Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 18, 2019

Nathaniel Rich on Why Republicans Embrace Climate Denial

Media file: 4_antarctica_01_copy.jpg


Losing Earth

Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet. The world was ready to act. But we failed to do...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors
Nathaniel Rich with Christiane Amanpour. Image courtesy of PBS Newshour. 2019.
Nathaniel Rich with Christiane Amanpour. Image courtesy of PBS Newshour. 2019.

View the full video on the Amanpour & Co. website.


Take us now back to the beginning of this.

Why is the United States sort of an outlier when it comes to this almost official policy in the republican party of climate denialism?

It's remarkable especially given that as early as 1979 we had total scientific consensus on climate change, not just within the scientific community, but at the highest levels of the u.s. government, the intelligence agencies, and, of course, the oil and gas industry.

The first efforts, and this is the story of 'losing earth', scientists and activists and bureaucrats who tried to move from theory to action, and over the course of the decade, '79 to '89, it was not a partisan issue.

There were setbacks, but by the end of the decade they moved it through the threshold of a solution, a binding retreat to reduce emissions that would have been signed by every country in the world, but at the last, no, i didn't, u.s. dropped out. in retrospect, that's the closest we've gotten. 

That's also the moment in which the oil and gas industry started to work on this propaganda and influence campaign that we are still in the grips of 40 years later.

You just talked about the industry.

Indeed, in the late '80s the american petroleum institute started paying certain scientists to write op-ed that questioned global warming.

How did that gain traction in the mainstream?

It's a remarkable story.

The director of the environmental unit at api told me all of this when i was doing my research that in '89, as it seemed that there was sure to be some kind of regulatory policy and some kind of global retreat, the industry started to figure out what its public stance should be.

They put together a working group and the conclusion at first were essentially we should talk about the uncertainty in the science, where it exists, they weren't saying that the whole science was uncertain, and we should make sure no policy—we endorse no policy that affects the bottom line. That's the beginning of it.

They start to find a few scientists and it's a very small few, about three or four people originally who are close to the industry and can be trusted to write editorials, often for a fee, $2,000 a pop at the time, and start to speak to reporters. And all of a sudden an issue that at that point was gaining a huge amount of attention nationally and was not—there weren't two sides. Everyone was just concerned in trying to figure out what to do about it.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
orange halftone illustration of three newspapers stacked on each other


Misinformation and Disinformation

Misinformation and Disinformation

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues