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11:00 am
Tue January 24, 2012

Op-Ed: The Verdict Is In On Climate Change

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Disputes on climate change are often presented in the familiar paradigm of a court case with scientists as prosecutors, skeptics as the defense, and the rest of us the jury awaiting the ruling of a judge.

In an op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times, historian Naomi Oreskes objects. She argues that most of the skeptics are shills, scientists are, in fact, the jury, and that their verdict has long since been handed down. Naomi Oreskes is the co-author of "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth About Climate Change," and joins us now from a winter vacation in Snowmass, Colorado. And thanks very much for taking a break today to speak with us.

NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you, Neal. Can you hear me?

CONAN: We can.

ORESKES: Good.

CONAN: And I have to say that while the vast majority of scientists agree the Earth is warming as a result of human activity, a vast majority does not mean unanimity. It's not unanimous.

ORESKES: No, of course not. And, you know, I'm a historian of science. Most of my work is focused on the question of how scientists do evaluate evidence and judge the data that they collect from the natural world. And, so of course, in any scientific community, there will always be people who have dissenting opinions, and that's fine. Nobody really has a problem with that. The problem is when it's misrepresented. The problem is when a normal give and take of scientific debate is misrepresented to make it seem different than it really is.

So in the scientific community today - and not just today, but actually for the last 10 years at least if not longer - there has been a general consensus that climate change was underway. And we're talking about climate change caused by things that people do. Not the normal ups and downs of weather and natural variability, but a different new phenomenon caused by greenhouse gases and deforestation. There has been general agreement in the scientific community about this issue for quite some time now. The vast, vast majority of scientists who work on this issue would agree with that statement.

CONAN: And you draw, again, an analogy to a court case, you were serving as a juror recently and say that, you know, in a sense, we should not be open-minded. What did you mean by that?

ORESKES: Well, right. And I was, of course, being a little deliberately provocative, but the point I was trying to make was drawing on an analogy with the jury. This was a great experience because we had a wonderful judge, and one of the things she said to us at the very beginning - and I wrote about this in the op-ed piece - she asked us at the very beginning during jury selection: If I sent you out right now and then asked you to come back - and this is before we turn any evidence and before the jury had even been impaneled - if I asked you, do you think these people, the defendants, are guilty, not guilty or you don't know enough to know. And the vast majority of people in the room raised their hands for we don't know enough to know. And the judge said: That's the wrong answer, that in this case, open-mindedness is not the correct answer because the law establishes a presumption of innocence.

The law tells us that those defendants are innocent, presumed innocent until the prosecution has proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt. And it was a kind of eureka moment for me because I thought, oh, of course, the judge is completely correct here. We think of open-mindedness as a virtue. And in many walks of life it is a virtue, but there are some situations when the situation calls for something else. In the courtroom, it calls for us to assume that the defendants are innocent until the state makes its case against them.

So then I thought about, well, what about in the case of science? Well, science is a little different. It's not exactly the same as a courtroom. Innocence and guilt don't really make much sense when we're talking about science in the natural world. So then the question becomes, well, who is making this judgment? And so the argument I was trying to point out is that, as ordinary citizens, many of us feel, well, we don't know what to think. You know, we've heard a lot of conflicting things about climate change so - and I've heard many people say to me, I'm open-minded about it.

And so the argument I was trying to make was to say, well, in this case, being open-minded - although it might sound good at first and may sound good in principle - it actually doesn't make sense when you have now more than half a century of accumulated scientific data put together by thousands of different scientists all around the world, men and women, black and white, Republicans, Democrats, you know, all, you know, very diverse scientific community, over half a century of work. At this point, to say that you're still open-minded is to really be ignoring this huge body of scientific evidence that really points to a very, very strong conclusion.

CONAN: Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science, professor at the University of California, San Diego. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. If the evidence is so overwhelming, why is it that this argument seems to be losing traction?

