Naomi Oreskes on the science of climate change and COVID-19 – and those who deny it

In advance of the Trottier Symposium on Sustainable Engineering, Energy, and Design, we spoke with geologist and science historian, Dr. Naomi Oreskes about the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that can be applied to the climate change crisis
Dr. Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.  

Are there lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that can be applied to the climate crisis? What are the most promising, and most challenging, solutions to climate change? And how can scientists best communicate their work to policy makers to help enact sustainable changes? 

These questions and more will be the focus of the 7th Annual Trottier Symposium on Sustainable Engineering, Energy, and Design, taking place online on September 16. 

One of the event’s featured speakers is Dr. Naomi Oreskes, world-renowned geologist, historian, and leading voice on anthropogenic climate change and the role of science in society. She is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.  

Oreskes is the author of the 2004 Science article, The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, and her books include Merchants of Doubt (2010), Why Trust Science? (2019), and the forthcoming Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change.   

In 2014, she met with Pope Francis and in the following year, wrote the introduction to the Papal Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Laudato Si. 

She has won numerous awards and prizes including the 2019 Geological Society of American Mary C. Rabbit Award and the 2016 Stephen Schneider Award for outstanding Climate Science Communication British Academy Medal. In 2018, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow. 

Oreskes spoke with the McGill Reporter from her home just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. The following is a condensed version of the conversation.  

In your most recent book, Why Trust Science?, you describe the prevalence and power of creating scientific doubt. Can you elaborate on the systems at play in scientific skepticism?

It’s important to know that there is not a general crisis of trust in science. We have a number of good studies that have looked at this, and the vast majority of North Americans and Europeans still have a high level of trust in science. In general, North Americans trust scientific experts much more than they trust politicians or business people, so that’s the good news in this story.

However, what Erik Conway and I showed in our book, Merchants of Doubt, is that there are identifiable “pockets” of resistance or scientific rejection that are associated with specific political, economic, or religious demographic groups. We have data to explain why these people reject the science – it’s not because there’s something wrong with the science, but because they don’t like its implications, or they don’t like what people have told them what those implications are.

In the case of evolutionary biology, there is strong data showing that people who reject evolutionary theory tend to be white evangelical Christians – and they reject it because they’ve interpreted it, or been told to interpret it, as meaning that there’s no God, and that life is random and meaningless. While it is true that evolutionary theory does involve a large component of randomness, it doesn’t mean that life is meaningless, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no God.

In the case of climate change, it’s much more political and economic. Here, we see that climate change denial in the United States correlates very strongly with people who are self-identified Conservatives or registered Republican voters. It’s associated with free-market fundamentalism, with the belief that markets are the best way to solve our problems, and that government intervention in the marketplace is a bad thing. And because the solutions to climate change involve recognizing that climate change is a market failure and that the solutions require government intervention, people who don’t like that conclusion will reject climate science. This is then exacerbated by the deliberate promulgation of doubt by interested parties, most obviously the fossil fuels industry.

That ties into my next question regarding all the communication we’re seeing relating to COVID-19. What are some observations you’ve made on the current discourse surrounding the pandemic, and what are some lessons we can apply to communications on climate change?

Well, COVID-19 is a little bit different than climate change and evolutionary theory. Scientists have been working on evolutionary theory for the past 150 years and climate change for, say, 70 years – so the science is very well established and well settled. COVID-19 is different because there are many things about it, and coronaviruses in general, that we don’t understand; we can’t say the science is settled.

But we can see that even in the very different scientific situation, some of the same kinds of political and ideological issues are kicking in. People reject scientific advice [about COVID-19] because they see it as the government telling them what to do: “I don’t want the government telling me that I have to wear a mask.” And that overlaps a lot with the rejection of climate change, where the rejection of government and market fundamentalism is also tied to a kind of radical individualism: “My life is not for someone else to tell me what to do.” That’s okay, up to a point. But when what you do hurts other people, then it gets problematic.

In the case of climate change, the way in which our activities hurt other people is a couple of steps removed. With COVID-19, it’s extremely direct. What we see here in the United States is that the vast majority of people are doing the right thing, but you have a small component of people who are highly belligerent. They are what I call the “belligerent ignorant” and they are fomented by a belligerent president. And so that has led to a massive public health and economic crisis in the United States that is far worse than it needed to be.

In Merchants of Doubt, you describe the parallels between falsified information around tobacco smoke and campaigns to undercut climate science. Do you see a similar dynamic happening right now? 

It’s a complicated issue, but I think this whole idea that we can never say that anything is proven can be problematic. Scientists work incredibly hard to demonstrate what they think is true but, even then, they’ll say the evidence is extremely likely, or it’s extremely probable. It gives the impression that things are not really known when, in fact, they are.

The doubt mongers have a much easier job than scientists because they don’t have to prove anything. All they have to do is raise a little doubt. Ask the question, and it could be a legitimate question. For example, how do we know climate change is not natural variability? That’s a totally legitimate question. We have a good answer for it, but if you just put the question out there and you let it hang and you don’t answer it, then you can give the impression that we don’t know even when we really do. This is why this technique is so powerful and so nefarious.

The tobacco industry developed and honed this strategy to a fine art. Nobody likes a bad news story. If you enjoy smoking, you would prefer that smoking wasn’t going to kill you. And so if the tobacco industry comes along and says they’re not really sure [about smoking’s negative effects], you can take comfort and say to yourself, “Well, I’ll keep smoking until we know for sure.”

We’ve seen that with climate change, as well, and we are seeing it with COVID-19, with people who took the early mixed messages about masks as an excuse to say, “The government doesn’t even really know anyway, so I’m not going to bother wearing a mask because it’s irritating and annoying.”

Your 2004 study, The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, was a landmark for climate science. Have you seen public opinion evolve since then?

Certainly in the United States, we’ve seen the vast majority of Americans come around to essentially accepting the scientific positions. But we still see a significant difference in registered Democrats, whose views, [for the most part,] are consistent with scientific evidence, versus registered Republicans. It is much better than what it was some years ago, but there’s still a significant ideological gap.

And that’s very important for us to understand, because it proves that even now, the ideological component is persistent in influencing how people view what the scientific community would consider to be facts. Gravity is not Republican or Democratic. Climate change is not Republican or Democratic. And yet, nearly 40 years after [climate modeler] James Hansen first testified in US Congress and after the UN Framework Convention on climate change, we still find that Democrats and Republicans view climate change differently.

What do you see as promising solutions to addressing the climate change emergency?

Climate change is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that we have the technology we need to fix this problem, by and large. There is a tremendous decline in the cost of renewable energy. Solar is now the cheapest form of newly installed electricity in most places in the world, and wind energy is also now cost-competitive. We don’t need to sit around waiting for technological breakthrough, and it becomes a kind of denialism to say we do.

The bad news, then, is that it’s not just about the technology – it’s also about the politics of technology. Why do we have the technology we have now? Because over 120 years ago, Canada, the United States, and other countries realized that fossil fuels were an incredibly convenient and powerful source of energy. We’ve built our economy, infrastructure, and industries around the use of these assumed cheap fossil fuels, so now we have a very high degree of technological lock-in. The only way to break lock-in is through conscious policy to support the fledgling industries, to eliminate the subsidies for fossil fuel industries, and to allow renewables to compete in a level playing field. And that’s going to require a lot of political will.

To attend the Sept. 16 online symposium, register here:

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3 years ago

Comment: It is interesting to read and digest this interview. Professor F .K. Hare and two or so at McGill in the early sixties were the first or early apostles of Climate Change and the consequences correlating with the depletion of the Ozone Layer.( I was then a PG Student at McGill. The doubting Thomases sound be ignored. He who refuses to admit the results of Science or Science itself wholesale wholesale constitute the statistical ignorant of the population .
He who dogmatically refuses to recognise science is not likely to believe Covid-19 and their correlation .

3 years ago

But do we have the technology to fix the problem of climate change? We have the technology to slow the heating of the planet but if we continue to pursue economic growth over conservation and a simpler lifestyle, many scientists have come to the conclusion that “fixing” is no longer possible… Mitigation, yes, somewhat….Let’s not sugarcoat the immensity of the planetary forces that have been unleashed…