The story laments a lost opportunity when climate change was a bipartisan issue from 1979 to 1989. But another bipartisan change was happening too.
It’s obvious why controversy engulfed The New York Times Magazine’s 31,000-word opus on climate change before it was even published online Wednesday morning.
The story, titled “Losing Earth,” takes an ambitiously nuanced stab at anthropogenic global warming. Writer Nathaniel Rich chronicles the years from 1979 to 1989, a window when the science made clear that greenhouse gases were warming the planet and the fossil fuel industry’s big-tobacco-style misinformation campaign hadn’t yet warped the debate or weaponized the Republican Party into full-scale denial. The story is a rumination on regret, a deliberate attempt to step beyond the orthodoxies of climate messaging of clear-cut villains and urgent calls for change and instead dwell on what could have been, had policymakers acted rationally. It’s an exercise in hindsight.
In doing so, Rich pats on the back Republicans like President George H.W. Bush and then-Sens. John Chafee (R.I.), Robert Stafford (Vt.) and David Durenberger (Minn.), who at the time “called for urgent, immediate and far-reaching climate policy,” Rich writes. He acknowledges the fossil fuel industry as a “common boogeyman” but credits companies like Exxon and Shell with making “good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions,” at least in the early stages.
The villain, he concludes with the sort of heady literary flourish that distinguishes magazine writing from other journalism, is humanity’s incapacity for proactive planning. Faced with an existential threat, policymakers in the world’s richest and most powerful nation neglected even the most basic tools at their disposal.