'Losing Earth' Explores How Oil Industry Played Politics With Climate Change Journalist Nathaniel Rich says the oil industry helped create a partisan debate around climate change in the 1980s by paying scientists to write op-eds questioning climate science.

'Losing Earth' Explores How Oil Industry Played Politics With The Planet's Fate

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As we deal with more extreme weather around the world and hear more dire reports about the future impact of climate change, you have to wonder, why didn't we succeed in taking preventive measures sooner, before things had progressed? That's one of the key questions my guest Nathaniel Rich tries to answer in his new book, "Losing Earth: A Recent History." It's an expanded version of his report that the New York Times magazine devoted an entire issue to last August.

He focuses on the period from 1979 to '89, a period he describes as a time before the fossil fuel industry funded scientists to create doubt about the science of climate change and before the Republican Party adopted climate denialism as a central tenet. He focuses on the scientists, activists and political leaders who pushed for measures to limit carbon emissions and the political and corporate leaders who blocked them. We're also going to talk about where we are now with a president who doubts the science and a growing movement of young people insisting on action reversing the path we're on.

Nathaniel Rich, welcome to FRESH AIR. How much worse has the climate change problem gotten since your book ends in 1989?

NATHANIEL RICH: More carbon dioxide has been emitted into the atmosphere since the final page of the book basically, since the end of 1989, than in the history of civilization preceding it. So it's gotten a lot worse. Obviously, the political situation's gotten a lot worse as well. It's become a starkly partisan issue. I don't have to tell anyone that. And it seems like we are much further from a solution than we were 30 years ago.

GROSS: You write that, now, a long-term disaster is the best-case scenario. Would you explain that?

RICH: Yeah. Well, a certain amount of warming is baked in. And that's, you know, referring to some of the projections about 1 1/2 or 2 degrees Celsius warming above historical means, and there's all kinds of horrific scenarios that come with that. Of course, that's not nearly as bad as, you know, 3 degrees or 4 degrees or 5 degrees warming. But even when we talk about it in those terms, in sort of half degrees or full degrees warming, it's almost euphemistic because there's there's such dramatic differences even between, you know, 2 degrees and 2.1 degrees, 2.1 degrees and 2.2 degrees.

And I think one of the lies, sort of convenient dishonesties we have about the issue, one of the more benign ones, I guess, is that we think of it almost, like, in Hollywood terms, like, either we're going to win this thing, or we're going to suffer a crushing defeat. But of course, there's a huge range of outcomes in between. And at this point - yeah - where we're at, ranging from the not very good to the apocalyptic, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to better our situation as much as possible.

GROSS: Is there a moment when you think we came really close to seriously cutting back on the carbon emissions that are responsible for climate change during the period that you write about, '79 to '89?

RICH: Absolutely. From from '79 to '89, there are a series of efforts, escalating efforts, to first bring the issue to the attention of the powers that be, people at the highest levels of the federal government, and then to bring it to the public to generate public concern. And finally, in the middle of the decade, a solution materializes, which is a global treaty to reduce emissions that would be binding. And it's modeled after the ozone treaty that's then in process.

And by the end of the decade, we've reached the point of high-level diplomatic meetings to negotiate this binding global treaty. And we get to the precipice of an agreement on the framework of this treaty. And at the very last second, the U.S. pulls out, the story I tell in the book.

And so I think that, at least on paper, that's the closest we've come. I think you could have a reasonable, you know, debate about whether or not, if the U.S. did sign the treaty, they would have lived up - we would've lived up to the terms of it, whether other countries would have lived up to the terms of it even if it was binding. And that's a more, you know, complicated conversation to have. I think, at the very least, we'd be a lot further ahead than we are now. That seems indisputable.

GROSS: So what year did the U.S. pull out of this treaty? Who is the president, and why did we pull out?

RICH: So it's 1989. President is George H.W. Bush. And the previous summer, James Hansen, a NASA scientist who had become essentially the face of climate science, gave testimony before Congress in which he said, global warming is here. It's no longer a theory. We're seeing evidence of warming in global temperatures. It was the hottest summer in American history at the time.

