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Musing about Losing Earth

The NY Times Magazine has a special issue this weekend on climate change. The main article is “Losing the Earth” by Nathaniel Rich, is premised on the idea that in the period 1979 to 1989 when we basically knew everything we needed to know that climate change was a risk, and the politics had not yet been polarized, we missed our opportunity to act. Stated this way, it would probably be uncontroversial, but since the article puts the blame for this on “human nature”, rather than any actual humans, extensive Twitter discussion ensues…

Before we link to some of the more thoughtful responses, a quick reminder that a lot of people read the NY Times magazine (far more than follow any climate scientists on Twitter or Facebook), and that as David Roberts at Vox has pointed out, having differently-told climate stories – even if they are manifestly imperfect, might help broaden the conversation and basic awareness that this is a story worth delving into. Secondly, the last big NY Times magazine story I remember related to climate was the execrable profile of Freeman Dyson – a fascinating topic in theory, but one which focused on the least interesting thing about him – a barely warmed up stew of stale climate skepticism.

The article itself is supported by a lot of background work, some visually stunning photography by George Steinmetz and lesson plans hosted by the Pulitzer Center.

So, here is some of the more interesting commentary:

From Emily Atkin at New Republic:

“Losing Earth” is an impressive piece of journalism for several reasons. One is simply that it’s the Times’ longest-ever article—and it’s about global warming. This comes at a time when much of the news media is failing to live up to its responsibilities covering climate change, an issue that affects the entire population, hundreds of ecosystems, and every economic sector. Rich’s story, too, is proof that the climate story can be told in an engaging—fast-moving, human-centric, funny, and frustrating—way.

And the insights about human nature are worth pondering. “We’re a medium-term species,” he said in April. “We plan ahead, but only so far. We’re willing to sacrifice comfort in the present for security in the future, but within reason.” But the fossil fuel industry and Republicans know that, and have successfully exploited it for the last thirty years. “Losing Earth” is thus not the whole story of human’s failure to act on climate change. Its flaw is that it’s painted as such.

From Leah Stokes:

From Alex Steffen:

Both Climate Progress and Huffington Post have quotes from scientists (including Mike Mann, Bob Brulle, Jennifer Francis and David Titley) who are generally not supportive of the main conclusion.

Naomi Klein has her own idea of whose fault it was:

When I looked at the same period, I came to a very different conclusion: that what at first seemed like our best shot at lifesaving climate action had in retrospect suffered from an epic case of historical bad timing. Because what becomes clear when you look back at this juncture is that just as governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.

The failure to make even a passing reference to this other global trend that was unfolding in the late ’80s represents an unfathomably large blind spot in Rich’s piece.

At this point in a post, I’m supposed to summarise all of this and give my own informed opinion but… truth be told, I’m on vacation, and I haven’t got around to reading it all yet. So rather than demonstrate my own confirmation bias, let’s open it up. Maybe I’ll have something to say later this week…

207 Responses to “Musing about Losing Earth”

  1. 1
  2. 2
    Lance Olsen says:

    Early in the NY Times piece, Rich declared that two familiar villains — Republicans and the fossil fuel industry — were not to blame. That claim was clearly incorrect, resulting in criticism galore for letting them off the hook.

    However, readers who slogged through the entire piece would have found reason to think that Rich contradicts his opening declaration, because he heaps blame aplenty on them both, naming names as well as pointing fingers. What happened was Rich derailed many readers early on. He would have been better off, and his readers better prepared to understand his argument, if he’d said from the onset that the two familiar villains aren’t to blame alone.

    In stating his case for shared responsibility, he deprives many of the easy answer, the narrowing of responsibility to well-identified villains, and dares to suggest that we all had a hand in creating this mess. That argument has prompted some revealing criticism of its own.

    Climate change denial has always been partly a matter of denial of responsibility, and the angry, huffy rejection of Rich’s central thesis is demonstration that this form of denial is going to be a major challenge.

  3. 3
    Roger Albin says:

    While Rich’s narrative has factual defects (see the useful summary by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic), the major problem is the framing in the Prologue and Epilogue, which include explicit statements exculpating fossil fuel industries and the Republican Party. Instead, an effort is made to shift the blame to all of us via basic features of human nature. All these conclusions are contradicted by Rich’s own narrative. An example can be seen in Rich’s description of the 1989 Noordwijk conference, -“the first major diplomatic meeting on global warming.” This meeting was expected to result in a consensus statement endorsing a hard cap on CO2 emissions. It did not, and the key actor obstructing progress was the US delegation, a product of Bush I administration policies. If reaction to the long time horizon of global warming is such cognitive challenge, why were the considerable majority of nations willing to endorse a hard cap? Are Americans uniquely cognitively impaired?
    The Republicans controlled the Executive Branch throughout this period and while Rich shows that there were Republican politicians (largely the now extinct moderate Republicans) with sensible views, his narrative clearly shows several examples of Republican obstructionism. As is clear from Rich’s narrative, and as is well known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of this period, hostility towards environmental regulation was a fundamental feature of an increasingly rightwing Republican party. As for the fossil fuels industries, if they weren’t highly active in lobbying against appropriate action, it was because they didn’t have to make strong lobbying efforts. With friends like John Sununu in power, strong lobbying efforts were unnecessary.

    Naomi Klein is correct that Rich’s failure to situate the Republican reaction to global warming in the context of Reagan-Bush era neoliberalism is a major flaw. Free-market fundamentalism was the basic ideological construct justifying Reagan-Bush neoliberalism. The existence of an externality that threatens our civilization fatally undermines the claims of neoliberalism.

  4. 4
    Richard Yates says:

    The criticisms quoted here are all valid. Yes, it is true that the fossil fuel industry and those politicians that they donate to can be fairly identified as bearing more responsibility than others. And, yes, it feels good to say so.

