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True Crimes

Why it’s important to name names when discussing the climate catastrophe

It appears that I owe Nathaniel Rich an apology. No, really, I mean this (brace yourselves) sincerely. I’ve never met or exchanged so much as a word with the novelist and New York Times contributor, author of the slim yet important new volume Losing Earth: A Recent History, but I have wronged him nonetheless.

The offense occurred last summer, amid the furious response to Rich’s full issue-length cover story for The New York Times Magazine, also titled “Losing Earth” and hyped as the magazine’s longest piece ever, a veritable epic, in which he argued that “we” came close to “solving” climate change in 1989 and that “our” failure to do so rests primarily on something called “human nature” rather than the actions of a rich and powerful few. This framing conveniently waved away the decades-long record of deceit and obstruction by the carbon lobby and the politicians (mainly but by no means exclusively Republicans) who do its bidding. At the height of the controversy—which, admittedly, seems to have raged mainly on “climate Twitter”—I came across a tweet that caused me to lose my shit. In said tweet, HuffPost reporter Alexander Kaufman, who was generously inclined to cut Rich some slack, wrote this:

FWIW, when asked about that critique [i.e., that his piece lets the industry and Republicans off easy] at a private dinner last night, @NathanielRich said these words: “I think the fossil fuel industry is guilty of crimes against humanity.”

I took the bait and retweeted that bit of gossip with the following comment:

WTF? Then WRITE THAT. Coward.

Not my most eloquent utterance, and yet quite a few people on Twitter and elsewhere—most of them, unsurprisingly, climate experts and advocates—agreed with my snap judgment of Rich’s character.

However, now that I’ve read Losing Earth, the book, which differs in subtle and not-subtle ways from the magazine article, I have to say I’m sorry for leaping to the conclusion that its author lacks a moral spine. Because far from letting the industry and its political servants off the hook, the book—which deemphasizes the sketchy “human nature” bit—ends with a full-throated, fire-and-brimstone indictment of the carbon lobby and its ongoing denial and delaying tactics (what Alex Steffen has termed “predatory delay”), even calling them by their proper name. “The morality of these tactics can only be described as sociopathic,” he writes. “It is not yet widely understood, though it will be, that when a government relaxes regulations on coal-fired plants or erases scientific data from a federal website, it is guilty of more than merely bowing to corporate interests; it commits crimes against humanity.”

Rich’s book deemphasizes the sketchy “human nature” bit and ends with a full-throated, fire-and-brimstone indictment of the carbon lobby.

In other words, he does in fact write that. Who knows why the magazine article lacked this particular form of clarity, but it looks like Rich got religion (so to speak) on this matter, if he didn’t have it all along, repeatedly quoting Pope Francis and going all jeremiad-like, writing something you’d expect more from such scourges of the industry as Naomi Klein or Bill McKibben, or, for that matter, me.

And for taking this stance, no doubt, Rich will face from some quarters the typical, boring charge of “hypocrisy” or “preaching righteously” to the choir. (Trust me, I’ve been there.) But that’s the risk one takes when mounting a moral argument about climate change, or any number of other issues, within the precincts of elite mainstream media.

So, to be clear, I have much respect for Rich and his project here. Losing Earth is an important, useful, and commendable little book. But it still has, to my eye, certain puzzling gaps or blind spots in the way it’s framed and in some of the conclusions it reaches.

For those who missed the magazine epic, Losing Earth is a brief narrative history of the climate issue’s early years, focusing on the decade 1979 to 1989, when it appeared there would be a serious U.S.-led effort to tackle the problem, but which turned out to be (surprise!) not so serious after all. Like the novelist he is (Odds Against Tomorrow), Rich comes in close on a pair of key players who become his protagonists: the environmentalist and lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and the leading NASA climatologist James Hansen, whose historic congressional testimony in 1988 helped put carbon dioxide emissions on the national and global agenda. With much diligent digging and reporting, Rich shows how they and others (including a young Senator Al Gore) came tantalizingly close to convincing powerful figures in the U.S. government to push through a binding international treaty in 1989 to freeze and then reduce carbon emissions 20 percent by 2005. Rich claims this would have held warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (the current United Nations aspiration), thus averting catastrophe. (Global emissions today are at record levels, and warming of 1.5 degrees and beyond is all but guaranteed.)

It’s not clear why Rich concludes (he cites no source) that reducing emissions a mere 20 percent by 2005 would have been sufficient to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, or why he believes that one international treaty, even if “binding,” would have accomplished that reduction—as though the treaty’s seamless and punctual implementation by scores of governments were simply a given. Nor is it clear why he thinks that limiting warming to 1.5C would have meant saving Earth instead of “losing” it. As we now know, even 1C (roughly our current level of warming over the average temperature of the late nineteenth century) is melting the Arctic at an accelerating rate and bringing devastating impacts around the world, suffered first and foremost by the global poor. From whose perspective, exactly, would another half degree mean “solving” climate change?

To treat denial and predatory delay in isolation, as the strategy of one rogue corporate lobby, is to overlook the role of our prevailing form of capitalism.

