Climate Change Deniers Meet Their Match

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Naomi Oreskes. Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Thanks to Harvard Magazine for this interview that puts into perspective how science writers can best serve the interest of accurate information about climate change:

Naomi Oreskes on How to Write about Science

HISTORY OF SCIENCE professor Naomi Oreskes talks about climate change the way one might expect of both an earth scientist and a historian. “Science has to be part of the conversation on climate change,” she says, “but it’s not the whole conversation. At this time, I actually don’t think it’s the most important piece. There’s a basic issue of justice here, and we desperately need economists and sociologists and philosophers and artists to be heard.” Her humanist instincts allow her to move a wide audience in a way most scientists never achieve. Her work has helped broaden the public’s acceptance of climate change as an issue of scientific consensus rather than debate, and for taking up this public mantle of climate change advocacy, she will be honored with the Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication this winter. Oreskes recently talked to Harvard Magazine about the climate-denial industry, the political role of scientists, and writing about academic research for a wide audience.

Oreskes insists that she never intended to become a “climate-change warrior.” In 2004, when she was researching how scientific consensus and dissent emerge, she published “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” a review of the scientific literature that made clear the widespread agreement among scientists that climate change is real and created by humans. One journalist, she remembers, thanked her for the article; every time he wrote about climate change, he told her, readers accused him of bias for not covering the contrarian side, and her paper helped him show that there was no legitimate contrarian side.

Then she became the target of attacks herself. “So I ended up trying to figure out why I was being attacked for publishing a fairly straightforward analysis of the state of scientific discussion, and what I discovered was a remarkable story, which at the time was not understood. There was an organized climate-change denial network—a group of people and think tanks largely funded by the fossil-fuel industry, who were deliberately trying to persuade the American people that there was a big scientific debate about climate change.” In hindsight, that network might agree that it erred in targeting a historian of science who was also a good writer. In 2010, she published Merchants of Doubt, about the strategies used by the tobacco, fossil-fuel, and other industries to undermine the authority of scientists. The book captured a wide audience at a moment when climate change was gaining acceptance as an issue of public concern.

It isn’t just the business interests of the fossil-fuel industry that drive climate denial, Oreskes stresses. “It’s also about an ideological argument about the role of government. This is partly why it resonates with a lot of people who don’t necessarily have stock in ExxonMobil.” Anti-government ideology has made climate denial particularly hard to counter, she believes, because its purpose is to politicize science, and scientists don’t like to be political. “Imagine you’re a science professor and you want to teach factual information. But if you stand up in class and say climate change is real, you can be accused by your students of being political in the classroom. I have been accused of this.”

Should academics become more comfortable, then, taking moral and political positions related to their work? There’s been a move among economists, for example, to think more seriously about questions of distribution and fairness. Oreskes answers in two parts. “I think economics is different because all the social sciences are engaged with questions about society,” she argues. “For many years, the economics profession tried to put forward the idea of economics as a value-neutral science. I think that was intellectually erroneous. I don’t think you can have a discussion about the distribution of goods and services that isn’t at least in some ways implicitly involved with creating a just world.” The natural sciences, she argues, are different because scientists can answer empirical questions in a way that doesn’t diminish moral questions. “If we’re asking, ‘Has the planet warmed up?’ that’s a question about the chemistry of the earth, and it can be answered with empirical data and it can be separated from the question of what we should do about it. I think it’s important for scientists to be clear in their minds about that separation.”

Questions about the moral and civic dimensions of climate change are for other thinkers to answer, Oreskes suggests. “Much more we’re seeing people in the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, realizing that we need to hear their voices. Ultimately, if you ask, ‘Why does climate change matter?’ The answer gets back to questions of our values and the common good. Climate change matters because people are getting hurt, because people are going to lose their livelihoods and communities, because the people who will be hurt the most are not the people who created the problem.”

In this respect, Oreskes says she’s often been misinterpreted. “Sometimes people think that because I am very publicly engaged in discussing climate change, that means that I think all scientists should be,” she says. “But that is not my view. We need some scientists to explain the science, but most scientists just want to do science, and that’s fine. Moreover, if we start getting into the moral questions, well, scientists are not necessarily the best experts.”…

Read the whole article here.

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