We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

‘The House Is Burning Down and We’re Just Sitting Around Discussing It’

1 3 0

Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

A geologist turned historian of science, Naomi Oreskes is the world’s preeminent chronicler of climate denial and disinformation, primarily thanks to 2010’s Merchants of Doubt, which she co-wrote with Erik Conway. A couple of years later, they collaborated on a work of climate fiction, The Collapse of Western Civilization, and the following year, Oreskes wrote the introduction to the American edition of Pope Francis’s climate encyclical. Her new book, Why Trust Science?, draws on the Tanner lectures she delivered at Princeton University, and was inspired, she says, by all the people who came up to her after lectures to ask how it was she knew whatever it was she was claiming to know. We spoke in early September about how much consensus it takes before we can take action on something like climate change, why people can’t properly process the science we do know, and whether we need to give up on GDP growth to properly address climate change.

Are we in a place of distrust about science, or is it more like disinterest?
The polls are pretty clear on this. There’ve been several major studies. The vast majority of American people still trust science. However, it is true that in certain particular areas where people feel as if the results of science contradict their values — their religious beliefs, their political commitments — then we do see a very substantial rejection in distrust of science. And the obvious places are evolution and climate change, but it creeps up in a few other places as well.

I’m sure that’s right, but when I look at these polls showing concern about climate change at 70 percent or 75 percent or even more, I think, given how tribalized our political culture is and how partisan our worldviews tend to be, the fact that 75 percent of the country believes that climate change is happening suggests to me that for at least a sort of significant minority and maybe a plurality, of Republican identifying Americans, their sense of science is actually overriding their political commitments. Is that not how you see that data?
Well, no, probably I agree broadly. But I think there’s a couple of things I would say there. One is that if you unpack the poll data — I know you’ve looked at this, and, yes, it’s true, 75 percent of people accept that climate change is happening, but it’s a soft 75 percent. When you probe, do you think it’s serious? Do you think it’s caused by people? Do you think it’s a crisis? The numbers fall.

And then the other thing, of course, is why did it take so darn long for this to happen? A big part of my work has been showing that there was a scientific consensus on this issue already by the early 1990s, and of course, that’s also when we have the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. So we should have taken action in 1992, but we didn’t. And why is that? Well, we know that a massive campaign was launched to discredit the science, that the purpose of the campaign was to........

© Daily Intelligencer