For Naomi Oreskes, professor of scientific history at Harvard, there’s no more vivid illustration of the bitter war between science and politics than Florida’s ban on state employees using terms such as “climate change” and “global warming”. No matter that the low-lying state is critically vulnerable to rises in sea level, or that 97% of peer-reviewed climate studies confirm that climate change is occurring and human activity is responsible, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, instructed state employees not to discuss it as it is not “a true fact”.
In one sense, news of the Florida directive could not have come at a better time – a hard-hitting documentary adaptation of Oreskes’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt is just hitting US cinemas. In another sense, she says, it is profoundly depressing: the tactics now being used to prevent action over global warming are the same as those used in the past – often to great effect – to obfuscate and stall debates over evolutionary biology, ozone depletion, the dangers of asbestos or tobacco, even dangerous misconceptions about childhood vaccinations and autism.
Scott’s de facto ban is, she tells the Observer, “a grim state of affairs straight out of a George Orwell novel. So breathtaking that you don’t really know how to respond to it.”
It is also a display of just the kind of prevarication and intransigence that Oreskes studied to establish her formidable scholarly reputation. Each argument – if that is the correct term – has followed a strikingly similar path, and in each case, scientists have been drawn into debates that have little to do with a sound-science, rigorous exchange of knowledge.
Directed by Robert Kenner, best known for the hard-hitting Food, Inc., and backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, the Merchants of Doubt film exposes the tactics of climate change “experts”, who are often in the employ of thinktanks funded by industries invested in maintaining the status quo.
It’s a fascinating look at how overwhelming certainty acquired through rigorous scientific enquiry has been time and again upended and delayed by a small group of spin doctors. As one scientist points out in the film, they have to prove their case while their opponents only have to sow the seeds of doubt. Nowhere is that more keenly felt than in climate change, with a massive disconnect between public acceptance and the political will to act.
“The scientific community feels it worked incredibly hard on this issue,” Oreskes says. “It has done exactly what it is supposed to do, which is study the question carefully from many angles, publish the results in peer-reviewed journals, explain it to the public and in reports. Yet it has gained no traction. Or worse – scientists are facing active attempts to deny, discredit, harass and, in some cases, sully their reputations.”
The political split on the issue grew last week when secretary of state John Kerry warned climate-change deniers and obfuscators – presumably including 2016 presidential contender Jeb Bush (who accepts global warming but not that it is disproportionately caused by human activity) – that there is no time to waste on debating the subject. Fail to act, he said, and future generations will want to know how world leaders could have been “so blind or so ignorant or so ideological or so dysfunctional and, frankly, so stubborn”.
As a historian of science, Oreskes is better-positioned than research scientists to challenge the situation. She recently suggested that the threat of climate change is so extreme, and time to curb its accelerating effects so short, that the scientific community should abandon its conservative, 95% confidence standard – which, she argues, is an unfair burden of proof that has no actual basis in nature. The science community is unlikely to back Oreskes in that opinion but her point is clearly made: there is no debate, and by entering the semantics of a debate, you’ve already lost.
Yet the cost to moderate Republicans of bucking approved party thinking are well-known. The filmmakers visit Bob Inglis , a South Carolina congressman who lost his seat four years ago after being targeted by the Tea Party following a radio interview in which he said he believed humans were contributing to climate change.
Oreskes’s study in Merchants of Doubt centered on a group of distinguished scientists, veterans of the cold war arms race, who came out in support of the tobacco industry and later cropped up opposing climate-change science. Since the research science on both issues is so clear, how could they be confused on the subject?
“We found that they really believed they were defending the freedom, free-market capitalism, liberty and lifestyle they believe go with a laissez-faire economy,” says Oreskes. “It’s essentially a slippery-slope argument. If you allow the government to regulate tobacco or restrict the use of carbon-based fuels, it’s a step toward tyranny.”
And that, Oreskes points out, goes back to Milton Friedman, and Freidrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom . “The original argument was authentic, if misguided. In recent years it has been cynically manipulated by the Tea Party and others supported by vested interests.” (Oreskes mentions Charles and David Koch, the industrialists who have already pledged to contribute $1bn toward influencing the 2016 elections.)
In short, it’s a perversion of American notions of freedom, one that scientists are ill-equipped to counter. “The argument is, if you allow government to impose a carbon tax, then you’re going to surrender your liberty, personal freedom and individual choice,” says Oreskes. “That helps explain why this is such an American pathology. It plays into the cultural valences of individualism and choice.”
At times, the argument has become entirely obfuscated and contorted by politics. It was, after all, George HW Bush who introduced the idea of carbon emissions trading . Liberals and Democrats opposed it. When it was found to work, and environmentalists embraced it, conservatives turned against it. That showed that Republicans have no serious interest in negotiating on this issue, says Oreskes. “They rejected their own principles!”
Clearly there’s more than enough blame to go round. In the US, one green advocacy group recently ran ads asking: “How many light bulbs does it take to change an American?”
Oreskes comments: “If you tell people it’s about changing them, it’s not helpful. We need to say, ‘Look, this is a problem we could actually fix if we stopped being in denial about it.’” She argues that the media is also to blame. The idea of presenting balanced arguments – to give an opposing view – does not serve an issue such as climate change well, especially when social media has power to transmit discredited or perilous misconceptions. “Sometimes the evidence and the data are all on one side,” Oreskes points out.
Last week she found herself on the receiving end of climate deniers’ outrage. Ninety-year-old Fred Singer, profiled at length in Merchants of Doubt, threatened to sue Oreskes and Kenner, following a pattern of response often used to raise the profile of climate contrarians.
But it is becoming harder to imagine a happy conclusion. In her most recent book, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future , Oreskes and co-author Erik Conway imagine looking back on the world in 2093 from the year 2393. It’s a dismal view of floods, droughts, mass migrations and the depopulation of entire continents. In Merchants of Doubt Oreskes writes that industrial society has been “dining out” on fossil fuels for 150 years, and now we’ve equated ideals of freedom with the right to a lifestyle that those fuels permit.
Even those who profess to be on the green side of the debate, including Hillary Clinton, are prevaricating on their opposition to the XL pipeline , designed to carry dirty tar sands oil into the US from Canada. Prevarication paid off for the tobacco industry, which profitably resisted science and government regulation for half a century, and it is paying off now for the oil industry. Rising temperatures are making previously inhospitable regions, including the Arctic, accessible to exploration and drilling.
But it’s with no pleasure that Oreskes reports that the very groups that most detest regulation will ultimately see more of it when the consequences of inaction on climate change become unavoidable.
“This story is riven with ironies, and that’s one of the most profound if we don’t get this situation under control.”