Professor Naomi Oreskes says actions of climate denialists are laying the foundations for the government interventions they fear the most
Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University Professor of the History of Science. Photograph: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs & Communications
In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson had a special message for the American Congress on conservation of the environment.
Worried about the “storm of modern change” threatening cherished landscapes, Johnson said: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
The same quote appears at the beginning of the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by science historians Erik Conway and Professor Naomi Oreskes.
Plainly the line – almost half a century old now – was picked to show just how long the impacts of fossil fuel burning have been known in the corridors of the highest powers.
The book explained the efforts since the 1960s of vested interests and ideologues to underplay the risks of pumping ever-increasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
One of the most startling revealing aspects of the book was how some of the same institutions and individuals who held out against a wave of scientific warnings about the health impacts of tobacco smoke became integral to efforts to block any meaningful policy response to greenhouse gas emissions.
Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and she has a new book out, again co-written with Conway.
The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future is written from the perspective of a historian living in the year 2393 and looking back at what went horribly wrong in the lead up to the “Great Collapse”.
Here’s my Q&A with Oreskes.
Q: Merchants of Doubt looked at the role of think tanks, vested interests and free market ideologies in attacking the science linking fossil fuel burning to climate change, smoking to cancer, pollution to acid rain and CFCs to the ozone hole. Four years later, has anything changed?
Not really. There are some new faces on the horizon, but recruiting “fresh voices” has been a tactic for a long time. So even the things that may look new are in fact old. The Heartland Institute has become more visible, and the George Marshall Institute a bit less, but the overall picture continues: these groups continue to dismiss or disparage the science, attack scientists, and sow doubt.
They continue to try to block action by confusing us about the facts. And the arguments, the tactics, and the overall strategy has remained the same. And, they’ve been extremely successful. CO2 has reached 400 ppm, meaningful action is still not in sight, and people who really understand the science—understand what is at stake—are getting very worried.
Q: How did you move from being a geologist working in Australia for the Western Mining Corporation to being a scholar of the history of science?
Oh this is a long story. I was always interested in broad questions about science. History of science gave me the opportunity to pursue those broad questions.
Q: You were filmed for an ABC documentary that pitched a climate change “advocate” against a “sceptic”. You met Australian politician and climate science sceptic Nick Minchin – the key political kingmaker who engineered the leadership challenge that gave the now Prime Minister Tony Abbott the Liberal leadership. What were your impressions of Minchin?
Well, I think he is a basically nice guy who has fallen into a trap: the trap of imprecatory denial. He doesn’t like the implications of climate change for our political and economic system, so he denies its reality. But climate change will come back to bite us all. It is already starting to.
Q: So you worked in Australia as a geologist, toured here to promote Merchants of Doubt and had an academic role at the University of Western Australia, so you’ve seen a bit of how things have played out. How do you think Australia has been influenced by organised climate science denial?
Clearly. One sees all the same strategies and tactics being used there, plus a few additional ones (trotting out geologists to claim there are hidden underwater volcanoes that are responsible for the extra atmospheric CO2.) The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia has been very active trotting out skeptical and denialist claims with little or no basis in evidence. If you go to their web site, they link back to many of the very same groups whose activities we documented in Merchants of Doubt : the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Competitive Enterprise institute, the Heritage Foundation.
It’s the same old, same old: defend the free market, deny the reality of market failure, block action that could actually address those failures. And of course, that is the point of the new book: by denying the reality of market failure, and blocking corrective action, these folks are actually undermining our economies, and laying the foundations for kinds of government interventions that will make them pine for the good old days of a carbon tax.
Q: Oh yes the new book – The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future. You’ve written it from the point of view of a historian writing about the “Period of the Penumbra (1988–2093) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073–2093)”. It doesn’t sound like there are too many laughs?
Not unless we are talking about black humour. Our editor, when he first approached us, said he found it funny in a Dr Strangelovian way. I took that as a huge compliment.
Q: Dr Strangelove – a character that apparently borrowed parts from the real life Edward Teller, the so-called “father” of the H-bomb. Your new book borrows much from real life events and modern science too doesn’t it (it’s a clunky segue, but I’m sticking with it)?
Yes of course. A good deal of the power of that film came from the fact that while it was farce, it was all too true in some ways—or at least, all too plausible. It was conceivable that the world would end not in deliberate, calculated aggression, but in stupidity, mistakes, and men and machines run amok.
Kubrick understood that. Fortunately, we escaped disaster in the Cold War, because enough people realized what was at stake. Erik and I have often discussed that, in this case—climate change—a lot of people, folks like Nick Minchin included—don’t seem to realize what is at stake.
They’ve dismissed the science. They’ve pooh-poohed the mounting evidence that disruptive climate change is already underway. They’ve assumed scientists were over-reacting, and that all environmentalists are watermelons. And that bodes poorly for our future. Because the longer we wait, the more plausible our “collapse” scenario, with its unhappy implications for western democracies, becomes.
Q: But what is it that you think drives the denial industry? How much of it is just pure self-interest? Is it fear of socialism – a kind of post-Cold War paranoia that you identified in Merchants of Doubt? Or is it ideological fervour like the kind you’ve witnessed amongst American Tea Baggers?
I think it’s a complicated mix. Certainly, there are some very cynical individuals and groups who are protecting their own self-interest, with little or no regard to the consequences for others.
There are also those who have bought into the watermelon argument—that environmentalists are green on the outside, red on the inside—and that climate change is just an excuse to bring in socialism by another name.
Then there are also many people who I think believe, or have persuaded themselves, that climate change is just another fad, exaggerated by scientists who just want more money for their research, or environmentalists who over-react to small threats or are unrealistic about where their bread is buttered.
Finally there is the power of rationalization—people whose bread really is buttered by the fossil fuel industry, or people who are heavily invested in the industry in one way or another, and just don’t want to accept that there is a fundamental problem.
Q: Is that a big issue – do you think? That the nuances of the science aren’t that widely understood and so it’s an easy job to confuse people about it?
Yes I think so. That’s one reason why these disinformation campaigns have been so successful. It’s always easy to find some aspect of the science that is uncertain, or confusing, and focus on that to the exclusion of the larger picture
Q: It sounds like an almost intractable situation. Is there something you think should have happened, that didn’t, that might have helped to combat that misinformation?
Well, it certainly would have helped if political leaders had not repeated that disinformation!
Q: What would you do about it?
What I am doing: writing and talking about it, so we can accurately diagnose the problem. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is.
Q: Researching denial and organised misinformation has been your thing for about a decade now. So what’s next?
A book about the solutions? How not to go down the road to collapse?