Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a geologist by training.
At a time when global warming was framed by the media as a debate, her 2004 paper in the journal Science showed that climate change was a settled fact among climate scientists. Of the 928 papers she sampled in her literature search, not a single author denied the reality of climate change. Digging further, Oreskes explored in her book, Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Eric Conway, the people, organizations, and motivations behind climate science misinformation. From cigarettes and acid rain to global warming and the ozone hole, Oreskes and Conway uncovered how industries such as Big Tobacco and Big Oil employed a core group of ideologically-motivated scientists to fabricate doubt and stymie government regulations.
Since the publication of Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes has been active in conversations about how we can move beyond debate and towards climate change intervention and action. She and Conway also wrote a sci-fi novel imaging a catastrophic future when society in the past (our present) failed to act on climate, The Collapse of Western Civilization.
Naomi Oreskes speaks on Saturday,3:30 pm as part of the LSSP Symposium, “Combatting Climate Change,” held at the Bond Life Sciences Center.
What has been the response of people who, through reading Merchants of Doubt or watching the documentary, have changed their minds about climate change?
Many people have written to me and Erik Conway to thank us for writing the book. I’d say the most common response was that the book helped them to understand why there was so much opposition to accepting the scientific evidence. I can’t say that I know for sure that thousands of people changed their minds after reading the book, but I do know that among those who did, the link to the tobacco industry was most compelling. Our research showed that the opposition was not rooted in problems with or deficiencies in the science.
You said in an interview with Mongabay, “In our society, knowledge resides in one place, and for the most part, power resides somewhere else.” How can we hold accountable oil and gas companies which have quietly known since the early 1980s that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming, but used their power to impede actions that would combat climate change?
I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot answer the legal aspects of this question, but state attorneys around the country are now looking into that question. As a citizen and a consumer, I can say this: One way we can hold companies accountable by not investing in them, and this is why I support the divestment movement. We can also boycott their products. In the current world, that is very difficult to do, but we can make a start. I installed an 8-watt solar PV system in my house, and we are now just about net-zero for electricity.
Is it possible to make up for 30 years of squandered time?
No of course not. Lost time is lost time. But knowing how much time has been lost, we should have a sense of urgency now, try not to lose any more.
Which strategies are being proposed for immediate climate action? Are environmental scientists and economists in agreement over which courses of action make the most sense?
Yes I think so. Nearly everyone who has studied the issue agrees that the most effective immediate action that is available to us is to put a price on carbon. This will immediately make renewables and energy efficiency more economically attractive, and it will send a signal to investors that fossil fuels will no longer be given a free pass for their external costs. This means that future returns will be greater in the non-carbon based energy sector. Anyone interested in this should read Nicolas Stern’s very informative book, Why are we Waiting?
How might the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and the results of the 2016 presidential elections affect the role that the US will play in combating climate change? Best case and worse case scenarios.
Best case: Republicans in Congress come to their senses, and listen to fellow Republicans like Bob Inglis, Hank Paulson, and George Schultz who have made the conservative case for putting a price on carbon. They can do this pretty much any way they want— through a tax, thru tradeable permits, or whatever. it’s clear Democrats would support either, and we know from experience that either approach can work, so long as the price is real (i.e., not just symbolic.) Right now Alberta is talking about $20—that is probably a bit low. BC is at $30
Worst case: read The Collapse of Western Civilization. You’ll find my answer there.
Of all the important issues out there, what motivates you to devote your time and energy to fighting climate change?
Oh that’s a good question. I didn’t decide to work on climate change, I fell into it when Erik Conway and I tripped over the merchants of Doubt story. Then, as I learned more and more about the issue, I came to appreciate scientists’ sense of urgency about it.