    Yet, what I take as the central point of the NY Times piece, that humans are not designed for collective long-range planning is also true. It would be a mistake to throw out this observation. The premise of the critics is “if only if had not been for the fossil fuel industry, etc, the problem would have been solved.” THAT is not a valid conclusion. Because we do not collectively plan well, a shown endlessly by history, I think we might very well have been in about the same place as we are now.

    I think the critics of the article, and many climate activists, are stuck in an odd delusion about how bad things are. In trying to convince skeptics, they lose sight of how much worse it probably is than they portray in these arguments. Consider who we recently elected president – who tens of millions of people voted for. Consider who has most of the money. Consider the evidence that fatal tipping points have already been reached. Consider the immense pressures for growth in the third world. Really take to heart the devastating fact that we have done nothing at all to slow down warming. Saying that “the problem is now bigger and action must be taken more quickly than ever” is naive in light of the realities of our species’ psychology and politics.

    The broad story of our evolution, as it will be explained in the Intergalactic Museum, may be that an oddly intelligent primate discovered technology far to soon to be able to avoid self-extinction by its very use.

    I would be happy to be proven wrong, and I do contribute my votes, my time and my money, but I’m afraid it is probably futile.

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Larry Gilman says:

    Naomi Klein gets it about right: for understanding look to economic interests and power politics, historical particularities and particular decisions by interested parties, not to “human nature,” which is inclusive or at least permissive of everything that human beings have ever been or done, in all its mind-blowing variety, and is therefore useless for causal understanding: it is the non-thing that can explain anything, chin-stroking about cognitive psychology notwithstanding. I can’t think of a more vapid construct to conjure with, any phrase surer to end up a mere reification of one’s biases. Would any serious historian touch it?

  7. 7
    Toby Thaler says:

    I believe Naomi Klein’s comment is accurate. The NYTimes itself has a huge blind spot when it comes to reporting on the “neoliberal revolution” and its consequences (one being addiction to growth). For example, the Times’ lead economist pontificator, Paul Krugman, doesn’t understand the biophysical limitations to economic growth:

    Some further commentary on that point:

    Rich’s NYTimes piece is good history, but ignoring the political-economic systems’ unbreakable connections to ecological systems is what allows him to conclude “if only we hadn’t elected Reagan…” etc. Absurd.

  8. 8
    Adam R says:

    Ah, a comment of typical utility from Connolley. How could the conversation proceed without his pungent insight?

  9. 9
    Roger Albin says:

    Mr. Yates – If some general feature of human nature is at fault, how did we ever get the Montreal Protocol? Or the interesting resource conservation efforts described by Elinor Ostrom? Humans are certainly capable of long-term planning. To return to Naomi Klein’s point, long-term planning is precisely the type of behavior disparaged by neoliberal market fundamentalism. Untrammeled markets are inevitably driven by short-term considerations and if markets are always the answer, why bother to think about problems? In addition, the key actor is the US government. The structure of the American political system makes obstructing significant reform relatively easy and our system is unusually susceptible to special interest lobbying.

    The vigorous lobbying efforts of US fossil fuel interests since the early 1990s demonstrates that appropriate responses to global warming were definitely feasible. If humans are so clueless that we can’t figure out what to do, why did fossil fuel industries expend significant effort on lobbying? With a solid scientific consensus, the success of the Montreal Protocol negotiations, successful and easily visible North American efforts to control acid rain, and a Democratic administration in the White House (with Al Gore as VP), real progress on climate change mitigation was definitely possible.

  10. 10
    Susan Anderson says:

    Read it. Please read it all. Don’t prebake an opinion.

    Lots of interesting stuff in there.

  11. 11
    Hank Roberts says:

    > how did we ever get the Montreal Protocol?

    That was about an imminent short term problem, a situation in which we dodged a bullet:

    But look at the longer term examples: lead paint, leaded gasoline, antibiotic overuse in agriculture. Sigh.

  12. 12
    BIll Duncan says:

    I read the whole peace in the NYT and I agree with a number of the criticisms above. Nevertheless the one over riding thing I think for me was that it reinforced that man made climate change is a classic tragedy of the commons and we do all indeed share the blame for inaction and a failure so far to really get to grips with the problem. Sure the FF industry and others have been malfeasant and it is undoubtedly true that the new liberalist free market fundamentalism of those years with its deregulatory focus was a major drag. But we all enjoyed the lifestyle, we all consumed with little thought for tomorrow and we all continue to consume like there is no tomorrow.

    I’m doubtful that effective action will happen until the public demand for action becomes clamorous. But that won’t happen until the pain of impacts is at least as bad as the pain of lifestyle changes that may be necessary to tackle the problem. But by that point huge damage is already in the pipeline. That for me was the takeaway from the peace and in that regard it’s another bugle call to action.

  13. 13
    Victor says:

    The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

    Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

    “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

    All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

    “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”


  14. 14
    nigelj says:

    The NY Times should be praised for publishing a detailed history, a bit of a “magnum opus”, that made an effort to be unbiased. I also think there does appear to have been a brief period of mutual political agreement.

    However the writers excuse making for the Republicans in the summary statements is in obvious conflict with the articles very own detailed history, and the writers excuse making for the fossil fuel companies doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Its like the writer tried so hard to be impartial and nice to absolutely everyone that he started to draw absurd conclusions, or at least chose his words badly, and downplayed uncomfortable aspects of history a little.

    That’s not to say that the partisan political party blame game is terribly productive. Personally I put the blame more on the absurd neoliberal anti tax and anti regulation ideology, the same as Naomi Campbell does. Neoliberalism also arguably places economic growth above all other concerns, and all this ideology started to gain traction after the early 1980’s. The Republicans have bought into this more than the Democrats, but its only a degree of difference. It has to change, and can change, because neoliberalism was a conscious choice not some eternal truth, or fixed element of human nature (not that all aspects of neoliberalism are a bad thing, such as free trade, but a lot is very questionable).

