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‘Merchants of doubt’ cloud climate change debate

Naomi Oreskes
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ASPEN – The number of Americans who say they are concerned about global warming dropped to 51 percent this year from 66 percent just three years ago, according to Gallup polls. Naomi Oreskes thinks she knows why.

Oreskes, a science historian, said “merchants of doubt” have out-hustled scientists and environmentalists to steer the perception of climate change.

Those merchants are a handful of accomplished, well-connected scientists who have teamed with conservative think tanks and big corporations with money at stake in the debate. Combined, they have effectively clouded issues surrounding climate change and planted seeds of doubt among the public, she said.

Oreskes is co-author of the book “Merchants of Doubt” with Erik Conway. She will present the findings of her research in a presentation at the Limelight Lodge at 6 p.m. Friday. Her presentation is being sponsored by the Aspen Skiing Co. and a host of local environmental groups.

Her lecture is called, “The Reason We are All Confused is that People Have Been Trying to Confuse Us.”

Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, said in a telephone interview from her office this week that the merchants of doubt are effective for at least four reasons.

“One reason they are effective is who they are,” she said. They are a loose-knit handful of scientists who served their country during the Cold War. They are famous for work in such areas as nuclear weapons. After the Cold War ended, they began fighting U.S. government regulation, which they see as a step toward socialism, Oreskes said.

The scientists have credibility with conservative elected officials and political operatives, and they used that access to their advantage early in the discussion about climate change. “They planted the seed that climate change isn’t to be worried about,” she said.

While the scientists are driven by their ideology, Oreskes said, they aren’t choosy about their allies. “They start making common cause with the oil industry and for them, it is all about money,” Oreskes said.

That team has established institutes and nonprofit organizations that undertake their “doubt mongering,” she said.

Oreskes has performed research that concludes there is vast scientific consensus on the reality of climate change. It’s essentially 1 percent of the scientists who reside in the “dark corner” that discount it, according to her website. Nevertheless, the doubt mongers have effectively coerced journalists into providing equal time.

“They’re both carroty and sticky,” she said. They appeal to the interest of fairness that most journalists follow and convince them to present climate change as a topic debate among the science community – “which it isn’t,” she said.

The carrot is the threat of lawsuits for not giving climate deniers their say.

A final reason that the doubt mongers are so effective is the messages presented by the two sides and human nature. People generally don’t want to change their lifestyle, Oreskes said. So if one group is telling them they need to adopt a lifestyle that involves burning less fossil fuel and another message is go ahead with what you’re doing, most people will choose the message they prefer to hear – the one that requires less change.

Gallup’s annual Environmental Poll found that 80 percent of Americans regard themselves as “very well” or “fairly well” educated on global warming, according to results released by the polling firm March 14. The poll found that 51 percent of respondents say they worry a great deal or fair amount about the problem. That is down from a high of 72 percent in year 2000 and 66 percent in 2008.

Among other results, 49 percent said global warming’s effects are already starting to happen while 18 percent said the effects will never happen. However, 43 percent of the respondents said the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated in the media.

Speaking in general about public opinion, Oreskes said, “It shows how effective the campaign [casting doubt] has been.”

She wouldn’t hazard a guess on whether public opinion will change. She is a historian, not a fortune teller, she noted.

However, history shows that public opinion changed regarding the link between smoking and cancer – an issue with lots of parallels to climate change. In the 1950s and ’60s, it appeared the cigarette industry would never be regulated. The tobacco industry teamed with politicians from tobacco-growing states and some scientists to cast doubts on an overwhelming amount of evidence. That long battle eventually showed that “science really does matter,” Oreskes said.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s warning about the health risk of cigarettes played a big role in changing perceptions, she said, and litigation exposed the “misdeeds” of the tobacco industry.

A similar combination of science, government action and litigation will likely be needed to change the response to climate change, according to Oreskes.

“It’s not going to go away by ignoring it,” she said.

The presentation is free, and $3 drink specials at the Limelight start at 5 p.m.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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