I FIRST MET GUS SPETH in his role as a poet. He was sitting in the audience of a talk I was giving at One Hundred Miles, a conservation organization we both support on the coast of Georgia. He came up to chat about the talk and presented himself as nothing more than a retired gentleman who enjoyed writing and was working on a book.
When he left the room, someone whispered in my ear: “He’s being humble. Gus was in the Carter administration and the dean of the Yale Schools of Forestry and Environment.” This doesn’t even scratch Speth’s full range of interests and accomplishments, which include a Yale Law degree, cofounding the Natural Resources Defense Council, and serving as the chairman of Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality. He advised Bill Clinton’s transition team, held numerous posts within the United Nations, taught at both Yale and Vermont Law School, and continues to write poetry, among many other significant acts.
We have corresponded over the years, both of us having roots in the South and a love for Vermont. I have come to revere him for his extensive professional knowledge, but also the expansiveness of his mind. Speth represents the best of the humanities—he is a thinker, feeler, and reader, but has spent his life putting those impulses to work by taking real action, by bringing his expansive thinking to consequential, high-stakes matters.
In his latest book, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, Speth gets right to the heart of the government’s awareness, and painful culpability, on climate change. It covers the period from Lyndon B. Johnson through Trump. Those who are invested in policymaking surrounding fossil fuels will benefit from reading this history from the unique perspective of those who lived it, and have been fighting for decades for government action. I had a chance to chat with Speth about the book this autumn while we were both in Vermont.
MMB: Gus, can you describe where the idea for They Knew came from, and when? Was there a sense that our national narrative around climate change—and who is responsible—needed an update?
GS: The book is an enlarged and updated version of a report I did for the Children’s Climate Lawsuit, Juliana v. United States. They needed a well-documented history of what the federal government knew and what the federal government did, so this is it, covering the whole period from LBJ through Trump. It is the saddest story I know, but some sad stories need to be told. And it is hard to argue with original sources.
I hope the book motivates action, because it is convincing, if I may say so, on three key points:
First, the science justifying action has been clear for decades. Really clear and convincing. The climate denialism successfully and now widely propagated is the real hoax.
Second, the book shows that our federal government has known enough to act, and known enough how to act—what to do—since the Carter years, more than four decades ago. This is surely one of the great derelictions in civic responsibility in the history of the republic. Over those four decades, the U.S. could have led the world to climate solutions. Rather, we did pretty much the opposite.
Third, the book underscores that good science alone, even when joined with the comfortable activism of the past, will not produce the major results needed.
MMB: I find the title They Knew quite affecting—both potent and damning. Can you describe how looking back on earlier eras makes you feel, and was any of that harnessed during the planning and writing process?
GS: Well, the book is average in length but it was a huge undertaking and required a major effort to get right. I could not have done it without the amazing documentary research and other help from Our Children’s Trust, the excellent advocacy for children that is conducting the litigation. I was driven to do a good job, particularly for the sake of young people, including my own six grandchildren.
Now, as I step back from the result, I can say that this history makes me angry, quite angry, especially as we see the climate catastrophes unfolding around us already. I hope the book informs the new generation that did not live through it all, and, honestly, I hope it makes them angry, too. That is a springboard to the action we now need.
MMB: I want to go back to something you said—that this “is the saddest story” you know, but that “some sad stories need to be told.” I know that some people report feeling a saturation point with environmental stories, that things feel so bleak they turn away from the bad news. Can you speak to your relationship with grief? Does writing through it help?
GS: Yes, this climate story is damn painful. But I think it is important for all of us to understand how things got the way they are. How else can we see our mistakes and learn not to repeat them? The past can shine a light into the future, and They Knew teaches many lessons we would do well to bear in mind, some of which I just mentioned. So instead of being discouraged and tuning out, we have to shoulder that pain and turn it toward activism.
