It’s obvious why controversy engulfed The New York Times Magazine’s 31,000-word opus on climate change before it was even published online Wednesday morning.
The story, titled “Losing Earth,” takes an ambitiously nuanced stab at anthropogenic global warming. Writer Nathaniel Rich chronicles the years from 1979 to 1989, a window when the science made clear that greenhouse gases were warming the planet and the fossil fuel industry’s big-tobacco-style misinformation campaign hadn’t yet warped the debate or weaponized the Republican Party into full-scale denial. The story is a rumination on regret, a deliberate attempt to step beyond the orthodoxies of climate messaging of clear-cut villains and urgent calls for change and instead dwell on what could have been, had policymakers acted rationally. It’s an exercise in hindsight.
In doing so, Rich pats on the back Republicans like President George H.W. Bush and then-Sens. John Chafee (R.I.), Robert Stafford (Vt.) and David Durenberger (Minn.), who at the time “called for urgent, immediate and far-reaching climate policy,” Rich writes. He acknowledges the fossil fuel industry as a “common boogeyman” but credits companies like Exxon and Shell with making “good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions,” at least in the early stages.
The villain, he concludes with the sort of heady literary flourish that distinguishes magazine writing from other journalism, is humanity’s incapacity for proactive planning. Faced with an existential threat, policymakers in the world’s richest and most powerful nation neglected even the most basic tools at their disposal.
“We have a solution in hand: carbon taxes, increased investment in renewable and nuclear energy and decarbonization technology,” Rich concludes in the epilogue. “We can trust the technology and the economics. It’s harder to trust human nature.”
But do we trust the economics? At a private dinner at a Manhattan hotel Tuesday night, Rich pre-emptively repelled criticism by reminding an audience of roughly two dozen climate reporters, academics and New York Times editors that his job as a writer did not include propagandizing policies that should be. But the story omits critical context about the economic philosophy that came to dominate policymaking in the developed world.
The rise of neoliberalism ― a form of laissez-faire capitalism that preaches prosperity through privatization and quasi-religious reverence for the wisdom of unfettered markets ― tracks the period covered in Rich’s story. Democratic President Jimmy Carter first embraced neoliberalism in the late 1970s, when he began deregulating the trucking, banking and airline industries.
After defeating Carter in 1980, President Ronald Reagan repackaged the philosophy as Reaganomics and pumped it with steroids ― slashing taxes and regulations on the financial industry and promoting runaway growth and free trade. In February 1986, The New York Times breathlessly summarized Reagan’s proposal during a State of the Union address to dramatically reduce federal spending on pollution controls, public housing and energy research as a “welfare plan to free poor from government dependency.”
George H.W. Bush’s administration, despite nodding to the need to address the greenhouse effect, continued pushing for welfare reform and laid the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement. After Bill Clinton won the White House, he ushered in an era of Democratic politics that included gutting welfare programs and sanctioning mass privatization in the name of political centrism. In the 1992 election, only independent candidate Ross Perot opposed NAFTA.
That economic thinking has dominated for so long, it has become, for many, the conventional wisdom, not unlike believing vanilla is plain-flavored ice cream. Even the philosophy’s most vocal proponents take it as such a norm that they refuse to name it. Jonathan Chait, who devotes many of his New York magazine columns to defending centrist orthodoxy, dismissed the term “neoliberalism” as nothing more than “the left’s favorite insult of liberals.” It’s as though the effects of neoliberalism aren’t plainly obvious — dramatically worsening income inequality; dilapidated and debt-laden public transit, housing and parks; and crumbling unions.
But above all, it has left us with a rapidly changing climate and a policy discourse devoid of solutions on the scale of the actual problem.
The United States has not passed any significant environmental legislation at the national level since the 1980s, instead relying on market incentives and consumer labeling to address issues ranging from greenhouse gas pollution, conservation and toxic chemicals, according to a 2016 paper in the Utah Law Review. The paper concluded that neoliberal policy “asks for the challenging valuation of natural resources and asks consumers to make choices in the aggregate that will achieve environmental goals when they may not be in the best position to do so.”
In 2014, British environmentalist George Monbiot warned that the rise of the “natural capital agenda,” a movement to assign financial value to nature, was “gobbledygook,” considering that pollution itself is evidence of market failure. A 2012 study published in the journal Environmental Politics blamed “market fetishism” for undermining large-scale federal legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while failing to foster effective policies that don’t involve government intervention, sequestering climate action to the subnational level.
Rich nods to this but never really explores the forces that have prevented us from taking significant steps: “Keeping the planet to two degrees of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees, would require transformative action. It will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.”
The suffering is now upon us. A wildfire in Greece last month killed 91 people. The Carr Fire, the largest of 17 ongoing fires in California and the seventh biggest in the state’s history, has killed six people and displaced tens of thousands of others. A global heat wave last month killed up to 70 people in Quebec in Canada alone. Last year shattered records, with $306 billion in damage from unprecedented hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
Revolutionary ideas are now ― finally ― entering the mainstream. Democratic socialist congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary victory over party stalwart Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in June gave momentum to a growing crop of candidates running on a Green New Deal platform to spend billions of dollars on building up renewable energy and rapidly ending fossil fuel use.
The last time the Democratic Party attempted a major climate policy was in 2009, with the introduction of a cap-and-trade bill, which, applying neoliberalism in its purest form, would have put a price on carbon emissions and created a market in which companies could sell permits to pollute. Yet even that failed in 2010, when Barack Obama’s White House abandoned the legislation as a wave of austerity politics crashed over the Western world.
In attempting to capture the regret of a decade of missed opportunity, Rich missed the fact that the biggest mistake is one we haven’t stopped making.