‘We’re on a path that is going to lead to tremendous destruction and yet most of us are going about our lives as if nothing particularly special is happening.’ The science of climate change is incontrovertible but deniers persist and political and economic solutions continue to be – systematically – frustrated. Time is running out, says Naomi Oreskes
You’ve chosen books for us on the politics of climate change. The risks of climate change are increasingly clear and urgent. And yet, in the United States and some other countries, policies to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not seem to be working. The US President has called climate change a hoax and pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. And about 6.5 percent of global GDP — about 5 trillion dollars a year — goes to subsidising fossil fuels. How did we get into this situation in the first place?
Scientists have known for a long time that an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases—produced by burning fossil fuel—could change the climate. By the late 1970s, it was clear that greenhouse gases were accumulating in the atmosphere, and scientists concluded that this would cause effects, probably by the end of the century. However, the observable effects came sooner than they expected: in 1988, scientists at NASA led by James Hansen, concluded that anthropogenic climate change was underway.
Hansen’s work got a good deal of attention. He testified in Congress. It was reported in the New York Times. And that same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created, in anticipation that the world would need good scientific information to inform policy decisions on the issue. Most scientists involved at the time thought that there would soon be a political response. And there was, but it was not the one they expected.
Until that time, there was no political resistance to climate science. Many climate scientists were Republicans, and throughout most of the post-war period, Republican political and business leaders had supported scientific research as strongly, if not more strongly, than Democratic leaders did. But, in the 1980s—just as the reality of climate change was being established scientifically—some people began to realise that if anthropogenic climate change was as dangerous as scientists thought, it would require government action to deal with it. In particular it would require government intervention in the marketplace, such as regulation or taxation to reduce or even eliminate the use of fossil fuels.
In this sense, it was similar to acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion, as well as to the problem of tobacco use. If you were a liberal Democrat, and you didn’t have any particular objection to government intervention in the marketplace, that wasn’t a problem for you, and there was no particular reason to object to the scientific findings. But if you were a conservative Republican who objected to those interventions, then it was a problem for you.
Some conservatives—particularly a group of Cold War scientists with links to the Reagan administration, who feared that government intervention in the marketplace was the slippery slope to socialism—began to question the science around all these issues. In our work, we discovered that they had also worked with the tobacco industry, on the grounds that controlling tobacco would lead to an increase government control of our lives in general. Today that argument is often referred to as the problem of the “nanny state,” but they thought it was much more nefarious than that. They equated government control of the marketplace with Soviet-style totalitarianism. In this, they took inspiration from the neo-liberal economist, Milton Friedman, and his mentor, Frederick von Hayek.
Working with the tobacco industry, they developed a set of strategies and tactics to intended to undermine the scientific evidence of the harms of smoking and prevent the government from controlling tobacco or even trying to discourage its use. They now applied those strategies and tactics to climate change.
“There’s a very big elephant in the room: the long history of organised systematic climate change denial”
At first, their arguments were taken up by conservative and libertarian think tanks in Washington, DC, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the George C Marshall institute, who started to promote doubt and uncertainty about climate science. But soon, the fossil fuel industry was funding them. An alliance developed between powerful fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal, and think tanks such as CATO, to promote doubt about climate science and prevent government action. In the mid 1990s, it became their goal to prevent the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Although the UNFCCC had been signed in 1992 by a Republican President—George H.W. Bush—by the late 1990s nearly all Republicans had aligned against it. And things went downhill from there. As the scientific evidence of climate change became stronger, and Democrats accepted it and started to propose legislation to deal with it, Republicans became more and more entrenched in rejecting it. Things went from bad to worse, as, at first, only extremists in the Republican party went into fully-fledged denial, but by the late 2000s, climate change denial had become routine. If you look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primary in 2016, only John Kasich had a position consistent with the findings of the scientific community. Donald Trump, of course, infamously claims climate change is a hoax, but Ted Cruz propagated the canard that warming had stopped in the 2000s. So in various ways, most Republicans in recent years have taken positions that refuse to accept the scientific evidence. And here we are. There are other elements to the story too, like the various advertising campaigns that fossil fuel companies ran to cast doubt upon climate science, but that is the core of the matter. In short, a confluence of economic interest and political ideology, which came to dominate conservative thinking in the USA, has led to the wholesale rejection of the findings of climate scientists by American conservatives as individuals and by the Republican party as an institution.