    It is true that humans don’t respond as well to long term problems that involve multiple generations, but clearly it varies person to person. Clearly plenty of people “are” concerned including J Hansen. If some people are concerned, maybe everyone can be persuaded. These are values that we need to encourage and teach.

  15. 15
    Les Porter says:

    I did read the whole thing. And yes, there are people still living to “blame” apart from the weak crutch of collective “Human Behavior” or human nature. Since I am “pretty” old, a bit younger than James Hansen and not nearly so noted or notorious or eminently qualified to levy a judgment as he might, but remember seeing it occur as it happened or reading about it. Nathaniel Rich well describes what I remember and includes from his research much of what I suspect were intimations of the characters he researched and interviewed as part of his compiling the perspective for this — I think remarkably accurate and historical work. But unlike [Gavin, on vacation], I can levy blame from my memories as well as what the well written Magazine opus outlines.

    I actually “remember” from having lived through these times, most of the instances noted and presented in this NY Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich that were noted somewhere as significantly public events. This Magazine story just stirred old memories in me because I also was aware of the “climate” scientific items occasionally referenced in the larger newspapers, mentioned in TV news or much later, on a few of the science BB’s of the eighties and nineties and popular magazines as well as the early articles in SCIENCE by James Hansen, et al. Like I recall reading the analysis and contribution in Hansen’s Mount Agung Eruption paper in SCIENCE, a couple of years before Luis and William Alvarez’s, et al. 1980 dinosaur killing impact article pinpointing in time the KT boundary.

    Although I was engaged in other realms of federal science I was made aware that the climate “signal” indeed showed up. You older students surely recall the coming ice age that those firmly rooted in pre-human earth dominance times called for as a prediction that we might see the initiation of as an extension of the temperatures pre-WWII and into the early 1950’s through the 1960’s. Lots of popular publications were running articles calling for the grinding out of human population centers by massive moving walls of ice. [You must recall the illustration’s of artist’s renditions of ice towering a mile above the Empire State Building. Then the tallest building on the planet.]

    I think Nathaniel Rich has done us all a remarkable service. But Blame? There are a few Democrats who can be blamed but most of the villains are Republicans. Beyond blame, needs to be arguing and evaluating attainable solutions, scaling them and their feasibility to meet the need to REMOVE and sequester at least 100 ppmv CO2 from the global atmosphere. I have argued with politicians who are afraid to usually respond because I point out that if we are to survive as a species it needs an investment of 800 to 1200 trillion current US dollars [almost crazy but translate that to rubles for those who need to know.] There are lots of potential mechanisms — but the only one of true capacity to meet the required energy is 4th and 5th generation Nuclear energy. Operated by government agencies separate from power for sale, though long-term that will be the goal. Affordable safe power after saving the planet.

    Yes, blame comes mostly from a position of greed, but there are so many to blame, real people, really alive, even posting here and tolerated, that I have to say respectfully, as Bill Nye, would say “scientific incompetents.”

    Gavin, on Vacation, do you think there are those we can blame and bring to account?

  16. 16
    Mr. Know It All says:

    Who is to blame for the lack of action on global warming? I place the blame squarely on those individuals who believe AGW is a thing, yet drive alone in a FF powered car to work, take long hot showers using a high flow of water, heat their homes to 70+ degrees in winter, cool it to below 75 in the summer, fly on jets when it isn’t absolutely necessary (it’s rarely necessary), don’t have solar PV power, don’t have solar hot water panels, live in a big house that’s not that well insulated, etc. Also, much blame goes to nations with political leaders who believe in AGW, yet do very little to reign in the CO2 output of their nation.

    The sad truth is that if those who believe in AGW had stopped, or severely restricted their CO2 belching then we’d be in a much better place with respect to CO2 levels than we are today.

    People are not willing to sacrifice much without being forced to do it. Cheap power, being comfortable, the convenience of a car are all wonderful things so few will voluntarily give them up. They’re all willing to point at the other guy (Trump, Republicans, conservatives, oil producers, etc) and say “It’s their fault”. In the overall scheme of the world, those folks are perhaps 3% of the population, yet it’s all their fault. Uh huh, right. Not.

    We have found the enemy and the enemy is us. If you have not quit using FFs it is YOUR fault – you are to blame. Noone else.

  17. 17
    Dennis Horne says:

    truth be told, I’m on vacation,

    AGW never sleeps…

  18. 18
    David Shipway says:

    “Musing” suggests we still have time to do so. Tempus fugit. We’ve wasted far too much time arguing like typical fire apes as the climate entered a runaway scenario. Yes, it’s started already.

    Counterpunch has an introduction and link to Professor Jem Bendell’s brilliant seminal work, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, July 27th 2018.”

  19. 19
    Carrie says:

    Well good luck separating human psychology out from comprehending climate change science, the impacts and drivers of climate denial, out of politics and who gets elected and why; or the neo-liberal ideals for non-stop economic growth and gutting the power of national governments to act like governments; let alone the human psychology, cognitive thinking and “human nature” of collectives in society to elect either a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton into high office.

    Because you’re gonna fail, again.

    short extract …
    Systems of Denial
    It would not be unusual to feel a bit affronted, disturbed, or saddened by the information and arguments I have just shared. In the past few years, many people have said to me that “it can’t be too late to stop climate change, because if it was, how would we find the energy to keep on striving for change?” With such views, a possible reality is denied because people want to continue their striving. What does that tell us? The “striving” is based in a rationale of maintaining self-identities related to espoused values. It is understandable why that happens. If one has always thought of oneself as having self-worth through promoting the public good, then information that initially appears to take away that self-image is difficult to assimilate.

