The entire August 5th issue of the New York Times magazine is dedicated to a single story by Nathaniel Rich: how we could have saved the world from climate change, but failed.
The promotional materials say it reads like a historical whodunit, traversing the world before building to a moment when a global agreement was very nearly, but not quite reached: the 1989 Noordwijk Ministerial Conference in the Netherlands. The prologue says that neither the “common boogeyman” of the fossil fuel industry nor the Republican party are to blame.
Who or what, then, in Rich’s account, was responsible for torpedoing that conference and dooming us to climate inaction?
After 30+ pages of deeply reported storytelling on the science and policy of climate change in the ‘80s, relying on numerous interviews with some of the players involved, the last chapter addresses that pivotal 1989 conference where we almost saved the world. When asked what was happening as the Noordwijk conference negotiations went into the midnight hour, a Swedish minister reportedly said the US “government is fucking this thing up!”
That failure is how the piece ends. The failure at the hands of the Republican, fossil-fuel friendly Bush administration serves as the anticlimactic conclusion.
How can that be? According to the prologue and epilogue, it’s not the Republicans or fossil fuel industry that’s to blame, because some in the GOP weren’t deniers, and because the industry’s denial propaganda hadn’t ramped up yet. (A quick correction: the Reagan administration negatively politicized the environment, particularly DoI Secretary James Watts and EPA Admin Anne Gorsuch. Also, the early 80s saw the emergence of climate denial with API’s "Two Energy Futures: A National Choice for the '80s" and Sherwood Idso’s “Carbon Dioxide, Friend or Foe” in 1982.)
But we don’t need to trace the organized denial machine that far back to see the acquittal of these groups is unwarranted. Rich already did the work to prove their guilt.
If this were a game of Clue, it’d go like this. The key suspect is Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu, who was so amenable to fossil fuels that when he resigned, ECO magazine headlined the news by quipping that “Sununu resigns… Coal lobby in mourning.” Sununu was skeptical of climate science, to say the least, as Rich’s penultimate chapters deal with how he tried to censor James Hansen’s climate testimony.
The scene of the crime, where the failure happened, is of course that Noordwijk conference. And the candlestick/murder weapon was negotiator Allan Bromley. Rich wrote that “Bromley, at the urging of John Sununu and with the acquiescence of Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union, had forced the conference to abandon the commitment to freeze emissions.”
It was Sununu, in Noordwijk, with Bromley, who scuttled the deal that would’ve saved the world. Game over.
Top Climate and Clean Energy Stories: