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Historian Hunts for Motives Behind Climate Change Doubt-Mongering: A Q&A with Naomi Oreskes

Historians search for those behind climate change contrarianism has documented the evolution of those raising doubts



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Naomi Oreskes is a science historian, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author (with Erik Conway) of "Merchants of Doubt," a book that examined how a handful of scientists obscure the facts on a range of issues, including tobacco use and climate change. Her seminal paper in the journal Science, "Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," challenged – back in 2004 – the notion that climate change science was uncertain. Her work has documented the spread of doubt-mongering from an industry practice to a political strategy.

Dr. Oreskes did her undergraduate work at the Royal School of Mines in London and received her graduate degree from Stanford University. With her husband, Ken Belitz, and daughter, Clara, the family lives in San Diego. Her older daughter, Hannah, attends Stanford.

Question:  Somewhere between your undergraduate and graduate degrees, you became interested in the history of science. What drew you to that field?

Answer: I was always interested in the human side of science, especially why people disagreed about evidence, and the strong  - yet divergent -  opinions that my professors had about what constitutes good science. Beyond that, it is a long story.

Q:  What attracted you to the climate change deniers?

A: I fell into this. I was working on the history of oceanography, and came across the work of Roger Revelle, Dave Keeling and others who’d been working on climate change since the 1950s. I came to understand that the scientific basis for understanding anthropogenic climate change was much firmer than most people knew. That led to my 2004 work, which led  to me being attacked. So we started digging and found direct links to the tobacco industry.

Q: How do most mainstream scientists view this contrary viewpoint from their colleagues?

A: They are thoroughly appalled.  Because it isn’t a “contrary viewpoint,” in the sense that the scientific evidence is contradictory or incomplete, or that our theories are inadequate to explain the observations. This is not the case, this is not a scientific debate.

Q: Is the need to expose deniers that important in the policy world?  Aren't other issues – such as economics and energy – far more important?

A: If we didn’t have the science, we wouldn’t know the cause. We wouldn’t know that we have to control greenhouse gas emissions, and we could just burn coal. It is science that revealed the problem, science that pinpoints its cause, and science (that) tells us what kinds of interventions will be efficacious.  Science is not sufficient to solve this problem, but it is necessary.

Q:  Are you frustrated by the continuing debate over the reality of climate change?

A: Yes, because some people are now saying, we should just accept that climate change is happening and not worry about the cause.  Climate change is caused by greenhouse gases and that is why we need to do something about them. So it’s time we rolled up our sleeves and got to work doing what we know in our hearts we need to do.

Q: What do you do in your spare time? Hobbies, other interests?

A: What spare time? Just kidding. I have a wonderful husband and two beautiful daughters, so they are an important part of my life. My husband and I like to hike and walk on the beach. My girls and I like to bake and cook together. Backpacking when I get the chance.

Q:What do you like to cook?

A: A number of things but mostly Indian food. My family is old-fashioned. We like to have dinner together every night when everyone is home.

Q: You have two children approaching adulthood. You’ve said before that global warming is the "bill for our great prosperity" – that everything has a price. Do you worry your kids are going to have a curtailed and limited existence as they pay off the tab?

A: Absolutely.  So how do I not get depressed? Act.  Every great thinker has recognized this.  Action is the only solution to any problem. Take a step. Do what you can do, from the position you are in.

Rae Tyson pioneered the environmental beat at USA Today in the 1980s and today restores and races vintage motorcycles in central Pennsylvania. Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by DailyClimate.org, a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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