Why U.S. Lawmakers Failed to Act on Climate Change Decades Ago

This coming week, The New York Times Magazine will devote an entire publication of the Sunday magazine to the issue of climate change. The single-themed edition, called "Losing Earth," will look at scientific discoveries and decisions made on climate change during a critical decade from 1979 to 1989. Nathaniel Rich, who authored the edition, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

Read the full transcript:

HARI SREENIVASAN: This coming week, The New York Times, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, will publish “Losing Earth.” a single-themed issue of its Sunday magazine. The topic is climate change and the scientific discoveries and decisions made in the decade between 1979 and 1989. Writer-at-Large Nathaniel Rich centers his story on two men Rafe Pomerance, an environmental activist, and former NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first to warn the world about greenhouse gases and global warming.

NEWSREEL: It didn’t have to be this way. In the decade 1979 to 89, we knew already the earth was getting warmer. It was not a statistical fluke. We should have begun to take actions that would have avoided the tragedy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Author Nathaniel Rich joins us now from New Orleans. First, tell us how close did we come? How different was the climate for climate conversations?

NATHANIEL RICH: It was remarkably different, and in many ways, remarkably the same. By 1979, there was a strong consensus within the scientific community about the nature of the problem. The fundamental science hasn’t really evolved since then. It’s only been refined really. There was no politicization of the issue throughout the decade. A number of prominent Republicans were leading the charge to insist on a major climate policy, and industry, which we now blame for much of our paralysis, had not turned against science or truth and if anything, especially in the early part of the decade, was engaged in trying to understand the problem and determine solutions. Over the course of the decade, the issue rose to major national attention and a process for a global treaty was in hand. We failed at the end of that to sign a binding agreement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So why did we fail? What was it that created that paralysis that we’re so familiar with today?

NATHANIEL RICH: Well, there’s sort of a simple political answer, a very narrow answer I suppose you could make which is that in the first George Bush administration, his chief of staff—former governor of New Hampshire John Sununu who is an engineer, a Ph.D.—was very skeptical about the science of global warming and he suspected that it was being used by a cabal of folks who wanted to suppress growth and economic advancement and all of that, and he managed to win an internal fight within that White House against action. That’s that’s kind of the most limited possible answer. That piece tells the story of that political conversation.

I think the larger answer has to do with how we as a species try to reckon with vast technological problems that will only affect folks decades or generations from now. Of course, that’s not the case anymore. But in the early 80s, that was how the conversation was being constructed. And so I think there’s a kind of larger conversation to be had about why we were so unable to tackle this when we had a great opportunity to do so, and then there’s the more narrow conversation about the inside politics of the matter.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You write at one point that the American Petroleum Institute in the late 50s and 60s, they were conducting their own research and coming to the same conclusions that the scientists were. And you also point out that even the CIA in 1974 had written a report looking at climate change basically as a national security threat or a global security threat.

NATHANIEL RICH: By the mid-50s, you had top government scientists speaking about the issue. You had major articles in Life Magazine and Time. So it wasn’t just industry that was following it. It was at the highest levels of government. Lyndon Johnson sent a special message to Congress in 1965 that discussed the problem. So the idea that that we’ve only understood it in recent years is one of the worst examples we have of the cultural amnesia of this country and especially around this issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the meetings that you describe in great detail starts to get to the same challenges that we have, you see people trying to water down language not wanting to make a decision today, leave the decision for others.

NATHANIEL RICH: There’s still a basic discomfort with trying to propose a drastic transformation or immediate transformation of the whole energy economy which is to say our economy. And so even folks who agree on every aspect of the issue, the science, and the politics still were not able to negotiate even the most basic statement of purpose. And I think that we still see that problem today frankly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Author Nathaniel Rich writing for The New York Times Magazine. Thanks for joining us.

NATHANIEL RICH: Thanks for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The report is called “Losing Earth.” It will be published online later this week and in the magazine next weekend.