so familiar with today?

Nathaniel Rich: well, there is a sort of a simple political answer, very narrow answer, i suppose, you could make which is that in the bush administration, the first george bush administration, his chief of staff former governor of new hampshire john sununu who was an engineer, ph.d., was very skeptical about the science of global warming, and he suspected that it was being used by kind of a cabal of folks who wanted to suppress growth and economic advancement and all of that, and he managed to win an internal fight within that white house against action. that is kind of the most limited possible answer, and the piece tells the story of that political conversation. i think the larger — the larger answer has to do with how we as a species to reckon with vast technological problems that will only affect folks decades or generations from now, of course that is not the case anymore, but in the early eighties that was how the conversation was being constructed. and so i think there is a kind of larger conversation to be had about why we were so unable to tackle this when we had a great opportunity to do so and then there is the more narrow conversation about the inside politics of the matter.

From that exchange it’s hard to know whether Rich is diagnosing the failure to take action back in the 1980s or the failure to take action over the three decades since then.

However, in a following exchange later in the PBS interview, Rich appears to double down on this BU presentation, blaming human nature.

Sreenivasan: one of the meetings you describe in great detail starts to get to the same changes we, challenges we have, you see people trying to water down language, not wanting to make a decision today, leave the decision for others.

Rich: there is still a basic discomfort with trying to propose a drastic transformation or immediate transformation of the — of our whole energy economy which is to say our economy, so even folks who agree on every aspect of the issue, the science and the politics still we are not able to a negotiate even the most basic statement of purpose and i think that we still see that problem today, frankly.

The proposition that even today “folks who agree on every aspect of the issue, the science and the politics still …are not able to a negotiate even the most basic statement of purpose,” is completely ridiculous. While that may have been true back in the 1980s, that hasn’t been true for a very long time.

So, for the moment, we still have only clues and teases about Rich’s NYT Magazine story.