And the story became a - it became a major public national story and to the point that even George Bush on the campaign stump gave speeches about it, was making promises that, as president, he would solve the problem then called the greenhouse effect as well. And he said, you know, those who think we can't solve the greenhouse effect haven't heard about the White House effect. And when I'm in the White House, you know, we'll solve it. And he gets to the White House.

James Baker, who's the new secretary of state, in his first major speech at the State Department, he invites the IPCC, the international organization under the auspices of the United Nations that's drafting - begins drafting a treaty. They have one of their first meetings at the State Department. And he endorses this program. And over the course of the year, you get to a meeting in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, a kind of coastal town on the North Sea.

That's the first high-level diplomatic meeting of - it's of environmental ministers from all over the world. Sixty-five countries or so come there. And there's a general sense that everyone's going to sign essentially a letter of intent that they will pursue a binding treaty to reduce global emissions. And at that meeting, the U.S. pulls out.

And the reason, at least the narrow political reason for that, is that over the course of that year, there had been a huge fight within the administration between William Riley, the head of Bush's EPA, and John Sununu, his chief of staff. And Sununu was highly skeptical of the science and suspicious of the motives of this treaty. And he was ultimately more powerful and won the argument, essentially, and was able to force the U.S. delegation to not accept anything that was binding. And at that point, the treaty became watered down.

GROSS: Do you think that some of these treaties are almost like masquerades where countries show up, and they look really great - like, we're going to do it - we're going to sign it - and then, at the last minute, you pull out? Like, it's almost like a game of chicken. Like, nobody really wants to do it, but everybody's waiting for somebody else to pull out - that no one really has the political will to make the sacrifices that need to be made.

RICH: Yeah. That's John Sununu's argument, basically. I spoke to him at length for the book. And he said, listen - I mean, he's totally unapologetic about his role in this. And I said, you know, do you claim responsibility for thwarting (laughter) any chance of a solution on this? And he said, I - essentially, he said, I wish I could. But in fact, I felt that we were the only honest brokers at the table and that the other countries weren't serious - that even though it was, you know, a quote, "binding agreement," essentially, what - you know, what's the country going to do if someone doesn't hit their targets? Are they going to bomb them? You know, are they going to have economic sanctions? I mean, of course not.

And in fact, the leader of the delegation, Allan Bromley, who was Bush's science adviser and was kind of Sununu's man in Noordwijk - he wrote a memoir in which he essentially said the same thing, that he said that - in conversations with other delegates, other environmental ministers - at Noordwijk, he asked them, you know, how are you going to hit these targets? Do you have plans, you know, to reduce emissions by 20 percent or whatever by a certain year? And they would say - a couple of them told him, well, no, but it's just a piece of paper. And, you know, no one's going to send us to jail.

And so I think, yes, it's - I think you have to take seriously that kind of cynical view. And I think you can't really take seriously Sununu's scientific opinions on this matter. But I think you can take seriously his skepticism about the power of these treaties.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Rich. He's the author of the new book, "Losing Earth: A Recent History." We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about climate change and why we haven't made more progress than we have. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nathaniel Rich, author of the new book "Losing Earth: A Recent History." It's about climate change and why we failed to solve the problem when we had the chance. The book focuses on 1979 to '89, looking at the scientists, politicians and the oil industry, the people who were leading the efforts to change and the people who were blocking them.

You said in an interview that you spent an enormous amount of time researching the oil industry and their efforts in blocking the efforts to curb carbon emissions. And you also said that it actually plays a very little part in your book. (Laughter) You didn't use much of your research. So why is that?

RICH: The industry has been following this issue for a long time. You know, there are studies from Exxon or even Humble Oil - the predecessor to Exxon - going back into the mid-1950s. And even then, those studies were not about whether or not this was happening. It was really - the question was, how much of the added CO2 in the atmosphere was because of Exxon, basically, because of the fossil fuel industry? And they continued to monitor this over the decades. There were, you know, occasional sort of CO2 working groups, study groups. This was going on, also, at the American Petroleum Institute - the big trade group for the oil and gas industry - and at some of the other companies.

