Naomi Oreskes: Warming to the Truth

She’s been called a communist. A traitor intent on bringing down Western civilisation. But renowned Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes has learnt to let insults roll off her like water off a duck’s back. Because they are, she says, just another part of a sophisticated campaign to distract from the facts – that our world is warming as a direct consequence of human activity.

Oreskes, who visits Adelaide next month as part of WOMAdelaide’s acclaimed Planet Talks program, is particularly well placed to comment on global warming. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, coauthored with Erik Conway, delved deep into how public relations hacks working for some of the world’s biggest polluters hijacked the climate change debate by disputing facts already scienti fically proven beyond a shadow of doubt. She’d landed on the topic almost by accident, after stumbling on something rather strange which researching a book on the history of oceanography. In the early 1990s, a group of American scientists had proposed a project proving one way or another whether climate change was real – and the public cracked up in outrage. Subsequent hearings showed a peculiar reason why: in the mind of everyday people, this was a moot point. Climate change, the public believed, was real. Why bother wasting time proving something already in the bag? Which made Oreskes wonder what had changed in the intervening years. How had the public psyche drifted so widely from complete con fidence in climate science to doubt and denialism? “We discovered there was an organised and systematic campaign to try and undermine the scienti fic evidence, to try and persuade the American people, and it unfortunately spread to Australia as well, that the science wasn’t settled, that we didn’t really know and therefore we should do nothing about it,” she says. “These were the same people who had denied the harms of tobacco and in many cases they worked for the same advertising firms and the same think tanks, using the same strategies and tactics. “As we dug into it, the story just kept getting bigger and bigger. We found a pattern that ran through a whole set of di fferent environmental and public health issues, including acid rain, the ozone hole and the dangers of the threat of the nuclear winter. The point was always to prevent people from talking about what to do about it by focusing attention on whether or not it exists.” The book became a bestseller and then film crews came knocking. Oreskes was thrilled to see Merchants of Doubt made into a movie last year, as it o ered a chance to further spread the message while making more overt a metaphor touched on in the book. “We recruited a magician because the crux of a magician’s art is to distract your attention with a bird or a red handkerchief while he does the thing he doesn’t want you to notice,” she says. “ That’s what this is really all about. The people who deny the reality of climate change want to distract you from the scienti fic evidence and all the obvious changes that are taking place in our world with an argument about whether the science is true or not. What we really need to be talking about is what to do about this very profound problem.” Oreskes knows for sure the science is solid – she’s the one who first cobbled together a massive list of scienti fic papers on climate change and determined that, contrary to denialists’ claims, scientists worldwide are overwhelmingly in agreement about global warming and its human cause. Her 2004 study was lauded by the likes of Al Gore but seemed to fade into the background until University of Queensland research fellow John Cook replicated – and reproved – her work in a large-scale consensus study published in 2013. The results made national news in the US and were even tweeted by President Barack Obama. “It’s sort of sad for me that it took a decade and that other people had to, in a sense, redo my work,” Oreskes says. “But often when a really important piece of scientific work is done in any field, the first paper that’s published on it doesn’t change the conversation. It takes more than one person working on the issue to really get the message out.” Oreskes next month comes to Adelaide, but it’s far from her first time here. She spent three years in the late 1980s working as a geologist at Olympic Dam and says she still has a soft spot for South Australia, though less so for our national politics. “Following Australian politics could give a person whiplash,” she says. “Ultimately, the big political problem of Australia is that you have this very large, very pro table and very powerful coal industry – but the rest of the world is turning its back on coal. is is really the time for the Australian people to speak up and say: ‘ This is a special place with unique flora and fauna and tremendous natural beauty and we want to protect that. We don’t want to be hostages of the coal industry.’” WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks Botanic Park Saturday, March 12 to Monday, March 14