ORESKES: Right. Well, this is the subject of a book which I published last year with my co-author Erik Conway called "Merchants of Doubt." And in the book, we asked exactly that question. We said, well, if there's so much scientific evidence, why do so many of us have the impression of a raging scientific debate? And so we've spent five years researching this question. And, you know, it's funny for me because it's funny for me to even be having to have this conversation, because I first published on the scientific consensus on climate change back in 2003. So I've now been working on the consensus piece for almost a decade.

But for the last five years, Erik Conway and I have been working on this question why so many of us think there's a raging debate. And what we showed in the book is that there have been systematic efforts organized by people outside the scientific community to undermine the scientific data and to convince all of us that the jury - scientific jury was still out in order to delay government, business and community action on taking steps to prevent further manmade climate change.

CONAN: A conspiracy theory.

ORESKES: No, it's not a conspiracy theory. It's a history. We're describing events that had happened. We're describing the things that people have done. There are organizations. There are networks. It's not a conspiracy in the sense that it's not taking place in smoke-filled rooms. In fact, one of the sort of remarkable things about our book was that we were able to show how much of this activity took place in open air, in plain sight. A lot of the research we did wasn't actually that difficult to do. Many of the documents we found were in the public record.

So it's not a conspiracy in the sense of, you know, creepy, evil people in backrooms doing terrible things. No. It's actually out in the open, which in some ways makes it more shocking and in a way more alarming that the media haven't done more to talk about the events that have actually taken place in the last five years to convince the American people that there was a debate, you know, an argument that really flew in their face of a huge amount of evidence.

CONAN: There is a - your case is not bolstered when stories come out. This publication of emails by scientists in England who seem to be, though not fabricating data, suppressing publication of data that seem to fly in the face of their conclusions.

ORESKES: Well, exactly. And, of course, this is where the media has played a huge role because that is exactly how the story was told in the media, you know, a year or so ago. But what we know now from many different investigations that have taken place, including the House of Lords in Britain, is that those emails were completely taken out of context, very much misrepresented. And what was the real give and take of scientific debate and also the real frustration that scientists feel at the misrepresentation of their work was taken massively out of context.

And, you know, you mentioned that this took place in England. Earlier in your show, you mentioned that Meryl Streep has - had her 17th Oscar nomination for portraying Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And I thought, you know, that's a great thing to remind people about because Margaret Thatcher was one of the first political leaders to understand the threat of the human-caused climate change.

And she created the climate research university at East Anglia, where these emails were stolen from. Created that institute more than 30 years ago to ask and answer this exact question: How do we tell the difference between natural climate variability that takes place all the time - normal, natural climate change - versus what we could call abnormal or even synthetic climate change that has been caused by greenhouse gases and deforestation? That was the question that Mrs. Thatcher posed to the British scientific community more than 30 years ago. And that question has really been answered beyond a reasonable doubt.

CONAN: You also, speaking of smoke-filled rooms, draw an analogy to the so-called debate over tobacco's health.

ORESKES: Well, exactly. And this was a major topic in our book. And that's where the true conspiracy, of course, comes in because the tobacco industry, the American tobacco industry was in fact found guilty by the U.S. Department of Justice, charged under the RICO statute with criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. And one of the things we were able to show in the book is that some of the exact same people, not just the same tactics, but actually the same individuals who had worked in the tobacco industry and developed the strategy, for which they were convicted of criminal conspiracy by the U.S. Department of Justice, those same people have been involved in some of the attempts to undermine and challenge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

CONAN: Naomi Oreskes, thanks very much. We'll let you get back to your vacation.

ORESKES: Thank you so much. And thanks to the Snowmass Ski Company for letting me use their phones to take this call and do this interview.

CONAN: Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California in San Diego. Tomorrow, we're taking political junkie Ken Rudin on the road with us to Orlando where we'll talk about the Republican race in the Sunshine State, the president's State of the Union message and much more. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.