And those efforts continued through the '80s. But it was never - during that decade - obviously, things have changed quite dramatically - but during that decade, it was never a high priority. And I spoke with a lot of people who worked in the industry during that time and people at the highest levels of API. And they really weren't concerned about it, in part because there was no serious efforts in D.C. to pass, you know, laws or policies to reduce emissions.

And it wasn't really until Hansen - James Hansen, the NASA scientist - spoke before Congress in '88 and generated a huge - sort of huge national headlines that they started to worry. And the story of how they began to mobilize this multidecadal effort to sow propaganda, disinformation, to buy off politicians and scientists and, ultimately, to convert an entire political party to denialism is - the seeds of that you see emerging in the weeks and months after the Hansen hearing. But before that, it was really on the back burner.

GROSS: So let's talk about how the oil industry's lobbying efforts changed at the end of the '80s, where your book ends. You write about how the American Petroleum Institute started funding a lobbying group. They formed the lobbying organization the Global Climate Coalition. And what did this lobbying group do to mobilize public opinion to be skeptical of climate science?

RICH: Yeah, it's sort of a remarkable turn of events in that after Hansen's hearing, there are these high-level conversations at the American Petroleum Institute and at Exxon about, essentially, what do we do about this? It seems clear that regulation is coming. You know, George Bush is talking about it, and so on.

And they essentially reached the same conclusions. They - Exxon and API - they say, we need to be an active participant in any kind of policy discussion. We need to burnish our credentials as, you know, scientific experts on the subject, so we have credibility in it. We need to make sure that the science - that the policy doesn't extend beyond what the science says. Emphasize uncertainty where it exists. That would become, you know, crucial later on. And then, perhaps most important, don't accept any policy that will hurt the bottom line. That's the beginning of it.

And then, as almost an afterthought at the time, API, through its press office, which is coordinating the press for this industry group Global Climate Coalition, starts to reach out to a couple of scientists who are friendly with the industry who have expressed some doubt about either the ozone or CO2. And they start encouraging them to speak to the press. Sometimes that encouragement takes the form of payouts. The head of the API program told me they gave $2,000 to a scientist whenever he wrote an op-ed for a national publication. And that is almost an afterthought at the time. It's pretty low on the totem pole of what they're doing. They're also meeting with congressmen and so on.

But it pays enormous dividends because all of a sudden, national news publications start quoting these scientists - and it's really a handful of people, four or five people - over and over again. And an issue that to this point has been a story about, you know, fear of what's going to happen, all of a sudden has two sides. And of course, that's like catnip, (laughter), for journalists. And all of a sudden, you have a number of pieces that start to appear that say maybe there's not scientific consensus about this problem.

GROSS: Right. But generating controversy around climate change, where, it sounds like before, it wasn't - there weren't people denying it. There were people saying - based on your research, there were people saying, well, we don't really know for sure how bad things are going to be. Do we really want to risk the economy over science that's not kind of nailed down yet? We don't know what the consequences will be or when they'll be, exactly, so let's kind of keep the status quo as long as we can.

So it goes from that to, like, the whole notion of climate change is controversial. There's two sides. So is that, like, one of the innovations of the late '80s, making it, like, controversial with two sides and one of the sides saying this science really might not be true at all?

RICH: Yeah. Exactly. And it starts almost tentatively. It starts with saying, well, it's not as certain as we think, as people say, as James Hansen says it is. There's problems with the climate models, the computer models that, you know, Hansen uses. And then it goes into, we really don't know what, you know, the regional effects will be. And it grows and grows. It's almost like they're encouraged by their success, and they become more and more brazen. And then ultimately, you get, after a number of years, into the '90s, you get into this bizarro universe where, all of a sudden, they're questioning the basic fundamental science itself. And of course, that science goes back not to just 1979 but to the late 19th century about, you know, what's the effect of pumping a bunch of CO2 into the atmosphere and what warming will that cause?

