The Upper Midwest remains in the grip of record-setting heat. Just to our south — Iowa — a flooding disaster is unfolding. In Russia, drought and heat has spawned massive wildfires. There’s flooding in Pakistan. What’s going on here? Is it just the natural cycle, or are we seeing the effects of a changing climate?
The latter, some influential scientists argue. Although it still gets cold in Minnesota for part of the year, it’s a lot more hotter hot now than colder cold “That is exactly what’s happening,” says NASA’s Gavin Schmidt at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York. “A lot more warm extremes and less cold extremes.”
And yet, we still can’t move on from arguing whether there (a) is such a thing as climate change and (b) what causes it and how it should be addressed. (Aside: Possible solutions include building smog-eating skyscrapers, apparently)
What’s the problem? A handful of scientists are obscuring scientific truths, according to Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California San Diego.
Here are the key questions-and-answers from today’s Midmorning show.
Q: Why don’t people see it as a matter of concern?
Oreskes: Public opinion is unstable and susceptible to local events. If we did a poll today, most people in Minnesota will say there’s global warming. Take a poll in the winter, and they won’t. But we have been victims of a disinformation campaign.
Q: When you says scientists haven’t done a good job of explaining climate change, why not?
Oreskes: It’s not part of their job card. They don’t see it as part of their job. When scientists have tried to explain the science, or even doing their own work, they’ve been attacked. It’s part of an organized strategy, so scientists have become gun shy.
Q: Like who?
Oreskes: Ben Santer is an amazing scientist; he’s been working on climate change for 30 years. He’s a nice guy and not a crusader. He’s a climate modeler. In the mid-’90s he answered the question “how do we know global warming is caused by greenhouse gasses and not the sun?” He did the work that showed greenhouse gasses were responsible and he wrote it up. Then he became the victim of an organized, conservative attack. It went so far as putting pressuring Congressmen in his district to get him fired from the job.
There’s a mechanism for challenging science. You could have written a paper via peer review. This wasn’t that.
Q: Have you been subject to these kinds of attacks?
Oreskes: I get hate e-mail. One of the reasons we decided to write the book is because of the attacks. In 2004 I analyzed the scientific literature and wanted to know what scientists think about global warming. All the scientists I knew believed in global warming. I discovered there was no disagreement whatsoever among the experts. I published that — it was peer reviewed — and I started getting hate e-mail.
Q:You’ve got highly-regarded scientists on the other side.
Oreskes: Frederick Seitz was an extraordinary scientist who rose to the president of the Academy of American Scientists. He went to work for the tobacco industry and his job was to find distracting research. He had no expertise in climate. Three scientists were involved. They were cold warriors and they feared that any science on global warming or acid rain would lead us on the slippery slope to socialism.
There’s a lot of scientific firepower. Contrast with that, someone like Ben Santer is much younger, basically working in his lab, doesn’t know any senators and is completely blindsided by the attack and doesn’t know how to respond.
Q: Have you heard from these three scientists?
Oreskes: Two of them are dead. I don’t expect to hear from them. I don’t have anything to say about them. They’re too litigious.
Q: What about the e-mails that some say shows an attempt to exaggerate climate change?
Oreskes: These scientists did not hide their e-mails; they were stolen. What you see in them is their frustration. There have been four independent panels who reviewed this and concluded that the scientists did nothing wrong but lose their temper.
Q: How well does the media understand climate change?
Oreskes: Most of the scientists I know are frustrated because they think the media doesn’t know the issue at all. It’s been a big discussion about whether we should call this global warming or climate change. We should call it climate destruction. Various kinds of disruptions are consistent with the predictions of climate science and that hasn’t gotten across.
Q: If the planet is warming, why are we seeing cold winters?
Oreskes: I have no agenda except history. The agenda of science is to understand the natural world. When you put gasses into the atmosphere, you’re trapping heat. That energy has to go somewhere and in the atmosphere it goes into the weather systems. That means we will have more storms.
Q: You say “doubt is crucial to science; it drives science forward”…
Oreskes: The tobacco industry was very clever. Doubting conventional wisdom is part of what drives scientific investigation. But at a certain point when you have mounting evidence, to continue to deny that is corrosive. The tobacco industry did that. They said “I’ve got this one guy here who had a different opinion,” and they amplified that to claim the science wasn’t really settled.
Q: That strategy gets applied to climate change?
Oreskes: Yes. Take the culmination of experts. You find someone who doesn’t agree for whatever reason — maybe, they’re just a grouch. You fund them, give them support, fund them through your think tank, and then you promote their research. There was a fellow in the ’50s who doubted tobacco causing cancer because he worked in the field of asbestos. They sent out all his research.
One of the things the tobacco industry did was track journalists. If they found one who might be favorable — maybe she was a heavy smoker — they’d cultivate that journalist. The saddest story to me is the story of Edward R. Murrow, one of the greatest journalists who ever lived. The tobacco industry convinced him — a heavy smoker — to give equal time on his shows.
Q: Climate scientists have agendas too. They get funding from environmental groups. How does the research get influenced by who pays for it?
Oreskes: The vast majority of funding has come from the U.S. government and most of that has come from the Department of Energy. Scientists do have an agenda: Understanding the natural world.
It’s important to ask who’s funding research. A lot of this work was funded by NASA. But it is true that if a sponsor has a particular result that they want, there’s a key question you have to ask: Does the sponsor just want information, or does the sponsor want a particular result?
The tobacco industry doesn’t want the truth about tobacco. The tobacco industry knows the truth. The tobacco industry wants a particular result. Same with the fossil fuel industry.
Q: Is the world already at a point of no return?
Oreskes: Everyone in the scientific community agrees we’ve gone too far to completely turn it back. Is it all irreversible? I don’t think scientists would say that.
Most scientists think there have been some irreversible changes, and that more will take place. They’re upset because we’ve known this for a long time and we haven’t done anything about it.
It’s impossible to see 2 degree increases in temperature. But we can see the effect. In 1974, a scientist predicted we’d see the effect of global warming on the Arctic first. That has come true.
Q: What’s the most accurate Web site or organization to get peer-reviewed facts?
Orestes: The best site for technical peer-reviewed data is realclimate.org. That comes out of the Goddard Institute. It’s a little technical. If you want something that’s non-technical, the Jet Propulsion Lab has created a site.
Q: Should “both sides” of the story be presented by journalists?
Orested: When you’ve covering scientific issues, journalists should strive for accuracy, rather than balance. In science, the whole notion of both sides doesn’t really make sense.
Picture: Residents embrace, as floodwater from the South Skunk River flood neighborhoods in Colfax, Iowa, Wednesday August 11, 2010. One person was missing after raging floodwaters swept three cars off a road near Des Moines early Wednesday, and college athletes rallied to protect their stadium from the rising water after three nights of torrential rain. (AP Photo/Steve Pope)