They started lying the year I was born
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.
It’s Thursday, which means it’s the last issue of the week.
This coming Monday is Indigenous People’s Day. To honor it, every issue of HEATED next week will center on indigenous climate stories. Have suggestions for people I should speak with, or topics I should cover? Email me: email@example.com.
Monday is also my 30th birthday. So today I would like to talk about the year I was born.
What scientists knew in 1989
I was born on October 14, 1989, at St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan, to my gorgeous and witty mother Gretchen and my wise-cracking father Tom. Here is the first photo even taken of me.
That same year, while I was growing in my mom’s belly, scientists and experts made some pretty alarming predictions about what was then widely known as “the greenhouse effect.”
Here are some of the more notable ones:
The California Energy Commission predicted climate change would cause water shortages; that heat and drought would stress forests; and that forests would “experience lower growth and higher susceptibility to fires, insects, and disease.”
“The report also warned that climate change would raise sea level, increase electricity demand, worsen air quality, increase heat-related deaths and be a drain on the state’s economy,” the L.A. Times reported.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a sweeping, 400-page report to Congress on the potential effects of climate change. The amount of detail is striking. It says many of the same things scientists are saying today.
The foreward to the report reads: “It is fair to say that climate change could lead to significant changes in many ecological and socioeconomic systems. The environmental impacts of a relatively rapid climate change may be particularly acute. Sea level rise could lead to the loss of many coastal wetlands, while a rapid warming could reduce the populations of many plants and animals and, in some cases, lead to extinction of species.”
George H.W. Bush’s deputy assistant secretary of state, Richard J. Smith, wrote: “If the climate change within the range of current predictions actually occurs, the consequences for every nation and every aspect of human activity will be profound.”
How Republicans reacted in 1989
Kevin Kirchner remembers 1988 and 1989 as busy years for governmental action on climate change—particularly with Republicans.
After NASA scientist Jim Hansen testified before the Senate that the greenhouse effect “is changing our climate now,” Kirchner said, “There were 5 bills introduced in Congress to regulate greenhouse gases. They were all bipartisan, and three of them had Republicans as co-sponsors.”
He remembers this because, at the time, Kirchner—now involved with climate liability lawsuits against fossil fuel companies—was working for New Jersey’s Republican governor Tom Kean. And he was helping Kean develop the first statewide plan to deal with climate change in the country, which was released in 1989. That same year, Kean co-hosted a big 3 day conference with climate scientists in New York City, Kirchner recalled.
When it came to climate policy, “Republicans were in the vanguard” in 1989, Kirchner said. That included the president of the United States. Through a 1989 presidential initiative, President George H.W. Bush established the U.S. Global Change Research Program—the sweeping intra-agency group that produces the National Climate Assessment.
It’s a far cry, to put it mildly, from where we are today.
What the fossil fuel industry did in 1989
As scientists sounded the alarm about the climate crisis, and Republicans and Democrats worked together to do something about it, and my parents prepared to welcome their second child into their home, the fossil fuel industry’s largest players were in the process of developing a misinformation campaign around climate science that would ultimately infiltrate Republican politics and prevent effective action from ever moving forward.
In 1989, the nation’s leading oil and automobile companies—led by ExxonMobil—created a group called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which was devoted to preventing regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.
This group was created despite years of documentation by Exxon’s own scientists that the products they sold—fossil fuels—had the potential to cause catastrophic climate change. As InsideClimate News reported in its Pulitzer Prize-finalist series “Exxon: The Road Not Taken:”
Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming's risks.
Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science.
Thus, for the next 13 years, the GCC “led an aggressive lobbying and advertising campaign .. sowing doubt about the integrity of the [international scientific community] and the scientific evidence that heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels drive global warming," reads an article published in the journal Climatic Change.
The model they created is the one that the Republican Party continues to use to prevent climate action to this day.
What I’m doing 30 years later
As the anniversary of my birth approaches, I’m in Fort Collins, Colorado for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference.
I flew here on an airplane. I felt guilty about it. I know I help cause climate change every time I fly. I help cause climate change every time I eat a hamburger, too, and every time I throw out a plastic bottle and then go out and by another one.
All individual humans help cause climate change. But our individual actions—our flights, our burgers, our plastic straws—did not cause the climate crisis.
The climate crisis—the one where where we only have a few years left to rapidly decarbonize society before we’re locked in to irreversible catastrophic warming—was caused by only a few rich and powerful humans: wire-pullers and profiteers who made the conscious decision to engage in a coordinated campaign of deceit instead of owning up to the inconvenient truths scientists were telling them.
They chose to lie then, and they continue to lie today. So now, instead of 41 years to halve society’s carbon emissions, we only have eleven.
So yeah, I flew to Colorado on a god damn airplane. Because I think the only way we solve a problem caused by widespread lying is by making the truth louder. I need to figure out how to do that more effectively, like the journalists at InsideClimate did. And I need to try and convince other climate journalists, to their faces, that this is the heart and soul of their job.
Then I need to fly back home and eat cake with Gretchen and Tom.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading HEATED!
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