And so it's - we've entered this weird funhouse realm where now, if you jump ahead to the present day, you have a political party, the only major political party in the world, that endorses a position that's essentially to the right, even, of what the industry now says in their public statements. You know, Exxon publicly today doesn't deny climate change, but you have a party that does. And so it's - I think it's something that future historians will spend a lot of time piecing out, is how this sort of little lie grew into a big lie and overwhelmed our politics.

GROSS: Do you think it's fair to say that the fossil fuel industry invented the idea of climate denial?

RICH: Yeah. I think that's fair to say.

GROSS: OK. This is interesting. You say that the industry, the fossil fuel industry, saw an upside to the warming trends of climate change. What was the upside for them?

RICH: Well, there are a few. I mean, drilling in the Arctic is one of them, which you see starting to happen now.

GROSS: Drilling in the Arctic because of the permafrost melting?

RICH: Yeah because - yeah, the ice melting (laughter). And so that opens up shipping passages, and you can get to more oil. And of course, they were studying that back in the '80s, as well, you know, licking their chops (laughter). And but also, one of the early findings from API was that in a warmer world, you'd need more energy. Essentially, more air conditioning. And that would, you know, further industry profits.

GROSS: My guest is Nathaniel Rich, author of the new book "Losing Earth: A Recent History." We'll talk more about climate change, and what stood in the way of taking action to stop or slow it and how young activists today are redefining the issue after we take a short break. We'll also hear Ken Tucker's review of Billie Eilish's debut album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nathaniel Rich, author of the new book "Losing Earth: A Recent History." It's about climate change and why we didn't take action sooner to stop or at least slow it. Rich examines the period from 1979 to 1989, a period he describes as a time before the fossil fuel industry funded scientists to create doubt about the science of climate change and before the Republican Party adopted climate denialism as a central tenet. He focuses on the scientists, activists and political leaders who pushed for measures to limit carbon emissions and the political and corporate leaders who blocked them.

So we were just talking about the oil industry's role in obstructing movement forward on stopping climate change. Politicians played a strong role in this, too. One of the centerpieces of your book is the NASA scientist James Hansen testifying before Congress about carbon emissions, climate change and what we're in store for if we don't move forward. And his testimony - you can say it was suppressed. You could say it was censored. I don't know what word you want to use. But the H.W. Bush administration tried to stop him from saying what he planned on saying. Tell us who tried to do it and how.

RICH: Yeah, this is something that had not been known. And one of the things I most wanted to figure out was that after Hansen testifies in 1988 - of course, and he's been testifying all decade - but in '88 he gets this huge amount of attention - and in 1989, he's due to go back. And this is right as negotiations are really getting started on a global treaty. And John Sununu is fighting this.

And his testimony comes back not only with deletions but also with absurd, new language, essentially to the effect that no regulatory policy should be introduced if it at all forces the U.S. to suffer economically - of course, nothing a scientist would say in any context. And he's outraged, understandably. And he takes this testimony to Al Gore, who's then a senator and leading the hearing. And Gore calls The New York Times. And they run a huge story about it. And it becomes a major scandal. And in fact, it generates more support for climate policy than Hansen could have done by himself.

And it had been unknown, you know, who was responsible for that? At the time, the White House claimed it was some bureaucrat five levels down from the top. I asked John Sununu if he knew anything about it. And he said, yeah, I did (laughter). I was responsible for it - that he told Richard Darman, the head of the OMB at the time, to censor it. He didn't think that Hansen's claims had merit. And he tried to stop it.

GROSS: How much of a scientist was John Sununu?

RICH: He considered himself a scientist. He considered himself...

GROSS: On what grounds? (Laughter).

RICH: ...An old engineer. I mean, on fairly legitimate grounds. He got a Ph.D. in - I believe in fluid engineering. And he had taught. And he even taught a - he taught at MIT. He even taught a class about science and public policy. And so he still - he fashioned himself, you know, an expert and smarter than any of the scientists whose work he was reviewing. And he - because he had done some computer modeling, although of a very different sort, as a Ph.D. student, he felt that that gave him the authority to say that Hansen's computer modeling about climate - extremely sophisticated computer programs that he was running - were inaccurate and bad. And that was sort of the foundation of his argument of why, you know, this climate science stuff was made up.

