Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Climate Misinformation Campaign

I attended a talk last night by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and coauthor of the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.  The talk was titled The Climate Misinformation Campaign that Confused America and was sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Will Steger Foundation.

Oreskes was introduced by Minnesota’s famed polar explorer and global warming fighter Will Steger.  Steger talked about how the consequences of global warming are real and happening today.  He focused on what he knows best, the melting ice of Greenland, and reminded the audience that we Americans need to step up to the plate and use the same innovation we used to win World War II and land a man on the moon, to switch over to clean energy like solar, wind, Minnesota grown biofuels, and cellulosic ethanol.  And he reminded the audience that a big reason we aren’t taking on the challenge is because of the campaign of confusion that is cloaking the realities of global warming as uncovered in Oreskes book.   

Oreskes then took the stage and shared with us her five bullet points of what she thinks people need to be aware of about global warming.
  • Global warming is a scientific fact, it is happening, and our nation has been aware of it at least as far back on the Johnson administration in 1965.   
  • Global warming is not caused by changes in the sun.  Only two things are known to create changes in global temperatures, one is changes in solar radiation and the second is changes in greenhouse gases, i.e. carbon dioxide.  If it was the sun causing the increased temperatures as many greenhouse gas skeptics claim, there would be changes in solar radiation levels on the earth, and data indicates the levels have not been changing in the past fifteen years.  There have however been documented increases in carbon dioxide levels.  
  • Global warming is not just a passing fad, the concept of carbon dioxide level increases caused by the burning of fossil fuels raising global temperatures was first theorized in the early 1900’s.  
  • Global warming matters and it matters today.  Meteorological data indicates we are currently experiencing record high and low temperatures, record precipitation levels, and as Will Steger pointed out, melting glaciers.  These effects will affect not only our children or our children’s children, but also us.  And things are going to get worse.  
  • Her final bullet point revolved around the need for people to be aware of why there is so much doubt and so much confusion by so many people about the realities of global warming.  
And with that she lead into a reading of the introduction to her book.  In this reading, she revealed how research they did indicated that some of the same scientists who were employed by the tobacco companies to challenge the science that indicated tobacco smoking caused lung cancer were employed by the anti-global warming lobby to challenge the science of global warming.  The same tactics of lies told by supposedly reputable scientists attacking the reputations of honest scientists helped to put a cloud over the reality of global warming.

She concluded her talk by reading from the conclusion of the book, where she points out why people buy into the sales pitch of the anti-global warming folk.  She told a story about a bunch of people attending a feast.  The people gorged themselves on fancy food and drink and enjoyed their gluttony thoroughly.  Then when the meal was over and the waiter showed up with the bill, the people denied responsibility for paying for the meal.  Our feast has been our run of cheap energy, and our bill is the consequences of global warming.  It is our denial of being responsible for the bill that allows us to deny the realities of global warming.     

With that, Oreskes fielded some questions.  Some of the highlights from her responses follow.

In response to a question about how to respond to an often-heard critique of global warming that we need more data, she responded that all scientific data or knowledge is incomplete, but that does not give us an excuse to ignore what we do know.

A question was posed on what scientists need to do to address the skepticism surrounding global warming.  One suggestion she poised was that scientists often times are caught up in the scientific process, and as a result do a poor job of sharing the knowledge they have learned in that process.  She mentioned that science consists of two parts - one is the research process and the second is the knowledge that is gained by the process.  Scientists need to be able to speak to people in their own language about what they have learned in their research, not explain how much more they need to research, or tell questioners that what they know is too complicated to explain.  

Polling data was presented that indicated that a similar percentage of the public who doubts the reality of global warming also question the reality of evolution.  The question was then asked if there was a relationship between the two groups.  Oreskes indicated that she purposely avoided this topic in her book in order to avoid the criticism that the topic would likely invite.  She shared that on a personal basis, she did have a belief in God, and she could not understand how religious faith could justify anyone to knowingly destroy or harm Creation or portray science as evil or an enemy.

Another question dealt with how to respond to a common claim that global warming is a natural event, similar to previous swings in global temperature swings that have resulted in the coming and going of ice ages in the past.  She responded that these previous natural changes in planet temperatures have occurred over much longer periods of thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years.  The current human caused global warming changes are occurring over periods of decades or hundreds of years.

Another question was asked on how to respond to the anti-global warming lobby, should they be publicly debated?  She again talked about the importance of focusing on the two parts of science, the scientific process and the knowledge gained parts.  She indicated that lies told by the lobby need to be confronted head on as simply not true and not based on science.  She did not believe that debate worked, that it just plays into the agenda of the lobby.

She also discussed how public opinion is easily swayed.  Polls indicate that the public’s opinion on the topic changes with current events.  Believe in global warming went up after hurricane Katrina, after the recent gulf oil spill, and went down after the recent “global warming-gate” news stories where emails between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists were used to try and discredit the work of the Panel.  Her hope was that with good science those opinions could be swayed again.

She concluded by answering what can we do about global warming.  Her suggestions were that women play a key role in addressing global warming as they often control the purse strings.  She had drafted an article on the ten things women could do to address global warming, but with editorial critism that she was being sexist, changed it to things people could do.   One thing she suggested was to buy local and brought up an example of a woman who lived in New Hampshire who would drive to Boston once a month to get her hair cut.  She talked about the power consumers have on influencing large corporations, and used the example of Wal-Mart selling organic foods as a result of consumer demands. She also used Minnesota’s Best Buy as an example of a company trying to be more sustainable.

One other suggestion was regarding a question she is asked often about what kind of car people should drive.  Her answer is the same one you are currently driving, as making a new car uses much more energy then what would be saved by getting rid of your old one to buy something more efficient.    

Although Oreskes brought out a lot of good information about why global warming is doubted, I left the talk feeling a bit discouraged.  It seems like so many talks I have attended on this and related topics, the speakers really don’t do a good job of inspiring people to really look at what it is we need to do to address the state of our world.  Her story on the feasters not wanting to pay the bill, could be applied to many of us who really get the idea that global warming or climate change is a real phenomenon, but we want to duck out, jump in our old car, and drive back to our big house.

I am hoping to come across a speaker who can inspire me to take the leap of getting rid of the car, and finding or creating a community where I don’t need to drive, where I don’t need to rely on corporations to sell me organic food – rather we grow it ourselves, and where we don’t use the analogy of going to war as a model to find a peaceful way to coexist with the rest of the planet.  So for now I think I will skip buying her book and keep up the search for inspiration or one of these days stop waiting around and simply inspire myself.