The New York Times Magazine has published an entire issue devoted to a single investigative piece on climate change, which observes that by the late 1970s and early 1980s, “everybody knew” it was happening. The conclusion is a major blow to climate activists, who have spent years engaging in a political campaign targeting energy companies for supposedly covering up the risks of climate change, and thus preventing global action.
The author, Nathaniel Rich, writes that from 1979 to 1989 humanity had the best opportunity it has ever had to solve global warming and that “nothing stood in our way – nothing except ourselves.” Rich even goes as far as to say that “[a] common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry,” but during the time when “everybody knew,” oil companies “including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with possible solutions.”
This lengthy report shreds the narrative put out by anti-oil and gas activists in recent years. As Rich told PBS NewsHour:
“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…
“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.” (emphasis added)
If all of humanity was informed of the dangers of climate change in the 1970s and agreed that something needed to be done, how can activists lay the blame for global inaction at the feet of the industry and political partisanship? As Rich writes,
“The rallying cry of this multipronged legal effort is ‘Exxon Knew.’ It is incontrovertibly true that senior employees at the company that would later become Exxon, like those at most other major oil-and-gas corporations, knew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1950s. But the automobile industry knew, too, and began conducting its own research by the early 1980s, as did the major trade groups representing the electrical grid. They all own responsibility for our current paralysis and have made it more painful than necessary. But they haven’t done it alone.
“The United States government knew. Roger Revelle began serving as a Kennedy administration adviser in 1961, five years after establishing the Mauna Loa carbon-dioxide program, and every president since has debated the merits of acting on climate policy. Carter had the Charney report, Reagan had ‘Changing Climate’ and Bush had the censored testimony of James Hansen and his own public vow to solve the problem. Congress has been holding hearings for 40 years; the intelligence community has been tracking the crisis even longer.
“Everybody knew. In 1958, on prime-time television, ‘The Bell Science Hour’ — one of the most popular educational film series in American history — aired ‘The Unchained Goddess,’ a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra, a dozen years removed from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ warning that ‘man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate’ through the release of carbon dioxide. ‘A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,’ says the film’s kindly host, the bespectacled Dr. Research. ‘An inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.’ Capra’s film was shown in science classes for decades.
“Everyone knew — and we all still know.” (emphasis added)
This conclusion – that #EveryoneKnew – is even supported by activists, though they haven’t yet followed their arguments to their logical conclusion.
Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace were quick to follow #ExxonKnew with #ShellKnew and #UtilitiesKnew, blaming every company they don’t like while failing to acknowledge their own amnesia on climate change. The idea that energy companies “knew everything there was to know about climate change,” as Bill McKibben likes to say, and that the rest of us didn’t know about it until James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988, “is one of the worst examples we have of the cultural amnesia of this country and especially around this issue,” Rich told NewsHour.
Confirming that Rich’s narrative is a direct threat to the multi-million-dollar campaign they have waged in recent years, anti-energy activists intensely criticized the report before it was even released.
The loudest pre-buttal came from Hunter Cutting, a director of strategic communications for Climate Nexus, a project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. The Rockefellers have funded every aspect of the #ExxonKnew campaign, and are no doubt alarmed by the New York Times contradicting the very basis for their campaign.
The activist group 350.org also condemned the story shortly after it was published.
— 350 dot org (@350) August 1, 2018
For several hours after the report was released, the umbrella group for the #ExxonKnew campaign dedicated its Twitter page to criticizing Rich’s narrative and retweeting others who were scrambling to control the damage.
Rich’s story ultimately concludes that it’s too simplistic to point your finger at one company, industry, or political party for inaction on climate change, which is a complex global problem. The issue was receiving mainstream media attention and was the subject of multiple Congressional hearings in the 1970s and 1980s, long before the supposed “disinformation campaign” that environmental activists cite ever began.
It may not have been the intent of New York Times Magazine to throw cold water on a fringe environmental activists campaign, but the damage has clearly been done. The attempt at damage control from the #ExxonKnew campaign is only beginning.