Naomi Oreskes speaks about climate change and ‘Merchants of Doubt’

A group of scientists in the United States has denied the evidence of climate change since the 1970’s. Why? Because it challenged their political beliefs.

This is what Naomi Oreskes, an American historian of science at Harvard, concluded in the process of writing her book, “Merchants of Doubt.” Oreskes presented her findings March 19 at the 12th annual Life Sciences and Society Program symposium at MU themed “Confronting Climate Change.”

Her research found that politically conservative organizations funded scientists to spread disinformation to the media about climate science. Although companies like Exxon had found CO2 increasing in the atmosphere early on, they feared regulation of the fossil fuel industry, she said.

The first record of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere came from American scientist Charles David Keeling who began measuring CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in 1958. By 1961 he was able to show that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were steadily increasing, evidenced by what was later called the “Keeling Curve.” The National Science Foundation stopped funding his work in the early 1960’s, but the organization still published his data to warn the populace that the atmosphere was changing. At first, government paid attention to the research – even Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the CO2 issue – but in 1965, the issue was put on the back burner. The Kennedy assassination, civil rights protests and the Vietnam War were more immediate issues to be addressed.

According to Oreskes’ research, Exxon did its own research into the changing climate in the 1970s. 1988 brought the first official evidence of a “human fingerprint” on the changing atmosphere, and by 1989 the company had created a lobbying group called the Global Climate Coalition to question human contribution to greenhouse gases. Though the campaign ended in 2002, the debate continued in the national media, which created a sense of false balance by quoting scientists paid by the fossil fuel industry.

Oreskes’ book compares the fossil fuel industry’s tactics to those of the tobacco industry in the 1950s and ‘60s. Think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies use clever tricks such as creating official-looking “summaries” of real scientific reports to distribute among journalists and members of congress who are none the wiser. Until Oreskes’ book, many of these actions went unrecognized.

Oreskes said that Exxon and other companies in the fossil fuel industry have cost the world years of climate action through their disinformation. If the public had understood the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere earlier, the steps governments are now taking to address climate change could have happened decades ago.

Oreskes has a positive outlook on the future. She wants to frame the climate change discussion in a different way. She said that talking about the polar bears is not the way forward.

“We live in a house and we are burning down our house, so when we talk about saving the environment,” she said, “we are talking about saving ourselves.”



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