Then there is the grief of knowing what has been lost, much of it irredeemably. Faulkner famously said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But, in truth, L. P. Hartley’s “the past is a foreign country” more accurately invokes the story of environmental loss. The ever-widening path of biotic impoverishment has moved through our lives. You can’t go home again because, for many of us, home is not there anymore. But that loss can spur us to save what is left, not to inflict even more loss on the future. And the biggest threat to the environment of the future is climate change.
MMB: How can this book—and these types of discussions—help push back on climate denialism? And why do you think denialism has gained so much momentum in the face of so much data?
GS: We are here discussing a major political factor, so it’s important. I noted a minute ago that, as discussed in They Knew, climate science has been consistent and reinforcing in broad terms since LBJ. If that science had been full of inconsistencies, contradictions, flip-flops, and predictive failures, well, then denialism would have an argument to make. But the real climate science story is just the opposite.
So denialism is purely a political stance, not a scientific one. I hope the book will arm those carrying forward the climate fight with information that can help push back on denialism. Denialism, now on the rise in a major political party, builds on the widespread preexisting rejection and fear of science, prominent, for example, in the rejection of evolution. This predisposition is played on by corporate hucksters, antigovernment ideologues, and political charlatans to manipulate public opinion in a variety of spheres, including climate.
MMB: Whenever I write a book, I am thinking about my readership. What readership did you have in mind for this book—or, perhaps more important, who would benefit the most from reading this text? Whose hands should we press the book into?
GS: Well, not everybody is seventy-nine years old, yet! There are lots of people who did not experience the period covered by this book, and I think there is a hunger now, especially among young people, to actually understand how we got into this mess. The book is a history, and history is important. For activists, even moderately politically active, I hope this book will provide a ready source of useful information as well a source of motivation and reassurance.
Then, of course, we get to the doubters and fence-sitters. They really should read this book!
MMB: You have been in the trenches on climate change for longer than almost anyone else I know. Is there a particular moment, conversation, or decision point that stands out to you as critical, or a memory you revisit with the benefit of hindsight?
GS: I will mention three moments, all in the book.
One is when activist Rafe Pomerance and scientist Gordon MacDonald approached me at CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) in 1979 and, in effect, told me to get busy on climate change. That started me moving with the Carter administration. The second came in the aftermath of scientist James Hansen’s pointed congressional testimonies in the 1980s. We had told ourselves that when the climate change reality was rigorously detected amid the weather noise, as Hansen found, politicians would be forced to act because climate change had moved from theory to fact. You might say we were naive. And finally, there was the new momentum in the Congress in 2019 and 2020 to shift climate action into high gear, brought out most prominently by the Green New Deal.
MMB: Looking at all this increasing urgency, where do you advise Orion readers to find hope?
GS: I see hope coming from three possibilities. One is from a massive outpouring of civic action and activism, an unprecedented popular mobilization, strong and unrelenting. Definitely not the comfortable advocacy of the past. Bring it on! Second, we have witnessed continuing failure from the executive and legislative branches of our government, and the situation now demands judicial intervention. In particular, it demands a constitutional remedy that persists throughout coming administrations. That is what Our Children’s Trust is seeking in its litigation. And third, if we have learned anything, it is that our current political economy is not up to the climate challenge. Indeed, it is the source of the problem. What we have here is a fifty-year system failure. If we want fifty years of sustained solution, we are going to have to change the system, including its priorities. As the popular banner at climate marches says, “System change, not climate change!” There is hope, I find, in the number of people coming to see this imperative after all these years.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and How Strange a Season. Her short fiction has appeared in two volumes of The Best American Short Stories and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. She lives on a small farm in Vermont.
James Gustave Speth served as member and chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration, and from 1993 to 1999 was administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and served as chair of the UN Development Group. A retired professor of law and Senior Fellow at the Vermont Law School, he has also taught at Georgetown and Yale. He is the founder of World Resources Institute and a cofounder of Natural Resources Defense Council.