I assigned one of my classes this long August 2018 Nathaniel Rich essay from the New York Times Magazine about how the world almost took climate change seriously and how that didn’t happen. And while I am sure that the story is more complicated than this, for Rich, the real villain is the administration of George Bush, especially Chief of Staff John Sununu, who made it his crusade to discredit climate science and was very influential in turning Bush away from doing anything about it.
Bush had chosen Sununu for his political instincts — he was credited with having won Bush the New Hampshire primary, after Bush came in third in Iowa, all but securing him the nomination. But despite his reputation as a political wolf, he still thought of himself as a scientist — an “old engineer,” as he was fond of putting it, having earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. decades earlier. He lacked the reflexive deference that so many of his political generation reserved for the class of elite government scientists. Since World War II, he believed, conspiratorial forces had used the imprimatur of scientific knowledge to advance an “anti-growth” doctrine. He reserved particular disdain for Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” which prophesied that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death if the world took no step to curb population growth; the Club of Rome, an organization of European scientists, heads of state and economists, which similarly warned that the world would run out of natural resources; and as recently as the mid-’70s, the hypothesis advanced by some of the nation’s most celebrated scientists — including Carl Sagan, Stephen Schneider and Ichtiaque Rasool — that a new ice age was dawning, thanks to the proliferation of man-made aerosols. All were theories of questionable scientific merit, portending vast, authoritarian remedies to halt economic progress.
Sununu had suspected that the greenhouse effect belonged to this nefarious cabal since 1975, when the anthropologist Margaret Mead convened a symposium on the subject at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Unless the peoples of the world can begin to understand the immense and long-term consequences of what appear to be small immediate choices,” Mead wrote, “the whole planet may become endangered.” Her conclusions were stark, immediate and absent the caveats that hobbled the scientific literature. Or as Sununu saw it, she showed her hand: “Never before have the governing bodies of the world been faced with decisions so far-reaching,” Mead wrote. “It is inevitable that there will be a clash between those concerned with immediate problems and those who concern themselves with long-term consequences.” When Mead talked about “far-reaching” decisions and “long-term consequences,” Sununu heard the marching of jackboots.
In April, the director of the O.M.B., Richard Darman, a close ally of Sununu’s, mentioned that the NASA scientist James Hansen, who had forced the issue of global warming onto the national agenda the previous summer, was going to testify again — this time at a hearing called by Al Gore. Darman had the testimony and described it. Sununu was appalled: Hansen’s language seemed extreme, based on scientific arguments that he considered, as he later put it, like “technical garbage.”
While Sununu and Darman reviewed Hansen’s statements, the E.P.A. administrator, William K. Reilly, took a new proposal to the White House. The next meeting of the I.P.C.C.’s working group was scheduled for Geneva the following month, in May; it was the perfect occasion, Reilly argued, to take a stronger stand on climate change. Bush should demand a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions.
Sununu disagreed. It would be foolish, he said, to let the nation stumble into a binding agreement on questionable scientific merits, especially as it would compel some unknown quantity of economic pain. They went back and forth. Reilly didn’t want to cede leadership on the issue to the European powers; after all, the first high-level diplomatic meeting on climate change, to which Reilly was invited, would take place just a few months later in the Netherlands. Statements of caution would make the “environmental president” look like a hypocrite and hurt the United States’ leverage in a negotiation. But Sununu wouldn’t budge. He ordered the American delegates not to make any commitment in Geneva. Very soon after that, someone leaked the exchange to the press.
Sununu, blaming Reilly, was furious. When accounts of his argument with Reilly appeared in The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post ahead of the Geneva I.P.C.C. meeting, they made the White House look as if it didn’t know what it was doing.
A deputy of Jim Baker pulled Reilly aside. He said he had a message from Baker, who had observed Reilly’s infighting with Sununu. “In the long run,” the deputy warned Reilly, “you never beat the White House.”
George Bush was a bad president surrounded by bad people who did bad things. We are living with the consequences today.