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Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet

The New York Times Magazine on Wednesday published a full-issue article, along with aerial photos and videos, about American action on climate from 1979 to 1989. (Photo: The New York Times Magazine/screenshot)

NYT Magazine's #LosingEarth Receives Scathing Reviews From Climate Action Movement

Critics argue the full-issue feature by the prominent publication "suppresses important facts, covering up how organized climate denial created our current predicament."

Jessica Corbett

Experts and activists on Wednesday are responding to The New York Times Magazine's full-issue article on the global climate crisis with a combination of fury and frustration, arguing that the piece "suppresses important facts, covering up how organized climate denial created our current predicament."

"This piece falls short in holding the companies and executives responsible for climate destruction accountable in the present day."
—May Boeve, 350.org

The magazine published a heavily promoted narrative by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Losing Earth: the Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change," which focuses on the period from 1979 to 1989 and aims to track "the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists, and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe."

Many scientists, journalists, and activists criticized Rich for suggestions that it is too late to take impactful action to address the crisis—he writes, "Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario," and "we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance"—and "human nature has brought us to this place," rather than placing the blame for fossil fuel emissions on wealthy industry executives and politicians who deny the reality of man-made climate change.

The environmental group 350.org tweeted:

"This piece falls short in holding the companies and executives responsible for climate destruction accountable in the present day," declared 350.org executive director May Boeve. "With the window for action quickly closing, it's up to all of us to keep fossil fuel billionaires and our elected officials on the hook for meaningful action on climate justice."

And yet, as Robinson Meyer wrote for The Atlantic in an early response to the piece, "By portraying the early years of climate politics as a tragedy, the magazine lets Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry off the hook."

"Sadly, unfortunately, frustratingly, the article misses the mark. It's a missed opportunity to tell a full, nuanced story about a critical time in the climate story, and it risks [leaving] readers throwing their hands up in hopelessness."
—David Turnbull, USCAN
"Sadly, unfortunately, frustratingly, the article misses the mark. It's a missed opportunity to tell a full, nuanced story about a critical time in the climate story, and it risks [leaving] readers throwing their hands up in hopelessness," responded David Turnbull, board chair of the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) and the strategic communications director at Oil Change International and ClimateTruth.org Action.

"The premise that a few (well-intentioned!) mostly white men could have solved the climate crisis in some back rooms on their own is simply a flawed premise," Turbull added. "Further, it absolves some of the worst actors in this story of blame... The fossil fuel industry and their friends in Congress have stalled progress on climate change and there's simply no denying that."

#ExxonKnew—a campaign that grew out of reporting that ExxonMobil spent decades concealing internal research that warned about the impacts of its products and, instead, intentionally misled the public—pointed out that politicians in power today continue to push the lies crafted by the fossil fuel industry:

After reading the piece ahead of its publication, one climate organizer remarked to her Twitter followers late Tuesday, "You all will be the first to know when I take a break from smashing my head against the wall for the next 40 years... Can't wait to read everyone's thought pieces about it tomorrow and to hear the distant clink of champagne glasses from ExxonMobil's headquarters."

Devyn Powell, a 350.org digital campaigner with ties to Sunrise Movement and D.C. ReInvest, offered the following summary of Rich's lengthy report:

"It's great (and rare) to see an outfit as prestigious as [the Times] devote this much attention to climate change, to foreground the planetary crisis with the emphasis it deserves," noted environmental journalist and public speaker Alex Steffen. However, as Steffen outlined on Twitter, "It's work that doesn't know its history, and so makes old mistakes."

"It's a long essay that gets its subject wrong, and the ways it goes wrong are ways many of us who work on climate have seen again and again," Steffen continued. "[Rich] doesn't just minimize the extent of the opposition to climate action during the Reagan administration, he practically erases it. That's a serious failure of climate journalism, because that history of opposition continues to define the core of climate politics today."

Although it is significant that—as Alexander Kaufman, a climate reporter for The Huffington Post, put it—"the paper of record published this as its longest story ever," many readers walked away disappointed and demanded that the Times produce more accurate climate coverage, especially considering that this feature is based on 18 months of reporting and more than 100 interviews.

Genevieve Guenther, a climate messaging strategist, concluded in a long thread on Twitter:


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