just asking questions

Naomi Oreskes: ‘The House Is Burning Down and We’re Just Sitting Around Discussing It’

Naomi Oreskes. Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

A geologist turned historian of science, Naomi Oreskes is the world’s preeminent chronicler of climate denial and disinformation, primarily thanks to 2010’s Merchants of Doubt, which she co-wrote with Erik Conway. A couple of years later, they collaborated on a work of climate fiction, The Collapse of Western Civilization, and the following year, Oreskes wrote the introduction to the American edition of Pope Francis’s climate encyclical. Her new book, Why Trust Science?, draws on the Tanner lectures she delivered at Princeton University, and was inspired, she says, by all the people who came up to her after lectures to ask how it was she knew whatever it was she was claiming to know. We spoke in early September about how much consensus it takes before we can take action on something like climate change, why people can’t properly process the science we do know, and whether we need to give up on GDP growth to properly address climate change.

Are we in a place of distrust about science, or is it more like disinterest?
The polls are pretty clear on this. There’ve been several major studies. The vast majority of American people still trust science. However, it is true that in certain particular areas where people feel as if the results of science contradict their values — their religious beliefs, their political commitments — then we do see a very substantial rejection in distrust of science. And the obvious places are evolution and climate change, but it creeps up in a few other places as well.

I’m sure that’s right, but when I look at these polls showing concern about climate change at 70 percent or 75 percent or even more, I think, given how tribalized our political culture is and how partisan our worldviews tend to be, the fact that 75 percent of the country believes that climate change is happening suggests to me that for at least a sort of significant minority and maybe a plurality, of Republican identifying Americans, their sense of science is actually overriding their political commitments. Is that not how you see that data?
Well, no, probably I agree broadly. But I think there’s a couple of things I would say there. One is that if you unpack the poll data — I know you’ve looked at this, and, yes, it’s true, 75 percent of people accept that climate change is happening, but it’s a soft 75 percent. When you probe, do you think it’s serious? Do you think it’s caused by people? Do you think it’s a crisis? The numbers fall.

And then the other thing, of course, is why did it take so darn long for this to happen? A big part of my work has been showing that there was a scientific consensus on this issue already by the early 1990s, and of course, that’s also when we have the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. So we should have taken action in 1992, but we didn’t. And why is that? Well, we know that a massive campaign was launched to discredit the science, that the purpose of the campaign was to make people distrust the science.

Right. I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing with that premise at all — obviously there’s an enormous misinformation and denial campaign, which you’ve documented very comprehensively and persuasively. But I wonder, given the scope of this book in particular, whether we should be surprised, even in the absence of that kind of campaign, that it would take 25 or 30 years for a relatively new set of ideas about the physical world to take root — not just as a scientific consensus but a broader social and cultural consensus. Isn’t that somewhat typical?
Yeah, definitely. I totally agree with that. And climate change challenges us in a lot of ways. It challenges a very great geological notion about the insignificance of people in comparison to the vastness of geological time and the power of just physical forces. I mean, I was raised, I was taught as a geologist, that the single most important contribution that geology as a science had made was to persuade us of our insignificance.

And it’s one of the reasons that I think it took some scientists time to come to grips with this. Because while climate scientists were saying in the ’90s that this was real serious, other scientists — earth scientists, chemists, physicists — were a bit slower to accept it. And I think a lot of it did have to do with, you know, what we could call the uniformitarian paradigm — that the Earth was giant, people were small, and it was just not that likely that anything that we could do would really have such a profound impact. I think that explains a certain reticence within the scientific community.

Outside of that community, people were reluctant to accept it, too, even without that training.
I think it’s harder to pin exactly what the deal is there. But I think it relates to this idea that the American way of life is great, that America is the greatest country on Earth, that we live this unbelievably prosperous life. We have large comfortable houses, we drive great cars, we travel so much and that this is a good thing. By and large, I think this is how most of us were raised to think and how most of us feel. And so to register that there are these really these really big environmental consequences — what the economists call the external costs — and to come to grips with that and to say that this beautiful, prosperous way of life we’ve built has this fatal flaw that will in the end undermine everything that we have built, and in the end will undermine everything we love about our comfortable lifestyle … That’s a really, really difficult proposition to take onboard. And I think that’s a big reason why the arguments were easy to accept for people. It’s more comfortable to say, well, you know, we don’t even know if this is really true.

Well, just to pull back to the big subject of your book, how do we know it’s true? At what point can we declare things, just, known?
The short answer is we’re never certain. We have to accept that uncertainty is a way of life. And so anybody who tries to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for inaction, well, that’s just hogwash because there will always be uncertainty.

And in this case, with climate, uncertainty should be an argument for more action.
Correct. Exactly. That’s exactly right. And sometimes the scientific community will say, yeah, we actually really do know this, the evidence has all come together. There’s nothing really significant that’s contradictory and it’s not looking like it’s going to change. And that’s the point at which an observer could say, okay, there’s a scientific consensus. But that’s a social process. It’s not logic.

Do you see that consensus as having been reached on climate 30 years ago? Because the science has evolved since then, which suggests at least at an epistemological level, we should always be skeptical even if things are being described as the consensus, because probably they will change or can change to some degree, right?
Well, the some degree is the operative phase there.

