Stephen Leahy interviews science historian NAOMI ORESKES
PARIS, Mar 24, 2010 (IPS)
Even though 2009 was the fifth warmest year since 1850, and 2000-09 the warmest decade ever, according to the World Meterological Organisation, surveys show that public concern about global warming in the United States and Canada has dropped sharply in the past 18 months.
Why? Because of a relentless disinformation effort from an unlikely cabal of fossil fuel interests, Christian evangelicals and the media, says Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego.
“They have managed to reopen the debate over global warming in people’s minds,” she told IPS.
Oreskes and co-author Erik Conway, a science historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, document similar efforts to manufacture doubt around the science on acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand cigarette smoke, and the pesticide DDT in their just published book, “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”. [Tons of excellent reviews – the “eye-opener of the year” says one reviewer.]
In 2004, Oreskes was vilified on TV, radio and in print by commentators for providing clear evidence there was in fact a scientific consensus on global climate change. Her essay in the journal Science examined all of the peer-reviewed scientific papers on climate over the previous 10 years and found none dissented with the theories that climate change was occurring and it was caused by humans. Her survey has never been successfully challenged, despite many attempts.
Q: Where is the vehement opposition to the very idea that we need to do something about climate change?
A: Some of it is ideological, part of a long history in the United States that equates environmental regulation as going down the slippery slope to socialism. And some is religious. Christian evangelicals don’t like science in general and have found common cause with the coal industry as a way to be able to teach creationism. Obviously, the motivation of the coal industry is rather different but now these people have come together to undermine science in general.
Q: What are some of the common tactics used in the past and now?
A: They generate all these reports and press releases that look scientific and claim there was a scientific debate, even though it is not coming from the scientific community or coming out of the primary research. In every case, they denied the severity of the problem and said the science was uncertain.
For example the coal industry launched a campaign to challenge the science of global warming before Rio Earth Summit in 1992. (The world community, including the U.S., was considering action on climate change, and did – creating the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change). The coal industry hired public relations firms to do research on how to change public opinion about global warming. They were very systematic about it.
Q: What role has the media played in the decline in public concern about climate change?
A: The media fuss over the emails (old email messages stolen from the U.K.’s University of East Anglia) almost makes me sick. Why would the media trust the claims of people using stolen material? The media has a lot to answer for. They have done a huge disservice to the public.
About all that was learned from those emails is that scientists are human beings and that when you harass them they get upset, frustrated and defensive. And sometimes they make bad judgments. None of this undermines 50 years of climate science.
Q: Various opinion polls now show that half of Americans think the seriousness of climate change is exaggerated and many do not believe humans are responsible despite the clear scientific evidence.
A: Public opinion is fickle and I hope this will blow over. However, scientists need to get their communication act together. Scientists have been relying on journalists to explain climate science. They need to do it themselves.
Q: What about the independent review that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be undergoing this year?
A: I don’t think it will be very helpful. People don’t really know what the IPCC is or how it works. They don’t know that it is a review of science which is massively vetted and that the review process is extremely inclusive. So I don’t see how yet another review of the process will really change that. What is needed is better communication with the public about what IPCC is, how it works, and how science, more generally, works.
Q: What are the prospects for a global climate treaty?
A: Extremely unlikely. The lessons from history show up that bottom up is where change happens, at the state and city level. We don’t have to wait. That’s where I pin my hopes, otherwise it’s too depressing.