    That process of strategic denial to maintain striving and identity is easily seen in online debates about the latest climate science. One particular case is illustrative. In 2017 the New York Magazine published an article that drew together the latest data and analysis of what the implications of rapid climatic warming would be on ecosystems and humanity.

    Unlike the many dry academic articles on these subjects, this popular article sought to describe these processes in visceral ways (Wallace-Wells, 2017). The reaction of some environmentalists (AND HERE ON RC TOO) to this article did not focus on the accuracy of the descriptions or what might be done to reduce some of the worst effects that were identified in the article. Instead, they focused on whether such ideas should be communicated to the general public.

    Climate scientist Michael Mann warned against presenting “the problem as unsolvable, and feed[ing] a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness” (in Becker, 2017). Environmental journalist Alex Steffen (2017) tweeted that “Dropping the dire truth… on unsupported readers does not produce action, but fear.”
    Pg 11/12

    You believe that example is not embedded into collective partisan biased human psychology / nature – as ingrained inside a Michael Mann as it is in a Lamar Smith (R–TX) – then you may be missing the whole point of this topic of Musing about Losing Earth.

    Sorry but, M Mann is a climate scientist, NOT a cognitive scientist. Best keep that in mind. About Naomi Klein and Gavin S. and all the rest who have made a knee-jerk conclusion they already Know it All and so Nathaniel Rich must be wrong!

    It isn’t that simply or easy to arrive at well informed opinion. What does the Science say?

  20. 20
    Karsten Vedel Johansen says:

    There is a proposal on how to begin solving the problem of fossil fuels. It’s the carbon fee and dividend proposed by James Hansen. If indeed Naomi Klein is so correct in her analysis, why om Earth is she against this proposal? Revolutionary romanticism has historically often been coupled with deep illusions about what you in the US call “liberal politics”. In our times this is a caractheristical feature of what you could call the chattering classes living by the media-industrial complex. They are so deeply engaged in the process that Neil Postman described in his “Amusing ourselves to death” (1985) that they have lost the ability to take part in reality-oriented political deliberations.

    Today the ownership and thus power in the media industry is so concentrated that very small elites have both monopolized the public sphere and refeudalized it. Today it seems impossible to focus the public attention on anything other than the ever expanding flood of celebrity nonsense. It is and has for long been inevitable that society cannot begin to escape this absurd situation without just the kind of catastrophic push from the real world of weather, climate and ecology outside the elite bubbles that we are now beginning to experience. It could be that capitalism is the implosion of mankind, but we have to try much harder solving the problem and focusing our attention than we have been for the last seven decades before reaching that conclusion.

  21. 21
    Susan Anderson says:

    It’s depressing, going over the same ground and rediscovering the usual suspects. I’d like to think we’ve moved on, but we’ve gone backwards. When I got to Nierenberg, who trashed the State of the Climate report ordered by President Carter (who should be a liberal activists saint, but isn’t), I had to pause. Herer’s Oreskes and Conway:

    I’m stuck in the middle still. I’m glad to see this information given some air, but Reagan’s promotion of inaction was inexcusable. He sounds just like Trump.

    Too many people have accepted the propaganda that Jimmy Carter was terrible and Reagan was wonderful. This is the opposition of truth.

    Here’s Reagan, sounding exactly like Trump:

    “After the election, Reagan considered plans to close the Energy Department, increase coal production on federal land and deregulate surface coal mining. Once in office, he appointed James Watt, the president of a legal firm that fought to open public lands to mining and drilling, to run the Interior Department. “We’re deliriously happy,” the president of the National Coal Association was reported to have said. Reagan preserved the E.P.A. but named as its administrator Anne Gorsuch, an anti-regulation zealot who proceeded to cut the agency’s staff and budget by about a quarter. In the midst of this carnage, the Council on Environmental Quality submitted a report to the White House warning that fossil fuels could “permanently and disastrously” alter Earth’s atmosphere, leading to “a warming of the Earth, possibly with very serious effects.” Reagan did not act on the council’s advice. Instead, his administration considered eliminating the council.”


    Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and the others in the unholy alliance are accurately described at first, but then they are whitewashed.

  22. 22
    pete best says:

    Personally I think that the entire issue does come down to the economy (unknown outcomes from known ones), power and influence (fossil fuel and related companies sponsor people and events so why change it) and our lack of desire for change unless it is obviously positive (smart phones, smart TV’s, etc).

    So presently our economy is powered by (well mainly) fossil fuels for the past 250 years and this has created a system that is hard to perturb/change. From these energy dense power sources has come everything humans use and indeed are willing to buy. Governments and other bodies see this as a good thing (progress) and it powers the economy and hence allows for more progress whilst maintaining the status quo. Inviting new power sources to come along might mean that they no longer get the same vested interest, it might be a game changer in many political and economic ways and hence change it limited and slow.

  23. 23
    Karsten Vedel Johansen says:

    If The NYT editors really thought that the reality of climate change is as serious as is said by Rich, why on earth did they publish it together with that load of utterly unimportant rubbish about “how to have sex in a canoe” etc. that fills the rest of this issue, the issues from the last many decades and probably also is going to flood the next n issues?

    If this really is what the editors of the NYT Magazine think is “a special issue about climate change” (sic!) I think they ought to get their heads examined. And here we are at the core of the problem: today not only is the medium the message, but the message is (to say the least): deeply schizophrenic, and the whole language and the forms of journalism has succumbed to newspeak to a degree that would have shocked even Orwell, if not Strindberg, who in a satire called “The New Kingdom” (c. 1900) called the whole public sphere “the public lie” (this expression from a writer over a hundred years ago would of course be news to our age of complete historical Alzheimer’s everywhere… – if this age was still able to recognize any important facts whatsoever in the roar of all it’s white noise about everything and nothing).

