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What They Knew: The U.S. Government & Climate Crisis
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What They Knew: The U.S. Government & Climate Crisis

Does the Climate Crisis Inspire Anger?


In a new book, Gus Speth charts 50 years of the U.S. government’s role in causing global warming.

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. Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana is the first named plaintiff. Juliana v. United StatesSpeth supports the case.’s expert testimony. This testimony is the core of They knew.

But who are “they”? What did they know about us? 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 advertising? Or lobbyists in the private sector? Or dark money? There are literally hundreds upon thousands of articles in dozens languages that tell the story of how we got there and what we can do about it. Why not read another?

Speth, for one, was the co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council, over 50 years ago. He has worked for decades on 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. His knowledge of the complex interplay between climate and politics is as deep as any living person because of his lifetime of privilege at the highest levels government.

One more, while public awareness of climate danger is higher than ever, we know that we need to make lifestyle changes that are far more important than individual ones. Systemic change. As complicit as we may be, the root causes of this wicked problem are elsewhere.

After a brief overview of early climate politics, Speth starts his account with Carter’s administration, when he was named 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 acutely aware of the danger and wore a cardigan when he addressed the nation in a White House that was set at 68 degrees to emphasize energy conservation. Carter was aware of the danger and he began to work with Speth and others to create a foundation for a realistic approach to 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.”

At the end of his term it was clear that government knew the danger and knew of options. Five subsequent administrations continued to push the Big Muddy further.

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.”

The story continues almost in the same way from then on. 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. The big fool told us to keep going.

“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, the H.W. It didn’t take too long for the administration to push on into Muddy.

One might have expected that the Clinton administration would do better. Al Gore was his vice president. 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. The treaty was thwarted by both Republicans and Democrats in Senate. Clinton was forced by the Senate to withdraw it, and we just continued.

George W. Bush? Same story. During Bush’s first term the U.S. Department of State and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all issued warning statements. Bush reiterated the need to reduce greenhouse gasses in his early speeches. 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. With power clearly in fossil fuel interests’ hands, greenhouse gases continued to rise 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.”

Obama was very clear about his pledge. 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.

Speth has already made his case by the time he is elected to the next administration. He outlined the many disastrous Trump years but it was only enough to say 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.”

Speth was charged for framing his narrative in a detective story. However, it is more of tragedy than mystery. There are cops and robbers. However, it is impossible to miss the whodunit. The overwhelming evidence suggests that the fossil fuel business has used disinformation and huge fortunes to corrupt politicians over decades to denigrate scientists and corrode truth. But the robbers will not be the defendants in this case. It’s a case against the U.S. government, and in a democracy, that means us. We all pay, and the tragedy of it is that the youngest will be the ones who have to pay the most over the long-term.

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. We can only contend with what they knew back then if we see more of what they did.


Larry Parks Daloz
He was the first dean of Vermont’s Community College and taught at Columbia, Norwich, and Lesley Universities. He was a founding member of the Whidbey Institute and served as Associate Director and faculty member between 1997-2006. He is the co-author of Common Fire, Leading Lives of Commitment In A Complex World. He lives now in New Hampshire with his co-founder, It is a group of elders who take action on climate change.


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