Here's Why the New York Times Is Dead Wrong About the Future of Climate Change
No, it’s not too late to address climate change. No, families with minivans aren’t equally to blame for failing to address the climate crisis as are oil executives who have stopped at nothing to protect their profits. And with respect, no, the only meaningful attempts to address climate change haven’t stemmed primarily from a couple of white men in the US three decades ago — however valiantly they’ve fought.
Now is our chance to defend — not lose — the Earth. But after reading The New York Times Magazine’s “Losing Earth” by the magazine’s writer-at-large Nathaniel Rich, you’d hardly be alone if you’re feeling hopeless about humanity’s ability to curb the climate crisis. Remember: Declaring the future as “history already written,” as the piece suggests, isn’t how the future works. According to the article’s incomplete and inaccurate version of history, action to address climate change seems futile. So why should we even bother?
For starters, even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people, especially in the Global South and communities least responsible for this crisis. Despite what the piece may suggest, people are not content to shrug their shoulders and allow big polluters to continue to thwart strong climate policy. In fact, from city halls to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), environmental advocates are demanding urgent action now.
We cannot let the fossil fuel industry off the hook as “Losing Earth” does. Fossil fuel executives were not powerless minions, forced to pollute unabated (in return for enormous profits), at the behest of government officials. There is evidence that, as early as the 1980s, big polluters poured hundreds of millions of dollars in a multi-faceted campaign of deception, greenwashing and manipulation.
Fossil fuel executives’ top priority is to protect their shareholders and increase profits; they were never serious about taking action that would endanger their wealth. Big polluters like Exxon knew as early as the 1960s of the catastrophic consequences of burning fossil fuels and did nothing to sound the alarm. Instead, Exxon cut funding for its internal climate research program in the early 1980s and eliminated the program by decade’s end. The corporation then deliberately sowed doubt about the science its own researchers had confirmed, undermining political will and life-saving policy.
When the world came together to adopt the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the industry attempted to subvert the process. Big polluters intensified their interference when the advocacy of ordinary people grew too strong to ignore. And only when policymakers were prepared to act did its deceitful campaign peak.
All told, the fossil fuel industry’s campaigns that threaten the survival of humanity suggest concerted obstruction and misinformation, not “good-faith efforts.”
Although the work of James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance—climate experts who were among the first, in the 1980s, to bring attention to the dangers of climate change—is important and admirable, The New York Times Magazine article’s focus on only a few white, male, US-based climate advocates during a particular time decades ago is simplistic. It’s disrespectful to the thousands of others who have made this fight their life’s work, and implies that these men were our best (and last) shot at saving humanity.
We must acknowledge and join forces with Indigenous leaders, communities of color, women, and young people in the US and throughout the world who have led the climate justice movement for decades. To erase this diverse coalition’s extraordinary contributions is also to erase the enormous victories they have achieved time and again against big polluters. These successes draw hope from our past, and propel us in our present to help write a more just, viable future.
“Losing Earth” is oddly fatalistic; a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature is not a foregone conclusion as it implies. The article argues we have come to this climate change precipice because our human nature makes us incapable of realizing long-term gain because it requires short-term sacrifice. Therefore, the article argues we are incapable of the required action in the present to head off a catastrophic 2-degree Celsius global temperature increase in the future. But it’s not true.
Time and time again, big polluters are guilty of obstructing and manipulating real climate change policies — not people. Just this week, it was revealed that a top Trump administration official with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry is at the center of the rewrite of the Clean Power Plan. The proposal, announced Tuesday, will severely weaken air pollution rules and drastically roll back regulations on coal-fired power plants, increasing carbon emissions and leading to as many as 1,400 premature deaths per year.
We stand a shot at avoiding the world the fossil fuel industry is lobbying for by keeping fossil fuels in the ground and committing to a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy. To accept a 2-degree Celsius increase as inevitable writes off millions of people’s lives, the extinction of countless species and profound changes in our planet’s ecosystems. We cannot and will not accept this. We cannot and will not idly stand by while big polluters continue to drive us to catastrophe and subvert progress.
The more that big polluters’ conflicts of interest are enshrined in and continue to shape policy, the more lives are lost. To chart our way forward, we must protect against these conflicts of interest, and, as the world considers climate solutions in December at the UNFCCC’s 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24), ensure that we pave the way for real solutions put forward by the people, not dangerous distractions designed to pad profits.
Over the next few months, policymakers, climate activists and concerned citizens have critical opportunities to kick big polluters out of climate policy. In September, hundreds of communities around the world will demand real climate leadership and just solutions, from movements and grassroots actions like Rise for Climate and Solidarity to Solutions. We have the chance to pass measures that mitigate the worst effects of climate change. And one of the primary tasks of COP24, according to the UN, is to “work out and adopt a package of decisions ensuring the full implementation of the Paris Agreement.” At the conference, countries must champion true solutions and map out the steps necessary to contain global temperature rise to as close to 1.5 degree Celsius as possible, which could help prevent the worst impact of climate change.
Rewriting our past so that we abandon our own agency in writing a better future for us all is a mistake we cannot and must not make. As “Losing Earth” points out, our lives, our children’s lives and our children’s children’s lives depend on it.