US Climate Politics History Lesson — CleanTech Talk with Nathaniel Rich

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In this episode of our CleanTech Talk podcast interview series, Zach Shahan sits down with Nathaniel Rich, novelist, essayist, and writer at large for the New York Times Magazine. Together, they discuss Nathaniel’s new book, Losing Earth: A Recent History, detailing the history of public climate change understanding and the larger, unaddressed issues and moral questions arising from the climate crisis. You can listen to the full conversation in the embedded player below. Below that embedded SoundCloud player is a brief summary of the topics covered, but tune into the podcast to follow the full discussion.

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A couple of years ago, Nathaniel’s editors asked him to take on an unusual task: write an entire issue-length article about climate change. The article, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” explored the time period between 1979 and 1989 when an understanding of climate change entered the general public’s concern, unaffected by politicization of the issue and industry-funded influence. As Nathaniel said, there seemed to be a real possibility of addressing the issues presented through scientific and government consensus. The article drew international acclaim for exploring a world far from the political atmosphere surrounding climate change today, and Nathaniel decided to expand the article into his book, taking the story up to the present day and exploring current communication surrounding the issue. 

Zach and Nathaniel take time to explore what they observe as a disconnect between public concern for climate change’s immediate and future threats, and the actual actions that are taken as a result of this concern. Through his research, Nathaniel found that while it would seem that catastrophic consequences of inaction would prompt a reasonable response, he felt whether or not people felt the need to act has revolved around the question: If all humans agreed on the facts surrounding climate change, can our economic system, political system, and democracy respond? Asked as early as the late 1970s, answers developed by experts have tended to be pessimistic. The United States, Nathaniel explained, is not good at responding to long-term threats, especially when a response would require any sacrifice in the short term. According to Nathaniel, this understanding has shaped our ability to effectively respond to the dismal future before us.

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Next, the two launch into a discussion about the types of climate change communication, and the ways in which this communication differs across political divides. Nathaniel ultimately believes that the best way to communicate climate change is to understand the issue in moral terms. Both Nathaniel and Zach explain how this type of communication and storytelling, which appeals to a higher sense of right and wrong, can be effective at moving past the science and resonating with a broader audience. For Nathaniel, it is all about the moral question and understanding how climate change impacts all areas of society.

A question Nathaniel explores in his book is industry influence in US energy policy. Zach and Nathaniel talk about the differences between the Carter presidency, which was the first presidency to begin to address the moral question of global environmental issues, and the Reagan presidency, which marks the start of a long history of fossil fuel industry influence in politics. This fossil fuel industry coziness with politicians is something both Zach and Nathaniel discuss as being apparent in today’s politics, and it has indisputably inhibited meaningful action.

The final topic Nathaniel and Zach discuss is the criticism of media coverage of climate change. While Nathaniel notes generalizing about “the media” as a single entity is unfair, there are more general systemic issues in the media that reflect current systemic problems our country faces, such as our inability to make connections between climate and various sectors of our society. Our hunger for fresh and breaking news and our shorter attention spans have molded media coverage of climate change to focus on daily extreme events, not on the broader crisis at hand. According to Zach and Nathaniel, this limits our long-view and ability to fully grasp the importance of addressing such an extreme threat.

But Nathaniel is hopeful, as his book has already gained a following and popular support. It has become clear to him that there is a desire to grapple intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically with the issues at hand, and he notes that the reading public wants to understand the issues in a more profound way. For Nathaniel, it is the stories that he believes can capture people’s attention and stimulate action. 

To hear more on these topics, listen to the show

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