Q&A: New York Times writer Nathaniel Rich on climate change and economics

Journalist and novelist Nathaniel Rich visited the University of Missouri last week for a series of events to discuss writing for a living and his latest article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” which appeared in last month’s New York Times Magazine, taking up the entire issue.

Missouri Business Alert caught up with Rich after a Q&A session Thursday night to ask our own questions about the economic drivers affecting today’s climate change conversations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: Have economic arguments moved the needle in terms of the whole climate change debate, and if so, how?

Nathaniel Rich: It’s not really my area of expertise, but I know there was something, a major academic study — David Roberts wrote about it in Vox — that was basically the net benefit to implementing policies that would move us from carbon emissions to renewable at a global level. It would be some dozens of trillions of dollars benefit to the global economy.

(The number Roberts quotes from the study is $26 trillion by 2030.)

So, I think those arguments are out there. Obviously, companies like Exxon are familiar with those arguments. And they’ve made a calculation not to pivot. Do you incentivize, as a corporation, the next quarter or the next 10 years?

What I can say with more economic authority is that people have been making economic arguments since the ‘70s. Has it moved the needle globally? Probably.

Coal employs something like 50,000 people in America. Wind energy and solar employs maybe five or six times that already. There are more yoga teachers than workers in the coal industry.

I think an interesting question, and one I don’t know the answer to, is, “Why does the coal industry have this outsized influence when it’s a smaller industry now? Where are the lobbyists for the solar industry? Where are the lobbyists for the wind industry? Why are they not as powerful?”

That would be the business article I’d want to know.

MBA: During the event, you mentioned how Exxon played a major role in thwarting the national debate over climate change. Have you seen any smaller business communities filling that void where national efforts have stalled?

NR: Even Exxon now, if you see their national ads, they talk about leading the effort to solve climate change through developing all these new technologies. I don’t know to what degree that’s b—s—.

But certainly now, their calculation is that, politically or publicly, they’re covering what they need to be saying. They’re also being sued by several different shareholders, by the attorney general of Massachusetts. These are major lawsuits over their failure to act. Not only their failure to act, but their efforts to disseminate propaganda and misinformation on that.

My general sense, by just participating in some of these climate conferences the last few years, is that a lot of the energy now is around these sort of local affiliation of governments — you know, mayors and governors — in this movement of “we’re still in … we’re taking action in meaningful ways to combat this regardless of what our government does.”

The city of Orlando has taken some huge steps. The city of San Francisco, too.

MBA: And a lot of times those local governments, the committees are staffed with local business owners who are pushing that forward.

NR: Yeah. And it seems to be happening here that the (Columbia) City Council is starting to enact a climate plan. So, I think that’s happening everywhere.

MBA: Tonight, you also talked about how as a people, we haven’t really felt the effects of climate change yet in a visceral sense. In an economic sense, arguments are starting to crop up that we’re starting to see it.

NR: This reminds me of an estimate that each degree is going to cost 1 percent of GDP in the global economy, which actually seems pretty low to me. Because once you get to five degrees, it’s the end of civilization.

MBA: But especially with Midwestern states. This is a big coal state, this is a big agriculture state — soy, corn. We have to be feeling that economically in terms of climate change. Are you seeing that?

NR: I’m sure you could argue that coal production, in the U.S. at least, might alone be a net economic negative because of the health and environmental harm it does.

Of course, there’s enormous economic cost already — undeniably. Is it enough to change the mental calculus of, ‘Do we as a nation change our entire energy economy?’ I don’t know if we’re at that threshold yet.


Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.


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