Before anyone could even unfold the tree pulp, The New York Times Magazine wanted readers to know the magnitude of the story it had taken on. Editor Jake Silverstein announced on Twitter that the Aug. 5, 2018, print issue (released Aug. 1 online) was devoted to a single piece: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” A sweeping historical narrative of climate politics from 1979-89, it topped 30,000 words. Down to the enlarged font used for page numbers – a typographical form of can you believe we did this? – the story was packaged for maximum impact in every medium.
But to what end? The threat of climate change is a pressing one: Average temperatures rising faster than predicted; ash and smoke choking the American West; ice melting in the Arctic; activists and scientists clamoring for action. So why tell a story about the past rather than explore paths forward?
I am a science journalist with a background in history. I often cover issues related to climate change (and spend an unhealthy amount of time fretting about it). I wanted to know why author Nathaniel Rich spent 18 months developing a historical perspective. I also wanted to know the how behind that why. And, ultimately, I wanted to know if Rich thinks narrative storytelling can be a catalyst for meaningful action on what I consider the most important issue of our time.
“Nearly everything we understand about global climate change was understood in 1979.” ~ from “Losing Earth” by Nathaniel Rich
“I wrote the piece to try to understand this problem more deeply – to try to understand the human story of this period, and the courageous efforts of these folks to advance the issue and change the way the world was structured,” Rich told me when we talked. “I feel there is a morality in that effort.”
A book version of “Losing Earth” is expected out next year, published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And last month, Apple announced it had acquired the rights to a TV series based on the piece.Rich’s magazine narrative recounts the efforts of a small group of activists, scientists and politicians who came together in the 1980s to forestall what they saw as a coming disaster: “Nearly everything we understand about global climate change was understood in 1979,” he writes.
In Rich’s telling, the efforts of those early believers were blocked not by a greedy fossil fuel industry or a cautious Congress, but by general inertia.
Here I should note that several science journalists I know take exception to this thesis. And Rich’s own reporting demonstrates that we certainly had more to learn post-1979; toward the end of the piece, he explains how the 1980s culminated in research by scientist James Hansen, one of his main characters, testified at a Senate hearing in 1988 that climate change had begun. In other words, solid research on climate issues was hardly complete in the Carter administration.
But 1979 saw two watershed moments:
Atmospheric scientist Jule Charney compiled a seminal report called “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment,” which Rich describes as “the summation of all the predictions that had come before.” Moreover, he writes: “it would withstand the scrutiny of the decades that followed it.”
And at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva, scientists from 50 nations “agreed unanimously that it was urgently necessary to act.”
These two milestones serve as Rich’s starting point.
“In 1979, the politics are wide open,” he told me. “All the obstacles that we now put forward as preventing any kind of meaningful climate policy had yet to present themselves.”Many people have written publicly or told me privately that this is incorrect, and that Rich’s story goes too far in erasing blame due the fossil-fuel industry. Early and pointed criticism came from several quarters, including science and tech writer Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic. “Telling the wrong story makes the case for action look easier than it is,” Meyer wrote.
Others argue that Rich’s story glosses over climate-politicization efforts by the Reagan administration.
Rich counters that the fossil-fuel industry’s “mustache-twirling depravity,” including an aggressive disinformation campaign in the 1990s, has been well chronicled, and points to books like Naomi Oreskes’ 2014 “Merchants of Doubt.” He told me that focusing on 1979-1989 freed him from treading a similar narrative path.
We can argue all we want while the glaciers melt. To me, the most interesting thing about Rich’s decision to begin his narrative in 1979 is that it allows him to identify a broader, and more depressing, foil: Disorganized, undisciplined, indecisive humanity itself. The bad actor is our own inaction.
To that end, the heart of the piece is an October 1980 meeting at the posh Don Cesar, aka the Pink Palace, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Members of the National Commission on Air Quality gather to draft legislation to address the findings in Charney’s 1979 report. Everyone arrives eager to act. But by the time they leave, they are worn down by their own recalcitrance. Their final statement is so milquetoast as to be meaningless.
Obsessed as I am with this issue, I had never heard this history. Knowing it lends new perspective to the next 38 years of stalled progress, one I think is valuable even acknowledging the blocking actions of the fossil-fuel industry. If nothing else, it illuminates one reason why those actions were so effective.
I spoke with Nathaniel Rich about the process of reporting, writing, fact-checking and editing such a colossal story, how to write novelistic history, and what he hopes it achieves. (The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Let’s talk about the time frame first. Why did you chose this decade? And how did you navigate such a huge chunk of time, and keep your focus within it?
