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No, we didn’t almost s­olve the climate crisis in the 1980s

Climate Marches Take Place Across Country
People march from the US Capitol to the White House for the People’s Climate Movement on April 29, 2017, in Washington, DC. 
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

This Sunday, millions of readers opened their New York Times Magazines to find an entire issue devoted to a single story: climate change. Over 30,000 words, the article spins a tale spanning the 1980s. The author, Nathaniel Rich, tells us how scientists and activists could see the coming climate crisis and tried to stop it.

What blocked these individuals from saving the planet? Rich advances a provocative thesis. It wasn’t fossil fuel companies, the Republican Party, or other political elites. Instead, he argues, it was an act of collective shortsightedness.

The article is a compelling read about the biggest challenge facing the planet right now. But its thesis is misguided and inconsistent with political science scholarship on domestic climate politics. In particular, there is no empirical evidence for the claim that we collectively came close to solving the climate crisis in the 1980s.

Between us, we have conducted more than 200 interviews with senior policymakers, bureaucrats, political officials, and environmental advocates on the history of energy and climate policymaking in the United States and across other advanced economies. Our research projects conclude that we are not all equally to blame for the climate crisis. To explain policy inaction, we can’t just look at individuals and human nature. We need stories that include institutions: political parties and interest groups.

On interest groups, Rich’s logic is backward. In the 1980s, opponents had not yet mobilized because the threat of costly climate policy was still remote. We need only recall E.E. Schattschneider’s scope of conflict to see why. Corporations that profit from selling fossil fuels, like Exxon, did not need to run a public campaign denying climate science when the issue was barely on the congressional agenda. Why bring the public into a conversation politicians and parties have barely started?

Instead, as both Rich’s article and academic scholarship emphasize, when the policy threat loomed in the late 1980s, carbon-intensive economic interests began to aggressively contest climate science. And no wonder. Jobs and profits were at stake. Climate policy is costly. It keeps profits in the ground.

It wasn’t just oil companies that felt threatened. It was gas companies and coal companies, electric utilities and industrial unions, railway companies and industrial agriculture. Across society, carbon polluters told their representatives that the best option was delay.

Nor does the article properly interpret the dynamics of party conflict over climate change. Rich tells us that the 1980s were a prime moment for climate action because the Republican Party had not yet formed a wall of opposition.

But the existence of climate supporters across both parties does not make partisan opponents disappear. Nor does it make policy likely. A few trial bills by Democratic representatives does not signal imminent action in Congress.

Instead, our research finds that across the Reagan and Bush administrations, there was enough opposition to go around — climate policy opponents were embedded in both parties. This bipartisan opposition continued into the Clinton administration. In the 1990s, executive branch policymakers dismissed the idea of a carbon tax because policymakers knew that West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, would block any measure harmful to coal.

In reality, the carbon-intensive economic interests that benefit from destabilizing our climate worked hard to polarize public opinion and political elites whenever binding policy that would cut into their profits was put on the table. That’s why “we” haven’t solved the problem.

Lest you think this is conspiratorial thinking, rest assured: Plenty of social science research and investigative journalism has shown fossil fuel companies knew what they were doing.

There was never an easy time to solve this problem because it is not a simple problem. Climate reforms require real costs that cut across society.

From the perspective of our research, the decade the US came closest to solving the crisis spanned the late 1990s to 2009. In 1997, the world agreed to binding action under the Kyoto Protocol. Countries, states, and provinces passed renewable energy laws. In 2001, the UK set up a carbon price.

In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore both ran for the White House promising climate action. Bush transition documents reaffirmed this commitment. By 2001, Senate Republicans and Democrats had quietly negotiated a deal on cap and trade, coming closer to binding federal action for the first time.

But Vice President Dick Cheney and other pro-oil voices within the administration scuttled the plan days before its announcement — another opportunity for action lost.

Over the subsequent decade, prominent Democrats and Republican allies like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner floated carbon pricing trial balloons in the US Senate. This legislative effort came to a head in 2009 when the House passed landmark legislation to put a price on carbon.

But that bill never passed the Senate. This time, Congress came even closer to acting, but missed at the eleventh hour.

What went wrong? Our work emphasizes exactly the problems that Rich dismisses: interest group opposition and partisan polarization, elected officials with ties to carbon polluters blocking the plan. Theda Skocpol’s research also shows that climate advocates did not mobilize the public sufficiently to support the far-reaching climate reform.

Instead, in the following decade under the Obama administration, US climate policy shifted to executive action through regulation. With Donald Trump’s election, these plans are being rolled back. A proposal to weaken the transportation rules was announced on Thursday.

Stopping the climate crisis has not gotten much easier since the end of the 1980s. But it’s also not gotten harder. The dramatic political conflict we’ve seen over the past two decades is the result of taking the climate threat seriously. Had we tried ambitious reforms earlier, opponents would have emerged from the woodwork then.

None of us can choose unilaterally to live in a low-carbon society. We are at the mercy of institutions and political structures. Some of those institutions have worked very hard to stall for decades.

To prevent the worst consequences of dangerous, human-caused climate change, advocates, scientists and politicians must work together to hold our political institutions accountable. Only then will we find our best chance to start solving this crisis.

Matto Mildenberger and Leah C. Stokes are both assistant professors of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara.