Naomi Oreskes at Snow College

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Naomi Oreskes came to Snow College on March 17, 2014. Photo courtesy of abc.net

Naomi Oreskes came to Snow College on March 17, 2014. Photo courtesy of abc.net

On Tuesday, March 17th, Harvard professor and world-renowned Science historian, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, spoke at the annual Snow College convocation of the Grace Tanner Lecture series in human values. Dr. Oreskes gave a presentation outlining the title of her co-authored book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The book has received accolades from across a variety of academic disciplines and is still a best seller in the genre of science writing.

The auditorium was nearly completely full for the event and the crowd seemed to be restless with anticipation when Processor of Convocations, Steve Peterson, took the stage. He explained that Oreskes had become ill the day of the event, but decided to fly out from Portland at the last minute because of the excitement that Snow students and faculty had expressed at her coming.

A loud applause erupted as Oreskes took the stage and she greeted the audience with an apology for her hoarse voice. She then related how much she appreciated the unique beauty of Utah’s landscape and the Rocky Mountain snow that she has experienced as a ski buff.

Speaking in front of an audience is nothing new for Dr. Oreskes, though she expressed her gratitude in being able to do so that night.

After a brief introduction, Oreskes explained that her lecture would be focused on presenting the history of climate science, and how the notion of climate change has became a political issue for the general public, instead of a scientific one.

It should be noted that a significant majority of scientists, that is close to 99% of them, agree that climate change is happening and that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the changes observed. However, only 57% of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity, with 40% believing that it happening due to “naturally occurring changes in the environment,” according to a Gallop poll from March 18th, 2014.

This is an ideological disparity that does not follow the evidence for climate change, and the reason for it is the subject of Naomi Oreskes visit to Snow College campus given her work as a Science Historian and writer.

Oreskes began her following presentation with a history of the science of climate. She explained that as far back as the nineteen fifties, after the discovery of greenhouse gasses, there has been much hard science to support the idea that the burning of extracted carbon deposits contributes to the warming effect that the planet undergoes due to its atmosphere, also know as the greenhouse effect. A  series of scientific investigations took place. These in-depth research projects resulted in the accumulation of new data, all published and peer reviewed, and explained the theory behind greenhouse-gas based global warming. Over the next few decades, observations and evidence mounted, and there was a large consensus among climate scientists the world over that climate change was a problem.

However, beginning in the 1980s, a small group of former governmental scientists, including Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer, formed the Marshall Institute, that functioned to scrutinize certain scientific theories.

These former scientists, who had focused on military research and development during World War II and the Cold War, began to discredit the science behind climate change.

Some of these same men had also contributed to the tobacco industry’s public relations campaign to discredit any science establishing that smoking was harmful. They did this, as Oreskes explained, to prevent political action, for the sake of hindering governmental regulation.

The motivation for attempting to obstruct regulation was not a scientifically motivated one, but a politically motivated one, according to Oreskes. She explained the ideology of “Free Market Fundamentalism” which is the belief that any governmental interference in laissez-faire capitalism could lead to a socialist reformation of the American system. This continuation of the “red-scare” mentality, was a very serious fear amongst the general public, who had been concerned about the threat of world domination from the Former Soviet Union.

It was then the strategy of the Marshall Institute to conflate climate change with the “environmentalist extremism” and “Communism” of the radical left, attempting to disparage the science through the association of it with political controversy.

Documents that had been written by this group attested to this, and Dr. Oreskes did not omit visual demonstration and citations. The voices cited did not omit their political fears as to the possible ramifications of governmental regulation.

“These men were professional deniers,” she said. Their “strategy” was to “prevent political action” by creating “doubt.”

According to Dr. Oreskes, the credibility of the science behind climate change was never really in question amongst the scientific community. The issue was made political by “contrarians” for political and economic reasons.

She explained that it is important for us to have sincere conversations about these political and economic issues, but that they should be honest conversations.

She also explained that economists do not consider costs to the environment and those outside the industry to be of immediate importance, as they are “external costs.”

She gave the example of the oil industry, which is not actually governed by a free market, as it is granted 700 billion dollars of governmental subsidies every year. This was the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund, the “bailout” subsidy implemented to prevent the failure of the financial system after the market crash of 2008. Oreskes quipped that this seems to indicate the oil industry is a “troubled asset.”

In closing Oreskes stated that it is the role of science that should determine when the government should intervene to protect its citizens from harm, but also that a combination of government controls and market solutions are the best ways to solve these problems. The problem of climate change, for Naomi Oreskes, amongst the vast majority of climate scientists, is one of those problems.

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