  24. 24
    Timothy Havard says:

    This is not the time to be carrying out a hunt for a “blame-hound”. Leave that to the historians. We should be grateful that there now seems to be a reasonable positive consensus on Global warming and its causes and thus a growing awareness of the consequences of climate change. The Science community -the custodians of this consensus – must now stop squabbling and get out there and take the people particularly the younger element forwarded by supporting those leaders of society that show some sense of purpose where making a contribution to the well being of the planet is concerned. Vote with your feet and your wallet. We do not need any more Trump and Neonicotinoids in National parks -oh dear a blame hound.

  25. 25
    zebra says:

    Ah yes. Let’s frame the question without the elephant, once again.

    How about, instead, asking whether we can have growth in per-capita G(global) D(distributed) Product?

    Of course, nobody who is involved in self-interested moralistic posturing really cares, and that’s pretty much most of the people involved in the “debate” and commenting here. For them, the “future of humanity” is not about the individual humans who may be alive in the future; I am reminded of the abortion issue and the apt observation that for one side “life begins at conception and ends at birth”. Here it’s both sides.

    The obvious answer is that, if there is a surplus of resources per capita– rather than a surplus of capita’s– the economic system becomes optimized in favor of individuals. Things get better (growth) for those populations controlling a surplus of resources, even with internal disparities.

    I wonder if anyone who condemns NeoLiberalism could explain what they see as the “Liberal” part of it? Is that perhaps what you are objecting to?

  26. 26
    David York says:

    All this proves to me is that a major human flaw is to spend endless time debating who is to blame for a problem instead of just rolling up our sleeves and fixing the problem. However, in the case of Climate Change, it’s too late to “fix” the problem – enough feedbacks have kicked in already to guarantee a lot more heating of the atmosphere, and the phenomenon of Global Dimming polishes us off quickly once our industrial endeavors cease. As far as “human nature” is concerned, we all will die and we all know it. But we spend our lives denying it. If we didn’t we’d probably all go mad. Few seem to be able to comprehend human extinction. We will pay good money to watch it in the movie theatre for two hours, but as long as the lights come back on in the end everything will be fine.

  27. 27
    Killian says:

    I see what the writer was trying to do. At least, imo. There are only two possibilities. Either the writer takes a Capitalist, technocpian, warped Darwinian survival of the strongest view of life, and climate, or he was attempting the Middle Road fallacy that the answer is always found in the nexus of opinion. If the former, he succeeded. If the latter, he failed by stating – as writers are wont – his thesis of our fault, not their fault first and last in his essay. Everybody knows that is what is most-remembered in an essay. By laying it at “our” feet, he fails to acknowledge simple, inarguable history, and thereby prove himself either a tool or a weenie (i.e., too milquetoast to state the bald truth.)

    Here’s a shocking reveal: He’s correct. Here’s the caveat: But he’s off by two or three decades. Had he stated, as I have numerous times, that the problem AND the solution are in the mirror, speaking post 2007, he would be absolutely correct. After Al Gore’s movie, a majority of Americans were on board the climate train, but the FF Inc’s and Capitalism a aficionados and their think tanks went into overdrive, per history and Oreskes, et al.

    Since 2007? Yes, it’s on us. The truth was told, we heard it, we responded, then we heard the siren call of denial telling us our lattes and A/C’s and a car for every member of the over-16 household was OK.

    And we let denial rule. According to sociology and psychology, social change can come with a tiny percentage of the populace fully engaged at the beginning. We have ALWAYS (since 2007) had far more than that percentage on board. Why, then, no change?

    Lattes. To clarify: Comfort. It is damned difficult to get someone off their ass when their ass is comfy and whatever the issue is is not going to affect that chair any time soon.

    We love our lattes. (You’ve figured out this is a metaphor for OECD lifestyles, no?) So we recycle and engage in enoughism. We do feel-goodism and get angry on Facebook or twitter at the FF companies **taking all those resources out of the ground**, yet never stop to thing where our latte comes from if they actually stop doing that tomorrow. Worse, we don’t stop to think the most obvious thought of all: Capitalism needs consumers. No consumer, no Capitalism. So… if we stop *buying*, they stop producing.

    The answer is in the mirror.

    But people think, oh, well, just stop all that nasty FF stuff and build electrotopia!!!! Latte, please!

    Oh, my. Someone look up “fungibility,” then look up the extent to which FFs are part of your lives. I’d say FFs are in some way involved in 100% of an OECD life. At least 95%. Go ahead, look around you. Imagine the life cycle of anything in your home or office. How could it *not* be touched by FFs?

    Problem? The fungibility of oil, especially, but all FFs is incredible. FFs are like a magic potion that can do literally anything that we only have one bottle of and we just spilled most of it on the floor. Nothing else even begins to approach the fungibility of oil. We should have saved this precious magic for the many eons of life that *should* be yet to come. Instead, we used it to make ourselves the sacrificial lamb of our own desires.

    But there’s still a good bit left if we stop soon. They will be quite valuable in skipping interglacial periods and getting out to the solar system to mine resources so we can stop raping Earth. If we can pull out collective heads out of our collective asses and start collectively planning to save said asses.

    So, the writer is correct, if you totally ignore his time line and point your gun squarely at the foreheads of the FF Inc’s and think tanks that chose to risk the lives of 9 billion for profits despite his either trollish and/or misbegotten Middle Way “reasoning.”

  28. 28
    Killian says:

    Gavin, thanks for putting this out there. It is deeply appreciated. I don’t look forward to your response to the article, in all honesty, because your scientific reticence, from my point of view, is clearly established. However, your clarity, professionalism, honesty and sincerity as a scientist also shine forth. So… we shall see what we see, but I will not be surprised if it takes the middle road twixt the article and myself.

