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The word “causing” stands out in the title of James Gustave “Gus” Speth’s new book, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis. Not merely “ignoring,” but causing. It is an indictment, and, in fact, that’s what this book is. It invokes memories of Pete Seeger’s song from the ’60s about a Marine platoon forced to cross a river that was too deep. “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy,” he sang, “and the big fool said to push on.”
Back in 2015, a group of 21 plaintiffs, none older than 19, submitted a brief to the District Court for the District of Oregon arguing that the U.S. government had violated its constitutional responsibility to protect their right to life, liberty, and property by knowingly “perpetuating a fossil-fuel-based energy system despite long-standing knowledge of its harms.” The charge is that we have known the dangers for a long time, that we have been fully appraised of what was necessary to avoid those dangers, and that, over and over, our nation’s leadership chose not merely to ignore this knowledge, but despite knowing, continued to push on. Referred to by the first-named plaintiff, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, as Juliana v. United States, the case is supported by Speth’s expert testimony. That testimony provides the core of They Knew.
But who are “they”? And what did they know? Don’t we already know enough? Even if human beings caused global warming, aren’t we all guilty because of our profligate lifestyles? Or is it the advertising industry? Or private industry lobbyists? Or dark money? There are literally hundreds of books and thousands of articles in dozens of languages telling stories about how we got here and what to do about it. Why read one more?
For one thing, as co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council over 50 years ago, Speth has worked for decades to address environmental issues. His résumé describes a lifetime of steady and extraordinary commitment to the common good. He became President Carter’s principal climate adviser when Al Gore was just a freshman congressman and Bill McKibben was still a high school kid. With a lifetime of privileged access at the highest levels of government, his knowledge of the complex interplay of climate and politics is as rich as that of any person living.
For another, although public awareness of the climate threat is far greater now than it has ever been, with that awareness inevitably comes the knowledge that we need far more than individual changes in lifestyle; that we need broad systemic change. Complicit as we may be as individuals, the more intractable causes of this wicked problem lie elsewhere.
After a brief summary of early climate politics, Speth begins his account with the Carter administration, when he was appointed head of the Council on Environmental Quality.
He then relentlessly walks us through seven succeeding administrations’ tortured floundering between acknowledgment and denial of the steady rise in atmospheric carbon that was causing record-breaking global heating year after year.
Carter was fully cognizant of the danger, and some of us well remember him wearing a cardigan as he addressed the nation in a White House set at 68 degrees to emphasize the importance of energy conservation. Carter knew, and, with Speth and others, he set about establishing a foundation for a realistic attack on the problem. “President Carter was, I believe, prepared to tackle the climate issue in some meaningful way had he been reelected,” Speth writes. “But that was not to be.”
By the end of his term, it was clear that the government knew the danger, knew of alternatives, and over five subsequent administrations, continued to move ever deeper into the Big Muddy.
With his account of the Reagan administration, Speth levels his accusation: “This national energy policy of the last four decades is, in my view, the greatest dereliction of civic responsibility in the history of the Republic.”
From then on, the story is almost monotonously the same. With the exception of Trump, every presidential candidate managed to sound hopeful about licking global warming … at first. For the first two years of his administration, Reagan’s department of energy produced “critical research on CO2 emissions and potential climate impacts.” But then Speth’s former agency, the CEQ, did an about-face, falling suddenly silent about climate change. And despite the heroic efforts of staff, such as Environmental Protection Agency head Bill Ruckelshaus and climate scientist James Hansen, Reagan cut funding for alternative energy, dismantled auto emissions standards, dramatically increased offshore drilling, and—borrowing from the tobacco industry—employed the “uncertainty principle,” arguing that “the science is not understood well enough to formulate meaningful policies.” Unbelievably, this argument still endures in some corners today. And the big fool said to push on.
“Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect,” boasted George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail, adding, “I intend to do something about it.” Report after report warned of the dangers to come if bold action was not taken. But Bush’s administration was caught red-handed trying to change James Hansen’s testimony about global warming. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, actively encouraged support from the fossil fuel industry to undermine public consensus around climate change. Clearly, despite its early grandstanding, the H.W. administration did not take long to push on into the Muddy.
One might have expected the Clinton administration to do better. After all, his vice president was Al Gore. Speth acknowledges that “President Clinton clearly grasped the gravity of climate change,” and his administration warned that unless we take action to reduce greenhouse gases, “our children and grandchildren will pay the price.” Hopes rose when 190 countries signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, promising to reduce emissions. But opposition from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate doomed the treaty. Clinton was forced to withdraw it from the Senate, and once again, we just pushed on.
Under George W. Bush? Same story. During his first term, the U.S. Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the EPA all issued warning reports. And in early speeches, Bush clearly reaffirmed the need to reduce greenhouse gases. But it didn’t last long, and by his second term, his administration had “focused its research and development on fossil fuels and not renewable energy research,” and had begun to take “actions that were at odds with the science.” The CEQ was now in the hands of Philip Cooney, a former oil lobbyist who was forced to resign when he was caught having edited scientific reports—just like what had happened under H.W. Bush. In the end, with power clearly in the hands of fossil fuel interests, greenhouse gases continued to increase unabated. Speth sums it up this way: “Admit that it’s happening on the one hand, but at the same time, cast doubt on the science, while supporting the fossil fuel industry and expanding fossil fuel development on the other hand.”
President Obama was clear about his commitment. Speaking at COP21 in Paris, he said, “I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” Yet although he understood the problem and showcased his Clean Power Plan to meet the goals set by the conference, it was too little, too late. In the end, the need to meet the Paris Agreement’s aspiration to hold emission increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius proved too steep, and Speth concludes that despite its earnest intentions, the administration’s climate policy efforts “fell far short of a reasonable response to the dangerous climate situation facing young people.” They may not have pushed on, but they were unable to turn back either, especially in light of what happened next.
By the time Speth comes to the next administration, he has made his case. Although he rigorously catalogs the disastrous actions of the Trump years, it remained only to state the obvious. “The Trump administration has acted with reckless disregard of the lives of young people and future generations. … [It] has sought to eliminate virtually every climate protecting initiative of prior administrations.”
Although Speth was charged with framing his narrative as a detective story, at the end of the day, it is more a tragedy than a mystery. Sure, there are cops and robbers, and no reader can miss the whodunit. But despite the overwhelming evidence that the fossil fuel industry has poured its disinformation and enormous fortunes into the system for decades to denigrate the scientists, corrupt the politicians, and corrode the truth, the robbers are not the defendants in this case. It’s a case against the U.S. government, and in a democracy, that means us. We are all paying, and the tragedy is that the youngest will pay the most for the longest.
They Knew is a must-read, because this book is not so much “history” as it is a window into the present, in which the pressures from the fossil fuel industry and the processes of government collide. The more we can see what they knew then, the greater the possibility that we can contend with what we know now.
Larry Parks Daloz served as the first dean of the Community College of Vermont and taught at Lesley, Norwich, and Columbia Universities. A member of the founding group of the Whidbey Institute, he was an Associate Director and faculty member from 1997 to 2006. He is co-author of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. He now lives in New Hampshire, where he is a co-founder of SSAFE.org, a climate action group of elders.