We had this idea of going back to this period, which is a fascinating period because the science is set by 1979, and the politics are wide open. The industry is not engaged in any serious way or coordinated way. So why didn’t we act?
It was important to me to do it as a historical narrative, and to keep it within that moment. There are a few cheats throughout, if you read closely, but it’s a close third-person dramatic narrative. So the genre is different than you would normally have in any magazine piece. It’s a history, and I like that because it’s consistent with the aim of the piece, which is to try to understand this issue outside of the framework that has solidified around it: ‘It’s a crisis! It’s a disaster! Oil and gas companies and the Republican Party have joined together to stop any kind of meaningful solution, and it’s going to be really bad. If we do something, whether it’s join Paris, or elect Hillary Clinton or whatever, there’s still a chance to do something before it’s too late.’
It’s a history …the aim of the piece is to try to understand this issue outside of the framework that has solidified around it.
I don’t dispute any of that. But that was not the conversation that was being held in this period. So I decided to stay within the period, to protect it from the contemporary frame and allow the reader to more fully understand the struggles of these brave people who were fighting to move the issue forward.
Certainly you could write: ‘Little did he know, that seven years from now the American Petroleum Institute would launch a propaganda campaign that would destroy everything he worked for.’ But that wouldn’t make sense, dramatically. The challenge of keeping it in that framework was extraordinarily difficult. It also, in a way, hides the amount of research that went into the piece.
I don’t think it hides it. I printed part of it out, and I circled a few things that stood out to me, like the view out the windows of the hotel – the Pink Palace – and the discussion on that night’s evening news about the surplus of butter, and things like that. I imagined you watching archival footage of the evening news to get all this detail.
Are you kidding me? I wish there was archival footage of the nightly news. That would have saved me tons of time. Mostly, it was looking for transcripts and reports. I had a major interview with Al Gore; you wouldn’t necessarily know that. I had major interviews with three senators from the period, among them David Durenberger, who led a hearing in 1985 that I don’t even mention. The thing I spent the most time on – the biggest use of time on something that didn’t end up in the piece – was the industry.
The piece would have been so much easier to write if I had a villain the whole way through. That’s the Hollywood version.
I feel like the villain is just the idea of uncertainty, or inaction, that seemed to plague everybody at this time. In one section, you write that Al Gore believes a higher degree of certainty was required to persuade Congress to restrict fossil fuels. Or at the Pink Palace meeting — I love the quote from the public health scholar Annemarie Crocetti, who said, “very often, when we as scientists are cautious in our statements, everybody else misses the point, because they don’t understand our qualifications.”
I feel like if there is a villain at all in this piece, that’s it. It’s that everyone is tripping over themselves to be cautious, and it sort of implodes. Did you aim for that kind of message?
In the Pink Palace scene, people say every single thing we say today about this problem. The most surprising thing about the research I did was that even with certainty about the science and full understanding of the issue and no organized opposition from any quarter, there was still a reluctance to take the kind of ambitious stand that was required to stop this thing. That, to me, is what’s haunting.
…there was still a reluctance to take the kind of ambitious stand that was required to stop this thing. That, to me, is what’s haunting.
That’s not to discount any of the industry or politics or Republican denialism. But I think there is this huge blind spot when it comes to this larger human question: Why is it so hard for us to act?
Until we address that deeper question, you’re not going to have any possibility of addressing the problem in a meaningful way.
Tell me about the process of researching and fact-checking. I know the fact-checking process for magazines can be horrendous. Did it take months? Did you do it as you went along the reporting process?
I don’t think it’s very becoming of me to complain about any of this. But in terms of pure physical work, it went far beyond anything I have done in my career. They (The Times Magazine) had something like a half dozen fact checkers on it full time for a couple months. I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night for the month preceding the publication.
I probably did research for six or nine months before I started writing, but I didn’t stop doing research until literally the day it was shipped. I had paid researchers in the Denver Public Library trying to find information. I was going back to sources a million times.
I had to deal with the same kind of restrictions any journalist has to deal with.
There are things you can get away with in popular history narratives. I hadn’t read a lot of that genre, but I learned pretty quickly that they make shit up. If you open a page of any popular biography, you’ll see these florid descriptions of the play of light on the wall, long conversations, dialogues in quotation, and you don’t know what the subject said. Maybe they have a letter between George Washington and John Adams, but there is a lot of inference and deduction. And I wasn’t allowed to do any of that, because it’s The Times. I had to deal with the same kind of restrictions any journalist has to deal with. If I had one person remember a conversation, for instance, that’s not enough. You have to have the other person remembering it, too, and you can only publish the shared memory part.