    Truly, thanks.


  29. 29

    IMHO the piece is very well written, a delight to read.
    I’d like to try and look at what was/is the motivation of the “villains” in this piece. Aren’t right wing republicans and fossil fuel industry leaders also human beings, and as such inevitably interested in the fate of their grandchildren? So the question arises: Why did they not only get the science wrong (Sununu with his high engineering background was intellectually absolutely capable of understanding Hansens papers, but he didn’t get it), but acted aggressively against everything their conscience should have told them? What mechanism was at work?
    In Germany, there is practically no open and aggressive climate denial. The declarations of our government are as well-intentioned as it can get. But the numbers have their own story to tell. For 5 years there has been no emission reduction. Solar installations are at a tiny fraction of where they stood a couple of years ago. No progress in the transport and building sector, and no progress with lignite power plants. Why? The same forces of inertia are showing their effect here as well as in the US and almost everywhere.
    IMO, what we are needing is a couple of “blood, sweat and tears” – speeches. Because tackling the problem does definitely a lot of money upfront, and does require large structural changes in the economy, which themselves aren’t without risk. People have to be told, that they can’t have their cake and eat it – they must decide: do we take our responsibility – or not.

  30. 30
    Adam Lea says:

    9: ” If some general feature of human nature is at fault, how did we ever get the Montreal Protocol?”

    As a wild guess, because CFCs in aerosols weren’t seen (or framed) as something an individual should/can address, and as such didn’t point a finger as individual lifestyles or behaviour in the way that climate change issue does, it was an industry issue (indvidual people can’t do anything about CFCs in aerosols, and it is unreasonable to tell everyone to stop using aerosols if there were no alternatives around). In the event, industry found economic alternatives to CFCs, the transition to those far less damaging alternatives was made, and everyone got on with their lives. If phasing out CFCs was possible without significantly affecting profits, there is no need to spread disinformation in an attempt to stop the change.

  31. 31
    Larry Gilman says:

    Richard Yates: I thank you for the reasonableness of your post; however, that we “were not designed [by evolution] for collective long-range planning” seems to come with the unspoken assumption that our not having evolved to do something explains our not doing it, or doing it badly. But we did not evolve specifically to handle scientific ideas and technological systems, or to drive cars or play chess or grand pianos, or to do math or collectively maintain long-lived systems of written law. Yet we can be very good at these and other cultural projects, and this includes actions that transcend short-term goals: Odysseus’s elderly father plants an olive tree whose fruit he will never see. The founders of the US national oark system are long dead as today’s children head squealing for the beach, as foreseen and intended.

    The argument that we have been bad at fighting climate change, wholly or partly, because it is a thing-we-did-not-evolve-to-do (and-therefore-must-suck-at) is incorrect because the premise in parentheses is false. The bare fact that we were not designed to do Thing A tells us _nothing_, prima facie, about whether we can be good at Thing A.

    The pseudo-evolutionary or human-nature explanation of climate inaction is, therefore, poor as an argument. It also happens to promote despair. That the NYT article contradicts itself, pointing to active choices and human agency as well as to alleged deficits of human nature, mitigates error with confusion. We could have used better.

  32. 32

    Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” points to cultures with inertial resistance to change as those that fail. Choosing to fundamentally change is rare and difficult. The Tokugawa Shogunates enforced reforestation in Japan with the sword.

  33. 33

    There are more factors than neo liberalism that have brought us to the brink:
    materialism and capitalism. Too many people of all political persuasions are
    participants in or profit from these. Neo liberalism is the policy arm for
    capitalism. Capitalism depends on endless growth and consumption which are fueled by material wants. Asking the American public, and ESPECIALLY the more educated and professional sectors, to curb their appetites and fixation on acquisition and status,at this time in history is like pushing the boulder uphill. Voluntary simplicity is a naive expectation, especially for the poor.
    So what is the alternative? Naomi Oreskes, in confronting the neo liberals and free marketeers, made it quite clear that resisting radical reduction in consumption and rejecting regulation can only end up in a tightly centralized totalitarianism in which the government controls production and consumption. This will be the political response when we reach the boiling point. There will be no time for marginal or timid reforms or appeals to liberals to recycle and ride bicycles. The fossil fuel industry has given citizens exactly what they have demanded without cease: cheap energy. Taxing it with fee and dividend will reduce demand and increase the threat to capitalism and the industrial growth society. Climate chaos and collapse will finish it off.
    Or maybe they will come first???

  34. 34
    Hank Roberts says:

    > KIA: ” I place the blame squarely on those individuals who believe …”

    It’s not something you believe in.
    It’s something you know about.
    Or don’t.

  35. 35
    Hank Roberts says:

    Many of those who reject evolutionary theory are aware of the scientific consensus on the subject, and such rejection is not always associated with low scientific literacy. Similar results have been found for beliefs regarding anthropogenic climate change (3). On page 321 of this issue, Friedkin et al. (4) provide a key step toward understanding this phenomenon by introducing a simple family of models for social influence among individuals with multiple, interdependent beliefs.

  36. 36
    Gordon Shephard says:

    Regarding “human nature,” I believe that Ernest Becker has the final word on that, propounded extensively in his 1973 book, “The Denial of Death.” Difficult to summarize, but rooted in the notion that humans, being the preternaturally self-conscious species, must find some accommodation between the sense of themselves as “beyond nature,” and the knowledge of their inevitable return to dust. Becker suggests that, in order to achieve for themselves some sense of immortality, humans commit themselves to a project – an “immortality project” – which generally takes the form of a “culture.” The culture – participating in it, supporting it, protecting it – gives humans the sense that something of themselves will “live beyond” their personal death. The corollary being that the end of the culture means the end of their opportunity for immortality. “If my culture dies, then I truly die.”

