Shannon Osaka in Salon:
This weekend, the New York Times’ print subscribers received something kind of crazy: A 66-page magazine with only a single article — and it’s on climate change. The long-form piece, written by Nathaniel Rich and titled “Losing Earth,” is also available online and makes for fascinating, if sometimes depressing, reading. Between 1979 and 1989, Rich writes, humanity almost solved the problem of global warming. The piece follows climate scientist James Hansen and environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance as they try to get pretty much anyone — politicians, the media, energy companies — to engage and act on the issue of climate change. But while they managed to move global warming onto the public stage, the opportunity for binding international action came and went with the 1989 U.N. climate conference in the Netherlands. The U.S. delegation, led by a recalcitrant Reagan appointee, balked when faced with an actual agreement.
“Why didn’t we act?” Rich asks, almost plaintively, in his prologue. He argues that the primary barriers to inaction today — widespread climate denial and propagandizing by far-right groups and fossil fuel companies — had not emerged by the mid-1980s. “Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves,” he writes. Rich has already come under fire for this perspective. Many writers have complained that he is letting fossil fuel companies and Republicans off the hook. But is it true? Is human nature itself to blame for inaction? A fair number of scholars agree — to a point. For a long time, climate change has been called a “wicked problem” or even a “super-wicked problem” by behavioral economists and policy experts. As political scientist Steve Rayner has written, climate change has no simple solution, no silver bullet. It is scientifically complex and comes with deep uncertainties about the future. It cuts across boundaries, both disciplinary and national. Its worst effects will occur in the future, not in the here and now. And it requires large-scale, systemic changes to society.