Also central to Rich’s framing, significantly, is his observation that as of the late-1980s, the fossil-fuel industry, and by extension the Republican Party, had yet to embark on its coordinated strategy of disinformation and obstruction (though he duly documents the fact that Big Oil was well aware of its business model’s climate consequences much earlier), and thus can’t be blamed for the Bush administration’s decision to torpedo negotiations for a binding global treaty in 1989. Instead, he explains, it was due to the staunch opposition of Bush chief of staff John Sununu and White House economic advisers, unwilling to risk slowing near-term economic growth for the sake of future generations. Left unsaid is that the White House opposition was of a piece with the free-market ideology that had triumphed with Reagan and has remained largely unchallenged for the past thirty years—an ideology shared and promoted by central players within the fossil-fuel lobby, most prominently the billionaire Koch brothers and their network. In other words, the climate denialism of ensuing years can’t be so easily separated from the neoliberal ideology it has always served. To treat denial and predatory delay in isolation, as some sort of aberration, the strategy of one rogue corporate lobby, is to overlook the role of our prevailing form of capitalism and its antidemocratic political system.

Rich is right that the Earth is “lost,” if one means the planetary conditions under which human civilization has existed. Indeed, any climate narrative written from this vantage point is bound to be a losers’ history. (For the winners’ version, see the annual reports and other propaganda efforts of ExxonMobil and its fellow carbon giants.) But it wasn’t “lost” at that moment in 1989, as the result of one failed treaty. Yes, a large amount of climate damage was guaranteed by the world’s failure to act decisively thirty years ago, but at every step since there has always been the opportunity to take the actions necessary to limit the damage and avoid the worst-case scenarios. The carbon lobby and its allies, who have slowed and obstructed action ever since 1989—not only in the United States but globally—must bear the bulk of responsibility for the situation we’re now in, where even the best-case scenarios are extremely grim.

Establishing this culpability, holding the carbon lobby and its co-conspirators accountable for unprecedented crimes against humanity, is no mere exercise in self-righteousness or moral purity, as cynics across the political spectrum would have us believe. (The charge of murder doesn’t depend upon the righteousness of the accuser; one can be a hypocrite—as many, perhaps all, of us are to some degree—and still be right.) The point is that moral accountability for climate catastrophe matters not just morally but politically. Rich understands this. In his new conclusion, he writes, “When popular movements have managed to transform public opinion in a brief amount of time, forcing the passage of major legislation, they have done so on the strength of a moral claim” that helps people see the human stakes. 

Another writer unafraid of moral clarity about denial and obstruction is New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, who doesn’t balk at calling climate catastrophe genocidal. In his recently published The Uninhabitable Earth, a major contribution to the climate literature and a surprise best seller to boot, he cites research showing that at least 150 million additional lives, and quite possibly far more, could be lost in a world 2 degrees Celsius warmer (rather than 1.5 degrees) —“the equivalent of twenty-five Holocausts.” Of the fossil-fuel industry’s “disinformation-and-denial campaigns” he writes, “a generation from now, oil-backed denial will likely be seen as among the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being as have been perpetrated in the modern world.”

Wallace-Wells, too, sees a connection between the moral and the political, though he’s skeptical that pinning blame on industry-backed “villains” will yield much in the way of tangible results, arguing that “climate denialism has captured just one political party in one country in the world.” I’m afraid this defines “denialism” a bit too narrowly—plenty of Democrats (and a few remaining moderate Republicans) claim to accept climate science while continuing to support energy policies that make a mockery of that same science—and it says nothing about predatory delay. The carbon lobby’s reach extends far beyond the United States, deep into the heart of the UN negotiating process that gave us the farcical Paris Agreement, a codification of genocidal corporate-backed magical thinking.

“A generation from now, oil-backed denial will likely be seen as among the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being as have been perpetrated in the modern world.”

It’s impossible to imagine the sort of radical economic and political transformation necessary at this late date—something like a comprehensive, global Green New Deal, putting the fossil-fuel industry out of business within the next couple of decades—without breaking the carbon lobby’s death-grip on the U.S. (and not only the U.S.) political system. Weakening that grip has been among the central goals of the American and global climate-justice movement since at least 2011 and 2012, when it launched the Keystone XL fight (galvanizing grassroots “Keep It in the Ground” resistance to fossil-fuel infrastructure projects everywhere) and the global fossil-fuel divestment campaign that has successfully undermined the industry’s credibility and business model with an explicitly moral argument.

So it’s odd that Rich essentially ignores the existence of the climate movement. Rich even calls for a popular campaign, fueled by moral outrage, to hold deniers and obstructionists accountable—as though the actually existing climate movement hasn’t already brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, organized thousands of acts of civil disobedience, inspired a new generation of young activists, and fundamentally shifted the debate around climate and the fossil-fuel industry in precisely the kind of moral terms Rich is advocating. Where does he think the Green New Deal, which he cites approvingly, came from? Contrary to popular myth, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led Sunrise Movement did not emerge fully formed from the head of a god in the fall of 2018. They emerged from the climate-justice movement that has been building for more than a decade.

But the truth, it’s increasingly clear, is that a climate movement will never be enough on its own. What the situation now requires (as I’ve recently argued) is something larger and more fundamental: a nonviolent revolutionary movement for democracy and human rights that is powerful enough to overthrow a political system owned and controlled by corporations and private wealth. Otherwise, the only histories to be read will be the so-called winners’—however short-lived their “victory” may be.