    “Ever increasing consumption” has been the basis for human culture for several generations now. It is manifest at every level, from the fossil fuel industry, to the failure of shoppers to bring their own reusable shopping bags.

    Becker would tell you that it takes imminence of death to convince most people to give up their immortality project. Unfortunately, death is not nearly close enough for the vast majority of humans. And, by the time it is, it will be too late to change.

  37. 37

    Did I miss something, or was the system issue of peak oil – aka crude oil depletion – never once mentioned in the article? It’s a system issue because this has a lot to do with the trajectory we are on. For example, if we were still using oil with the wasteful abandon we were in the 1950’s and 1960’s things would likely have turned out differently. For those that may have forgotten, Ronald Reagan removing the solar panels from the White House was not a climate change statement. It was more a backlash response to Jimmy Carter’s insistence that fossil fuels were not infinite resources.

  38. 38
    Mal Adapted says:

    Timothy Harvard:

    This is not the time to be carrying out a hunt for a “blame-hound”. Leave that to the historians. We should be grateful that there now seems to be a reasonable positive consensus on Global warming and its causes and thus a growing awareness of the consequences of climate change. The Science community -the custodians of this consensus – must now stop squabbling and get out there and take the people particularly the younger element forwarded by supporting those leaders of society that show some sense of purpose where making a contribution to the well being of the planet is concerned. Vote with your feet and your wallet.

    I generally agree, except with “The Science community -the custodians of this consensus – must now stop squabbling”. Scientists are competitive skeptics. Their life’s work is to distinguish what’s true from what’s merely plausible. ‘Squabbling’, or arguing over which hypothesis is closer to reality, is pretty much what scientists do. It’s extraordinary that a majority of scientific professional bodies have issued public statements on AGW. IMHO it’s far-fetched to suppose scientists would speak with one voice on particular political proposals.

    In any case, the evidence from which the climate science consensus is drawn is now in the public domain. What “the younger element” needs is to acknowledge that the consensus is more probably correct than the objections of motivated AGW pseudo-skeptics are, think about what that means for their own futures, and act collectively in response. A random scientist isn’t in a better position to lead them down that path than a random politician is. I place the responsibility for capping the warming on every informed citizen: that is, our neighbors, our families and ourselves. We all have to recognize the connection between the daily price of energy and the clear and present danger of AGW, and act accordingly. When I feel the need to blame someone for the lack of progress toward decarbonizing the US economy, I blame 538 anonymous Florida voters who didn’t vote for Al Gore in 2000!

  39. 39
    Duncan Idaho says:

    “The Tokugawa Shogunates enforced reforestation in Japan with the sword.”
    So, we should of stopped Haber/Bosch from continuing?

    We would have half the current population on Earth (probably less).

  40. 40
    Mal Adapted says:

    Mr. Ironically Anosognosic Typist:

    I place the blame squarely on those individuals who believe AGW is a thing, yet drive alone in a FF powered car to work, take long hot showers using a high flow of water, heat their homes to 70+ degrees in winter, cool it to below 75 in the summer, fly on jets when it isn’t absolutely necessary (it’s rarely necessary), don’t have solar PV power, don’t have solar hot water panels, live in a big house that’s not that well insulated, etc. Also, much blame goes to nations with political leaders who believe in AGW, yet do very little to reign in the CO2 output of their nation.

    I personally blame those cognitively motivated individuals who deny that AGW is a thing. But never mind, you’re still wrong about basic market economics, and in a transparently self-serving way. The failure of science-accepters to eliminate their own fossil carbon emissions is predicted by the Tragedy of the Commons. In the terms of economic art, it’s simply not rational for even socially-conscientious individuals to voluntarily internalize their own marginal climate-change costs while the Mr. IATs of the world ride for free. Until the climate-change costs of fossil fuels are internalized in their market price, the invisible hand of the ‘free’ market will ensure that transferring fossil carbon to the climatically-active pool remains cost effective. If you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege, Mr. IAT, why should anyone?

  41. 41
    Mal Adapted says:

    If I double-posted my last comment, please delete the first version. TIA.

  42. 42
  43. 43
    Jef says:

    The #1 blame goes to the fact that when all is said and …..not done… we all have to go to work in the morning or risk loosing our ability to “earn a LIVING”, this is true for the rich, the poor and everyone in-between.

    Each and every solution proposed translates to doing less and that means making less money. Anyone who says otherwise is selling snake oil (hey maybe we can run the global economy on snake oil).

  44. 44
    Dan Miller says:

    Yes, conservatives and the FF industry share a lot of blame. But what concerns me more are the majority of folks who understand that climate change is real and dangerous and do nothing and remain mostly silent. If this group demanded action, it would happen quickly. I do think this inaction is due to some degree to human evolutionary cognitive shortcomings. I talk about some of these in my TEDx climate talk (along with a simple solution almost everyone would like if we ever got to considering solutions seriously):

    To understand how climate change is ignored, just think about how rare the NYT article is. The progressive media (e.g., MSNBC), who certainly believes in climate change, can barely talk about anything but Trump.

    I think climate change is a simple problem with a relatively simple solution. We have climate change because we (the world) have a default policy that companies can pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases for free. We don’t let people throw their garbage in other people’s yards, but we do allow companies to throw their CO2 into our atmosphere. To stop this, we need to put a steadily rising fee on the CO2e content of fossil fuels (and cattle, cement, etc.) until FF become uneconomic or the cost of air capture kicks in to truly offset emissions. The only way to get the fee high enough is to rebate 100% of the money collected to every legal resident (Fee and Dividend). Of course, it is already too late to avoid major impacts. But even though it will get bad, if we don’t act, it will get much worse than bad.

