By Chris White | Energy Reporter
- NYT’s editors talked with activists before publishing a piece criticizing much of the anti-Exxon hysteria
- Climate skeptics and activists are thrashing the NYT’s piece explaining the birth of the climate change movement
- A reporter who suggested Exxon is not a climate villain appears to change tune at a private dinner
The author of a highly criticized article arguing that oil companies get too much of the blame for climate change met with environmentalists and scientists the night before publishing the lengthy piece.
The New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and writer Nathaniel Rich hosted a dinner with activists hours before the newspaper published a 30,000-word piece arguing oil companies are not the primary villain in the climate battle, E&E News reported Thursday. Rich’s comments at the soiree appear to contradict elements of his article’s main thesis — human nature is the main obstacle to enacting climate policy.
“I wouldn’t let the fossil fuel industry off for anything. I think that they’ve committed crimes against humanity, and I think that’s how they’ll be seen in the future,” he said at the event, which gathered 50 people to a snazzy New Your City restaurant to dine on Maine scallops and farm-raised chicken. The meeting was designed to discuss the merits and demerits of Rich’s piece, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”
But he did tell those gathered at the restaurant that heaping the blame on ExxonMobil and others was not a good way to approach the history of climate change. “In fact, it’s almost a form of self-flattery to think that ‘Well, if it wasn’t for this villain, we would have solved this.’ And that seems to me to be a very limited way of looking at the issue, which I don’t think excuses [the fossil fuel industry] at all,” he said, adding that “there’s a false safety in blaming them for this entire crisis,” he said.
Rich’s narrative focuses around the failed efforts of “a handful of people, among them a hyperkinetic lobbyist and a guileless atmospheric physicist who, at great personal cost, tried to warn humanity of what was coming.” Climate scientists did their level-best in the early 1980s to give “shrewd, passionate,” and “robust” arguments for acting, he wrote. But “they failed.”
His article follows the historical actions of former Friends of the Earth lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who worked to sound the alarm on catastrophic global warming and convince world leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Former Vice President Al Gore even makes an appearance in Rich’s retelling of how scientists almost defeated global warming in the 1980s.
The piece received criticism from climate skeptics and activists who have long-argued propaganda from Exxon and Chevron were the biggest obstacles for climate scientists. Pennsylvania State University academic Michael Mann argued that Rich’s piece, while unique in some ways, ultimately gave Exxon and others a “free pass.”
“Frankly, I think a lot is missing,” Mann told reporters at E&E. “The article feels tone-deaf to me. Its message, to quote the great and powerful Oz, seems to be ‘pay no attention to that billions-dollar fossil fuel industry disinformation campaign behind the curtain.’” Dark money from Exxon’s financial backers is mostly responsible for the impasse, he added.
Rich’s arguments also got pushback from academics who are skeptical about some of the scientific models showing man-made global warming could lead to calamitous weather events in the future. (RELATED: People Aren’t Buying NYT Magazine’s Claim We Could Have Stopped Global Warming In The 1980S)
“By the time Reagan came along, conservatives were already against EPA because it already had gotten out of control,” Myron Ebell, who led President Donald Trump’s EPA transition team, told reporters. “This romance that somehow Republicans went sour … that isn’t what happened.”
Roger Pielke, Jr., a University of Colorado professor who has been involved in climate policy discussions for decades, mirrored much of Ebell’s point.
“This NYT article on climate policy history brings together alternative history with a disaster movie plot (brave scientists warns the world),” Pielke Jr. wrote in a tweet Wednesday to his followers. “The world was not on the brink of rapid decarbonization in the 1980s. It’s a fun story though.”
The narrative that Exxon knew about climate change in the 1970s and 1980s has become a central focus for many environmentalists. A Harvard report conducted in August 2017, for instance, accused the oil company of producing troves of research affirming the existence of global warming, while using advertorials to cast doubt on climate change.
Researchers tossed cold water on the study, though. A report from research group Energy in Depth (EID) found that more than 90 percent of the advertorials acknowledged that climate change was caused in part by human action. Rich’s piece supports EID’s research — that the oil company became more hesitant to push climate policies after activists began targeting them as the enemies.
Politicians eventually used the narrative to create a full-on assault against Exxon. Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, for instance, spent more than a year probing the oil company based on claims that Exxon downplayed for decades the severity of global warming to investors. Much of his probe was based on reports from liberal-leaning media outlet InsideClimate News, which alleged in a report in 2017 that Exxon has spent decades shelving evidence of climate change.