And, first of all, you have to be clear — consensus about what? On climate, I’m talking about the specific claim that the IPCC made in the early ’90s or mid-’90s, which was that climate change was underway and it was being driven by human activity.

That has really not changed substantially since then. What we’ve done is filled in a lot of details. We understand a lot more about the details of the climate system. We understand a lot more about the cloud feedback, a lot of good work on the so-called dimming effect, ocean heat uptake. But in terms of the basic consensus, I mean in some ways it’s a little frightening to me how little that basic framework has changed, since that tells us that we actually really did have the information we needed to act.

You have just published a paper with Michael Oppenheimer pointing out the pattern that, when it comes to climate projections, the real-world impacts continue to surpass even very recent projections.
You said surpassing, but that’s not quite right. What we showed in our work was that there’s a range of estimates that the scientists give. They don’t just say the answer is x, they say the answer is between y and z, with a 75 percent probability of blah, blah, blah, et cetera. The point we made is actually the scientists were right, because the error bars include the actual real-world result. But in most cases those results are at the high end of the estimate of what’s possible.

That’s not saying that they’re wrong, and it’s not saying new findings are surpassing what was said in previous reports, it’s actually saying that they were correct, but that they were systematically being a little bit too conservative in where they put their mean value or best estimate.

Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on here. I think one of the things is intimidation. I think the political pressure on the scientific community, even though scientists would like to believe that they’re immune from intimidation, uh, they’re human beings and I think they are influenced. There’s been so much political pressure on the climate science community. To not be “alarmist,” to not exaggerate, I think that they’ve bent over backwards. And the result has been the systematic slight underestimation that we talked about.

But it also has to do with certain intrinsic values of science. Scientists have a certain vision of rationality. And that vision, which goes back to Descartes, is that to be rational is the opposite of being emotional. And this is also leading with a lot of gender stereotypes and gender prejudices. So if you have a result that is very dramatic, it tends to evoke an emotional response. And part of avoiding emotion is to avoid claims that could trigger emotion.

I always tell people they need to read Antonio Damasio, who’s the most important scientist in America, because his work has shown that when you reason, the emotional centers of your brain are involved as well. And when people’s emotional centers are damaged, they make bad decisions. So this is why when I hear people say, you know, well, we have to calm down and be rational about this, we have to put emotions aside — for me, giant red flags.

So what is an inappropriate emotional response, from your view, to what we know about the climate and where we’re headed?
I mean, the whole thing is very strange emotionally. Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement — of all the people who’ve written on this, he’s the emotionally clearest. I think that title really does sum it up. It is a kind of great derangement. The house is burning down and we’re just sitting around discussing, you know, how much fireproofing we have in the walls or something. I don’t know. It’s a very strange state of affairs. And it partly arises from the fact that climate change is a slow burn. We don’t really see the house burning down. If we did, we might react differently.

That’s an interesting metaphor to me because I think the most powerful teaching tool that nature has given us has been the California wildfires — literally the burning down of houses.
Some of my philosophy friends want to have a big argument about what is causation. Because if you think about tobacco, it did take time to make the argument that tobacco caused death. It’s not like you smoke a cigarette and then you drop dead. You smoke a cigarette, you smoke many cigarettes for 20 years, you get cancer and you die and you die maybe 10 to 15 to 20 years sooner than you would otherwise have died. That’s a pretty serious loss of life, but it’s still kind of delayed. And so in some ways climate change is like that, right? You’ve got a hundred years of greenhouse-gas emissions, but only now, finally, is it reaching the point where we’re really seeing the cancer take root.

Rationally, we actually should be panicked. We should be panicked, angry, upset, despairing — all those things. But of course we all know none of those are really productive. If the house is really on fire, you don’t panic, you stay calm, you pull the fire alarm, you call the fire department, you get out of the house, you put the fire out, and then you figure out how to rebuild the house. With climate change, I think maybe that’s the key thing that we have to try to figure out is what is the rebuilding. We basically have to rebuild our energy economy and how we do that as quickly and effectively as possible.

And then I thought Andrew Yang was right the other night when he talked about changing the GDP. I thought that was actually one of the best moments of the night. He said, we aim for what we measure. And GDP is an incredibly destructive measure. It encourages unsustainable economic development. If we could change that and come up with a [measurement] that incorporates sustainability into our economic indicators, then I actually think that could be a game-changer.

To Yang’s point, we aim for what we measure — I mean, I think there is wisdom in that. On the other hand, when I look in particular at the climate crisis, I see we have pretty good measures of our carbon emissions. We’ve known that they were quite damaging for a really long time. And we’ve done very little to stop them.
That’s true, but if you’re a businessman, you’ve got your quarterly profit goals, which don’t include climate considerations. If you’re a country, you’ve got output goals, and if the GDP falls, that’s considered a bad thing.

Right. If emissions go up, that’s bad, but people care a lot, lot less.
We have a lot of economic policies designed to ensure that the GDP is always increasing. When I was in grad school, one of my smart professors, when we would talk about models, he would say the thing that people always miss in models is that if the conceptualization is wrong, then no amount of fixing of the details is going to solve the problem.

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