GROSS: So let's jump to where we are today. Let's start with President Trump and his administration. Do you consider President Trump a climate skeptic or a climate denier?


RICH: It almost seems to sort of confer too much dignity to give him either of those terms. I mean, a denier. He's certainly a denier. But you know, that's almost like - we're engaging now in a kind of fantasy realm that it is - to say, even, that he's a denier suggests that he's actually - sort of thinks about it and has weighed the science. And I don't think that's what we're really talking about when it comes to the president.

GROSS: But there are people in his administration, I think, who are pretty hardcore skeptics or deniers. Who are some of those people?

RICH: Oh, gee. Yeah. Well, I mean, Scott Pruitt, now deposed; Ryan Zinke, now deposed, basically - Andrew Wheeler. So the - you know, Pruitt, head of EPA, replaced by Wheeler; Zinke, the interior. Myron Ebell's sort of an old denier who's within the administration. Just about every person, I think - Rick Perry, head of energy. It's the whole party.

I mean, you - I don't think - it's hard today, at least at the national level, to be a viable candidate on the right and accept scientific consensus on climate change. It's endemic. And it's - at this point, I think it's constitutional. It's a central tenet of Republicanism.

GROSS: So one of President Trump's first actions was to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. What are some of his other - what are some of the other things he's done to block any momentum forward on stopping - on limiting carbon emissions?

RICH: Oh, trying to roll back just about every, you know, policy that President Obama introduced, trying to roll back clean air standards, emissions from coal factories, mileage standards - CAFE standards, they're called - you name it, all-out assault. And not just on climate but on any kind of environmental protection, I should say. And you know, I guess the only silver lining is that something like the Paris accord, it's - you know, he can withdraw, but the formal withdrawal doesn't happen for a couple of years, and even then the treaty is voluntary to begin with, so it's more of a political statement than anything else. But rolling back emission standards is probably at the top of the list of the bad things that are going on.

But I think more destructive is just this peddling of this kind of - this fantasy, and essentially - I mean, it's connected to a lot of other stuff you see in the administration, a basic affront on objective reality, and you see that extends beyond the climate conversation and into, you know, the conversation we're having about news and reporting and historical fact and all the rest.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Rich, and his new book is called "Losing Earth: A Recent History." We'll talk more about climate change after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Rich, author of the new book, "Losing Earth: A Recent History." It's about climate change and why we failed to solve the problem when we maybe had the chance. The book focuses on 1979 to '89, looking at the scientists, the politicians and the fossil fuel industry, looking at the people leading the efforts to change and the people blocking those efforts.

One of the things I know you've thought about a lot is what is the best way to motivate change at the political level and also just at the behavioral level, but - what we do in our daily lives? Is it through terrifying people with apocalyptic scenarios? Like, what is the best way to motivate change? What are some of your thoughts about that?

RICH: Yeah, this has been a big debate, particularly within the activist community, for a while now about - you know, it's essentially a marketing question; how do we get people to care about this problem and prioritize it? And is fear the best approach? Is hope and, you know, inspiring people? I think that the trend has been towards the latter more. I feel like...

GROSS: Toward hope?

RICH: Towards hope, you know, that people need positive stories...

GROSS: But one of books on the bestseller list now is a book by David Wallace-Wells who spells out really terrifying scenarios about what will happen if we don't, you know, seriously limit carbon emissions. And I think people are very interested in that book, judging by its place on the bestseller list.

RICH: Yeah, I think David's made a really valuable contribution there, and it's an honest book. But I think this whole conversation between, you know, hope or despair is itself a kind of - sort of an entry-level engagement with the issue, and I think it's a particularly an American phenomenon. I don't think, you know, the Germans are maybe particularly optimistic or Scandinavians. You know, some of these countries that are way ahead of us in terms of climate policy, I don't think they force-feed hope to their citizens to get them to care about the issue.

