Life Sciences and Society Program Symposium

Combating Climate Change: Q&A with Naomi Oreskes

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. 

 

Climate change to heat up discussion at annual LSSP symposium

By Jennifer Lu | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

climate change

Thinkstock by Getty Images

Climate change is a pressing issue.

Just last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report linking climate change to extreme weather conditions such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy snows and rains. Globally, 2015 was the warmest year on record, according to climate updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And January kicked off this year by logging temperatures exceeding those of all previous Januaries on record, a disturbing trend that’s persisted for nine consecutive months to date.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates either do not believe in climate change or deny that it is caused by human activity, or have no strategies to combat climate change. And Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Saunders split on how to transition to renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint.

How do we make sense of this?

The 12th annual Life Sciences & Society Program symposium — with events from March 17 to 19 — will tackle one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. Titled “Combating Climate Change,” speakers will address topics such as using technology to help curb global warming, how rising temperatures and more extreme weather will impact human health, the role of government in taking action to combat man-made climate change, and how to effectively communicate climate change.

Marcia McNutt–editor-in-chief of the leading journal, Science, and a geophysicist by training—will talk about the “promise and peril” of climate interventions such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and albedo modification, a process that involves spraying particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space to cool the earth.

There has been “significant advancement” in technologies such as carbon capture and storage, McNutt wrote by email, but these technologies have not moved beyond the research stages for economic reasons.

She pointed out that most climate interventions act slowly and take time to implement.

Albedo modification is the exception, McNutt said, but while quite a bit of work has been done to model its effects, the risks are high.

Few scientists believe we know enough about albedo modification to seriously consider it, she said.

“There is no silver bullet that is a magical antidote to climate change,” McNutt said.

The full line-up of speakers for this year’s symposium includes:

  • Andrew Revkin, environmental journalist and author, who proposed the term “anthrocene” to describe “a geological age of our own making” in his 1992 book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. (Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist who won a Nobel prize for studying ozone layer depletion , popularized the more familiar term, ”Anthropocene,” in 2000.)
  • Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science
  • Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture
  • Marshall Shepherd, professor of geography and director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia
  • George Luber, an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and the associate director for climate change in the division of environmental hazards and health effects
  • Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. Her book co-written with Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, showed how rich and powerful industries retained a core group of scientists who used their expertise to create doubt and protect industry interests

To see the schedule of this week’s events and register for the symposium, visit the MU LSSP website.

Oliver Rando researches effect of fathers’ lifestyles on their children

How much does a newborn know about the world?

That can depend on their parents’ genes, according Oliver Rando, an epigeneticist at the University of Massachusetts.

Rando will speak Saturday, March 14, at 10:30 a.m. at the 11th Annual Life Sciences and Society Program at Bond LSC. His research focuses on how fathers’ lifestyles affect their children, one part of the symposium’s focus on epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how organisms change because of a modification in gene expression.

Rando is clear that his research is no more important than that of other scientists in his field.

“The field we work in is important since we and others have shown that a father’s lifestyle can potentially affect disease risk and other aspects of his children,” he said.

During his talk on Saturday, Rando will discuss a “paternal effect paradigm” based on experiments his lab conducted on male mice. The mice were fed different diets and mated with control females. Then researchers analyzed the metabolic effects that resulted in their offspring.

“In terms of the basic science aspects of the system, doing this sort of experiment with fathers rather than mothers is important, since mothers provide both an egg and a uterus to the child, whereas in many cases fathers only provide sperm,” Rando said. “So, with fathers you don’t have as many things to look at to find where the relevant information is.”

Scientists in his lab also study yeast and worms to understand epigenetic inheritance. They use molecular biology, genetic and genome-wide techniques to conduct the research.

For more information about Dr. Oliver Rando, read this Q&A from the Boston Globe.

Find more information about LSSP events and speakers at http://lssp.missouri.edu/epigenetics.

Five things you wanted to know about epigenetics (But were afraid to ask)

10960203_781430608590258_4910408420147962125_oWhat the heck is it, anyway?

Epigenetics involves changes in how your genes work.

In classical genetics, traits pass from generation to generation in DNA, the strands of genetic material that encode your genes. Scientists thought alterations to the DNA itself was the only way changes could pass on to subsequent generations.

So say you lost a thumb to a angry snapping turtle: Because your DNA hasn’t changed, your children won’t be born with smaller thumbs. Classic.

Things get way more complicated with epigenetics. It turns out that some inherited changes pass on even though they are not caused by direct changes to your DNA. When cells divide, epigenetic changes can show up in the new cells.

Getting nibbled on by an irate turtle isn’t likely to epigenetic changes, but other factors such as exposure to chemicals and an unhealthy diet, could cause generation-spanning epigenetic changes.

 

How does it work?

The main players in epigenetics are histones and methyl groups.

Imagine your genes are like pages in a really long book. Prior to the mid-1800s, books came with uncut edges, so in order to read the book, you’d have to slice apart the uncut pages. That’s sort of what a histone does to DNA: They are proteins that wrap DNA around themselves like thread on a spool. They keep the DNA organized and help regulate genes.

Methyl groups (variations on CH3) attach to the histones and tell them what to do. These molecules are like notes in a book’s margin that say, “These next few pages are boring, so don’t bother cutting them open.” As you read the book, you’ll save time and effort by skipping some sections even though those sections still exist. Or maybe the note will say, “This next section is awesome; you’ll want to read it twice.”

That’s epigenetics. Higher level cues that tell you whether or not to read a gene.

And when a scribe makes a copy of the book, they’ll not only copy all the words in the novel, but all the other stuff, too: the stuck-together pages and the margin notes.

 

What about my health?

Many areas of health — including cancer, autoimmune disease, mental illness and diabetes — connect with epigenetic change.

For example, scientists link epigenetic changes to neurons to depression, drug addiction and schizophrenia. And environmental toxins — such as some metals and pesticides — can cause multigenerational epigenetic effects, according to research. Once scientists and doctors decipher those processes work, they will be better equipped to treat the sick and be able to take preventative measures to help insure our health and the health of our kids.

 

Is it epigenetics or epigenomics?

Confusing, I know.

As we learned from the first question, epigenetics is “the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence,” according to my trusty Merriam-Webster.

Epigenomics is the study and analysis of such changes to many genes in a whole cell or organism. It’s comparable to the difference between genetics (dealing with particular pieces of DNA, usually a gene) and genomics (involving the whole genetic shebang).

 

Where can I learn more?

Start at this year’s Life Sciences and Society Program Symposium, “The Epigenetics Revolution: Nature, Nurture and What Lies Ahead,” on March 13-15, 2015. Speakers from all over the country will delve into the puzzles and possibilities of epigenetics.

For more background, Nature magazine also created this supplement on epigenetics.