It was an extraordinary amount of work. I had three great editors who really killed themselves on this as well, (editor) Jake Silverstein, (deputy editor) Bill Wasik and (story editor) Claire Gutierrez, who I worked with most intimately.
It’s interesting that you give this time capsule of what these famous people were thinking and doing, at least as far as they can remember or that’s been recorded 20, 30, 40 years ago. But I wonder how much the present still played into how you wrote this. We all have opinions. Even if people don’t know Hansen and Pomerance like a climate writer might, they have an opinion about Reagan, and some of the other characters, like Al Gore. How did you get beyond that filter?
Honestly, it’s not something I thought about very much. I took it on as any story: I followed the reporting where it went. I had certain preconceptions. I thought, for instance, that Gore was much more central to the story than he ended up being – that he would have to be one of the main figures. I realized after doing some research and talking to folks that that didn’t make any sense. When I started reaching out to Gore’s people, they were much more aware of how he’s perceived in this world than I was. I just genuinely wanted to know what his version of events was. That, to me, is more interesting than whatever the superstructure of the political dialogue is. I didn’t really spend any time thinking about what Jim Hansen’s reputation is today, or Gore’s.
What did you think of what happened during this decade? The way you write in the epilogue and prologue, it seems to me that you’re frustrated by what happened. It’s depressing to think about how much could have been done, and how little was even attempted. How do you see this problem now? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
I question the need of any story about this subject to A) prescribe a solution one way or the other, or B) have a tone of pessimism or optimism. Why, given this serious information, is there this condescending sense that the reader will tune out unless they’re told that things are going to be OK? It doesn’t happen with other social issues. We don’t talk about gun violence that way. We don’t say, ‘Wow that was really bad what happened in Newtown, but don’t worry, if we pass gun legislation everything is going to be fine.’ Where does this mandate come from? And why should a writer who is trying to get to the bottom of the story write in service of that?
The problem is that we don’t discuss this as a moral crisis.
Personally, I am probably more pessimistic than optimistic. But I think there is some reason for optimism. Jim Hansen has a plan that starts in 2021 – after Trump’s first term, not coincidentally – that would keep warming to 1.5 degrees C, that would make economic sense, is technologically possible and would phase in over the course of a decade. I trust him on that.
But I am not confident about the ability of individuals, of democracies, of global bodies, to resolve this in any meaningful way. The problem is that we don’t discuss this as a moral crisis.
I feel the first step is to understand how we got here. I don’t think we understand the whole story yet. We can talk about the moralism of the fossil-fuel industry, which is purely sociopathic. But I think there is a stronger moral pressure to be brought. To understand the scope of what we’re facing, and the violence that we are doing to future generations and to poorer parts of the world right now – it’s an atrocity.
Do you have kids?
I have a 2-year-old son.
Does parenthood help frame any of this for you? I have a 3-year-old daughter, and having her has changed the way I think about the short-term scale of this. As you write, “We know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.”
For me, no. I have had this sense of the issue for as long as I’ve understood it. Once you understand the level of devastation, of cataclysm, that we’re talking about, then I think the moral aspect of it is clear. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is that I don’t understand why the conversation has been so narrow. People have been missing a dimension of it – that human dimension – that feels to me fundamental. By going back to this period, it allows access to that.
This subject is now so politicized that the takes on your piece started coming out before it was even published. It feels like a toxic thing to cover sometimes, or that I’m talking to my own echo chamber. What will it take to change that?
I think there is a great need for better and more thoughtful environmental activism. There is a need for better writing by activists. But that’s not why I wrote the piece. I wrote the piece to try to understand this issue more deeply, to try to understand the human story of this period, and the courageous efforts of these folks to change the way the world was structured.
Once you understand the level of devastation, of cataclysm, that we’re talking about, then I think the moral aspect of it is clear.
I know that people will do with it whatever they want, and I don’t presume to have any control over that. I can only do the truest thing I am capable of doing. And I feel I did that, with a lot of help from my editors and the Pulitzer Center.
I feel strongly that storytelling is inherently a moral act. That it involves a level of empathy, especially in a dramatic narrative like this, on the part of the reader and the writer. And I think that has value.