And I feel like we're adults here (laughter), and we should be able to talk about both the worst-case scenarios and some, you know, optimistic, hopeful things that are going on and talk about the complexity of the issue and, you know, talk about not only our hopes for the future but our failures to this point and our democracy's failures to this point. And there's no - to reduce it down to hope versus fear itself seems to me kind of a form of dishonesty, and I think - you know, I'm all for activists figuring out the best way to motivate people to vote, but I think there's more to the story than that, and that's what I've tried to write about.

GROSS: Do you think the hope versus despair motivational debate has to do with the fact that forward momentum has been blocked from so many directions - from the industry, from climate deniers, from, you know, politicians - and so the obstacles to moving forward are so great that something very motivational has to be done to counteract that through hope or despair?

RICH: Yeah, I think there's a huge amount of bitterness and frustration among people who care about this issue, you know.

GROSS: Because - I just want to say, to elaborate on what I was saying, that the countries that - other countries you mentioned, they don't have climate deniers...

RICH: Right.

GROSS: ...Who are saying, hey, this isn't even a thing; this is just, like, fake science.

RICH: Yeah, and that's true. And I think what's interesting now about the way the conversation has turned in recent months - I mean, really since the midterms - is you have this major youth movement emerging. You see it in talk of a Green New Deal; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's, you know, speeches about it; you see it coming from the students in the Sunrise Movement when they sat in in Nancy Pelosi's office after the election to demand climate action; you see it in these student walkouts; Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who's been leading and has become a global phenomenon.

Those students, those people, those young people and the young leaders are no longer, you know, worried about, you know, engaging into this denialist thing; they're making a different kind of argument. They're saying that failure to act is harming us, is killing us, that you, you know, elders who are failing to act are stealing our future away from us. And that inaction at this point is not only stupid, which is what sort of activists have been saying forever, but is wrong, is morally wrong, and it undermines the very basis of our society. And I think that's a more powerful argument, and I frankly think politically that's a more powerful argument as well. I think it's also a more honest argument. They are appealing to a moral high ground. And I think that's enormously powerful.

GROSS: And making it a life-and-death issue.

Would you describe what you think the major takeaways are from the Green New Deal that was proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey?

RICH: Yeah. Well, you know, it's a statement of principles primarily. It's not a law. It's not a bill. In some ways, it's - in some of the particulars, it's less ambitious than bills that were proposed and introduced into Congress at the end of the '80s by both Republicans and Democrats. But I think what distinguishes it and what makes it a truly transformational document is that it identifies the climate crisis as connected to every form, essentially, of social injustice that we have. And I think that's the only honest way of looking at it.

You know, climate change victimizes the victimized. You know, it oppresses the oppressed. So the worse off you are - the more marginalized you are, the worse you're going to suffer from what's coming. And so it's extremely valuable in that it says that, you know, climate change is not just one item on this sort of menu of political items, but it's the one that encompasses them all and that there's no such thing as - you know, you can't have social justice if there's not climate justice. You can't have a civil society if - a stable society if you don't have a stable climate.

And I think that's a profound argument and an honest one. It puts it into moral terms in a way that is new in Washington. And I think that is enormously valuable. You know, you can get into the debate about how best to achieve certain goals, and those are important policy debates to have. But it's reframed the issue dramatically and, I think, critically.

GROSS: OK. So you're 39. What are the things you're most concerned about seeing in terms of climate change in your lifetime and in your children's lifetime?

RICH: I think the most immediate way that we will feel this, as members of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is the effect on geopolitical instability. When you have huge stresses on people, particularly in the developing world, who can no longer live the place they've been living, they have to leave. And I think you'd see...

GROSS: Because of drought or floods.

RICH: So drought - yeah, drought or flood. So I think the projections have it that there'll be enormous spikes in, you know, migration all over the world. It's already started, of course. But it will only become more intense.

And when you have huge masses of people moving from, you know, like, one country to another, one region to another, it introduces enormous amounts of stress. And essentially, what we're talking about is - war is the ultimate outcome there. And so the fear then becomes of some kind of major global war that's sparked by stresses from climate change.

GROSS: Nathaniel Rich, thank you so much for talking with us.

RICH: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Nathaniel Rich is the author of the new book "Losing Earth: A Recent History."

After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album by the 17-year-old singer Billie Eilish. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


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