The energy and climate blogosphere is currently ablaze about an article, published today in the whole of the New York Times magazine, which covers the story of climate change in what it calls the definitive 10-year period from 1979 to 1989.
It is the longest story ever published in the paper.
Why write about this decade you may ask? Because it is “the decisive decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change,” says the magazine.
The article “tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe.”
It continues: “It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.”
Maybe after all these thousands of words what is missing from the longest story ever published in the Times is the truth. But we will come to that later.
But first look at the positives. Most people who write or blog on climate bemoan the lack of coverage on climate change and the lack of informed debate and this article will help change that. It will add to the debate on climate.
This summer the world has been on fire, from the US, to Canada, to Europe. Even the Arctic has been alight. In blog after blog, I have often bemoaned the media for not making the link to climate change. So for the so-called paper of record to publish a thirty-six page story on climate change, has to be welcomed.
Let’s look at some of the highlights.
The article reconfirms that many people have known for a long time – that we have known about the science of global warming for a long time.
For example, it was way back in 1859 that Irish physicist “John Tyndall found that carbon dioxide absorbed heat and that variations in the composition of the atmosphere could create changes in climate.”
These findings in turn inspired a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, who was a future Nobel laureate, to deduce in 1896 that the “combustion of coal and petroleum could raise global temperatures.” By 1939, British steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar had written in a paper, due to global warming, that we had become ‘‘able to speed up the processes of Nature.’’
Even by 1974, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on climate change, concluding that it had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.”
The journalist Nathanial Rich, who wrote the NYT piece, notes: “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences.”
The article argues, if we knew in the seventies “Why didn’t we act” Because “a common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. An entire subfield of climate literature has chronicled the machinations of industry lobbyists, the corruption of scientists and the propaganda campaigns that even now continue to debase the political debate, long after the largest oil-and-gas companies have abandoned the dumb show of denialism.”
However maybe big oil is not to blame after all, Rich contends, but actually even offered solutions in good faith. “But the coordinated efforts to bewilder the public did not begin in earnest until the end of 1989. During the preceding decade, some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.”
The article adds: “Nor can the Republican Party be blamed. Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that ‘most scientists believe global warming is occurring,’ and that percentage is falling.”
I am sure that many climate scientists and environmental campaigners would take issue with that. Indeed, many on twitter are:
As my colleague David Turnbull has noted on twitter: “it absolves some of the worst actors in this story of blame (as many others have said). The fossil fuel industry and their friends in Congress have stalled progress on climate change and there’s simply no denying that.”
Part of the problem is that by focussing on just one decade, Rich misses so much evidence relating to the global warming debate. Nearly thirty years to be precise.
And that evidence does show that the fossil fuel industry has been the main culprit in denying science, delaying action, and obfuscating the truth on climate. And that has been well documented by the likes of Naomi Oreskes, Greenpeace’s Exxon Secrets, Union of Concerned Scientists, the Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate team, and Robert Brulle, to name a few.
But an article of this length is due to be full of contradictions. Because Rich does give nuggets of the industry’s delaying tactics: By the late seventies, “Exxon decided to create its own dedicated carbon-dioxide research program, with an annual budget of $600,000. Only Exxon was asking a slightly different question than Jule Charney. Exxon didn’t concern itself primarily with how much the world would warm. It wanted to know how much of the warming Exxon could be blamed for.”
He adds: “A senior researcher named Henry Shaw had argued that the company needed a deeper understanding of the issue in order to influence future legislation that might restrict carbon-dioxide emissions. ‘‘It behooves us to start a very aggressive defensive program,’’ Shaw wrote in a memo to a manager, ‘‘because there is a good probability that legislation affecting our business will be passed.’’
Although many articles have been written about how #Exxonknew about the climate change problem since the eighties, in fact it was earlier. Rich outlines how:
“The company had been studying the carbon-dioxide problem for decades, since before it changed its name to Exxon. In 1957, scientists from Humble Oil published a study tracking ‘‘the enormous quantity of carbon dioxide’’ contributed to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution‘‘from the combustion of fossil fuels.’’ Even then, the observation that burning fossil fuels had increased the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was well understood and accepted by Humble’s scientists. What was new, in 1957, was the effort to quantify what percentage of emissions had been contributed by the oil-and-gas industry.”
Indeed as he points out, “The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s largest trade association, asked the same question in 1958 through its air-pollution study group and replicated the findings made by Humble Oil. So did another A.P.I. study conducted by the Stanford Research Institute a decade later, in 1968, which concluded that the burning of fossil fuels would bring “significant temperature changes” by the year 2000 and ultimately “serious worldwide environmental changes,” including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap and rising seas.”
Rich notes “The ritual repeated itself every few years. Industry scientists, at the behest of their corporate bosses, reviewed the problem and found good reasons for alarm and better excuses to do nothing. Why take on an intractable problem that would not be detected until this generation of employees was safely retired? Worse, the solutions seemed more punitive than the problem itself. Historically, energy use had correlated to economic growth — the more fossil fuels we burned, the better our lives became. Why mess with that?”
Indeed, why mess with that?
Because profit has always beaten planet or people. Profit has always come first. And that is where the article fails: Pull out quotes such as “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves,” are misleading.
What stood in the way is one of the most powerful industries ever seen, who copied the tactics of the tobacco industry to undertake one of the most sophisticated public relations strategies ever seen.
Rich is wrong when he says: “Everyone knew — and we all still know” or “Human nature has brought us to this place”.
It is the fossil fuel industry and their paid consultants and think tanks that have led us down this dangerous path. They knew and hid the truth and propagated doubt. Just as big tobacco tried to argue that people made an individual decision to smoke and they were not to blame (despite hiding the addictiveness of nicotine, and harmfulness of cigarettes for decades), big oil would love us to think we are all to blame. They would squeal with delight reading that.
They are already squealing: Energy in Depth, the research program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America blogged today: “Bombshell: New York Times Debunks #ExxonKnew Climate Campaign.” The Times doesn’t debunk #Exxonknew, it adds to it, although it just offers a confused narrative.
Indeed, you might have carried on smoking, reassured by the weasel words of big tobacco, or carry on using fossil fuels, because you think the science is not settled. Indeed, politicians have certainly argued that no action is needed after their ears are burnt by Big Oil. But the ground is burning too now. Take US congressman Doug LaMalfa who said last year that he “didn’t buy” human-made climate change. He made the comments near Redding, which has just been burnt to the ground.
We didn’t bring us to this dark place. But we will fight to get us out of it, as every day tens of millions of others fight too. The fossil fuel industry has stolen our past, but we won’t let them steal our future.
And back to the words that are missing are the ones that Rich supposedly spoke to a private dinner last night: “I think the fossil fuel industry is guilty of crimes against humanity.”
That is the conclusion he should have written. Those are the words that are missing from the New York Time’s longest ever piece on climate. #Rich knows too, he just didn’t write it, for they are the hardest words to write. Because they are speaking real truth to power.