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

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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Posted by dana1981 on Monday, 6 August, 2018

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