    I’ll also say that I disagree with those that fear making people feel fear. Fear is one of our strongest motivators and conservatives use it to good effect (well, good for them, not for the world). Yes, you need to match it with a solution (Fee and Dividend), but it makes no sense to avoid scaring people about something they should be scared about!

  45. 45
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    IIRC, the psychologist Eric Erikson believed that entire cultures — such as Sparta — could go crazy due to bad ideas. The “Greed is Good” crowd are under the thrall of a bad idea. The atomization that idea entails leaves long term consequences as an irrelevance. Whether you want to think of them as crazy or wicked, twisted or responsible, doesn’t have much consequence after they attained the level of power that they did. Because of them — their inertia, resistance, and malice — our society couldn’t address climate change in a rational way

  46. 46
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jef@43, you are only partly right. Yes, it is true that with society set up as it now is, GDP would decline, but increasing GDP at this point is re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    The thing is that there is an incredible amount of work to do as far as re-inventing our energy infrastructure. There is more than enough work to do to keep the entire global workforce employed. Now, maybe not everyone gets a jet ski–hell maybe nobody gets a jet ski. But the economy has to keep humming along well enough to feed, house, clothe and entertain everyone while we reach sustainability–whatever that ultimately means. And no one should have to die like a rat.

    The thing is that no one knows exactly where we need to wind up. However, rushing headlong down the path we are on now cannot end well.

  47. 47
    Ric Merritt says:

    I agree that just having a prominent long article in the NYT that isn’t so far off as to be completely ignorable is a good-ish thing. And I also agree with quite a few of the telling criticisms.

    But the article mostly ignores the chief questions on the table, and so do the critics insofar as they take the bait, and argue about how we got to 1989. However we got to 1989, each decade since has made clearer that Hansen got it right then, or as near as makes little difference to policy choices, and better than anyone else prominent at the time. And regardless of how close we got to sane action in 1989, given the decade-by-decade accumulation of evidence since, any chagrin we feel at the near(ish) miss then must be multiplied ten-fold each decade since. No way the fossil fuel companies, politicians, and right wing in general can be let off the hook for the last 30 years.

  48. 48


    The issue is moot unless you have a time machine handy.

  49. 49
    JoeT says:

    I have a question for the scientists who participate here to address, that I haven’t seen anyone discuss yet on any forum. One can engage in interminable discussion about policy, but my question has to do with how Rich characterizes the state of the science in 1979. Here’s the quote:

    “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.”

    Instead of terms like “settled science”, I like how Pierrehumbert uses the expression “settled enough”. So my question is, do you think the science was settled enough by 1979? More specifically, how critical was it to have actual data to determine whether the science was settled enough?

    For example, would you agree that in 1979 no one could claim that the world was warming? Hansen’s brilliant, prophetic paper of 1981 argued that the planet would deviate 1 sigma from natural variation in the 1980s and by 2 sigma in the 90s. It’s not clear to me what Rich considers “settled” but usually the term is applied to the following 3 bits of information: 1) the earth is warming 2) the warming is due to increasing CO2 and 3) the CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels. If #1 was unclear in 1979, what can you even say about #2 or #3?

    Or perhaps Rich might be digging into the weeds about radiation transfer? Certainly the theory of radiation transfer seems settled enough by 1979, especially in light of Manabe and Wetherald’s 1967 paper. But how critical to having the science be settled enough was it to have actual data that showed the evolution of the outgoing infrared spectrum or the cooling in the stratosphere?

    Or, to restate my question again, how important is to have actual data – whether it be surface temperature or ocean temperatures to great depths, or temperatures in the troposphere or stratosphere or even the melting of glaciers and the disappearance of sea ice — before one can say that the science is settled enough?

    [Response: This is an interesting question. That increasing CO2 was due to human activities and that it would cause a global warming was established by 1979. But detection of human component to the warming was not – other than Callendar’s claim in the 1930s that it might be, I don’t know of any paper that claimed detection of a human-caused trend prior to Hansen et al 1988. Note that this was not convincing to all (based as it was on a single model), and IPCC 1990 and 1992 did not make this claim. Only in IPCC 1995 – based largely on the work of ppl like Ben Santer – did detection and attribution of the anomalous trends become part of the consensus (William makes this point in his post). One could argue that attribution was still uncertain until the detection of the increase in OHC in 2001. So, ‘settled enough’ in 1979 to certainly understand that unrestricted CO2 emissions were dangerous. “settled enough” by 1995 to understand that this was not some esoteric far future problem, and “settled enough” by the early 2000’s to have a good sense quantitatively of what would be required. – gavin]

  50. 50
    Mal Adapted says:


    Each and every solution proposed translates to doing less and that means making less money.

    It sure does for those who directly profit by removing fossil carbon from geologic sequestration and selling it for all the traffic will bear. That’s what “internalizing the externality” means for fossil fuel producers. Since the profit presently amounts to 100s of $billions annually just in the US and Canada, it’s no wonder producers and their investors are willing to re-invest a $billion here and a $billion there in flooding the public sphere with AGW-denialist disinformation.

    OTOH, the ‘freedom’ of the energy market to externalize the marginal climate-change costs of every fuel transaction requires them to be paid, in money and tragedy, by unwilling third parties, apparently at random and often wildly out of proportion to any private benefit of ‘cheap’ energy they enjoy. When private and social costs and benefits of decarbonization are counted, the net is almost always positive, and some climate economists claims it will be even more positive than conventional models suggest.

    IOW, the sooner we complete the switch from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral alternatives, the lower the total cost of returning all that carbon to the climatically-active pool will be. The transition can be accelerated by a variety of collective interventions in the ‘free’ market. The actions taken will largely depend, not on their total cost to implement, but on who the relative winners and losers are.