You’ve recently published a paper about ExxonMobil’s communications strategy from 1977 to 2014. What do your findings tell us about the state of the politics of climate change?
It tells us that things are bad for a reason. Many people want to say that we’re in this mess because people don’t think straight, are irrational, or aren’t clear-headed about dangers that they think are far in the future. And, of course, there’s an element of that in this story, but there’s also a very big elephant in the room, which is the long history of organised systematic climate change denial. My paper co-written with Geoffrey Supran speaks to that. Other people have already written about some of the activities that ExxonMobil was involved with in the past, such as the Global Climate Coalition, a group that in the 1990s worked to prevent the United States from signing on to Kyoto by trying to challenge the scientific basis for it. We tried to do something a little more systematic than what had been done before. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News published a series of investigative journalism pieces in which they looked at archival documents that reflected the work that ExxonMobil had done on the issue of climate change going back to the 1970s. They showed that the company was well aware as long ago as 1979 of climate change as a risk that would affect their business and had some interesting and serious climate science research going on even within the company. They also found that company employees were collaborating with academics at New York University and in government laboratories to try and better understand the potential threat and what it might mean for the petroleum industry.
When the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News published their articles ExxonMobil claimed they were false and wrong, and that the reporters had cherry-picked the documents. On its website, the corporation issued a challenge. They posted a set of documents that they claimed supported their claims, and refuted the ICN and LA Times. And they challenged the public, saying “read the documents” and make up your own mind.
Geoffrey Supran and I took up the challenge. We read all the documents that Inside Climate News published, we read all the documents that ExxonMobil claimed refuted the Inside Climate News findings, and we also read a set of advertorials—paid advertisements—that ExxonMobil had taken out mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. And we compared these different communications. What our comprehensive comparison shows beyond any reasonable doubt is that inside ExxonMobil there was a conversation going on that was fully consistent with the evolving science that climate change was real, that it was a serious threat, and that it could lead to oil and gas assets being stranded, but in public ExxonMobil made a decision to run a series of advertisements aimed at the American people in which the message was a message of uncertainty and doubt. Since we published our paper, ExxonMobil has continued to mislead the public about its history of misleading the public.
Your first book choice is The Great Derangement by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Those who know him as a novelist may wonder what he has to say about the politics of climate change.
Quite a lot, as anyone who reads the book will see. It’s absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. First, we have a famous, articulate and politically astute novelist taking up the issue of climate change. I think that’s extremely important because one of the arguments that Amitav makes in this book, which I agree with one hundred percent, is that for too long this problem has been discussed as scientific question; it’s mostly been covered by science journalists and written up in the science pages of the newspapers. But it’s fundamentally no longer a scientific question. The science—the key scientific issues—have been resolved now for a long time, but it’s a political question because we have to do something about it. It’s an economic question because it has to do with how we run our economies based on fossil fuels, and it’s also a deeply historical question.
Amitav looks at the long history of fossil fuel exploitation and the way it’s linked to colonialism and post-colonialism, and to make the argument that if we’re going to fix this problem, we have to understand the larger historical, economic, and social context as well. The book is also an explicit call for humanists—writers and authors and novelists and others—to become engaged and think through: How did we get into this situation? And how do we get out of it? And as Amitav says, it’s a kind of derangement. We’re on a path that is going to lead to tremendous destruction—what has just happened this week in Houston and Mumbai and Barbuda is exhibit A—and yet most of us are going about our lives as if nothing particularly special is happening. And, as we know, American politicians are going about their lives still in many cases in denial about the basic framework of this problem.
You called Houston exhibit A, but if more and more extreme weather events are part of climate change one could say it’s exhibit F.
You’re right, I only said exhibit A in the sense that it’s the most obvious and immediate right in this moment in American life. But, of course, you’re absolutely right. We’ve had Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Russian fires of a few years ago, and the European heat waves of 2003, not to mention the recent floods in South Asia. There have been all kinds of incidents where we have seen what I call the human face of global warming. We’ve seen how climate change is already impacting people—causing damage and causing death—but somehow we don’t assimilate that. This is the point that Amitav Ghosh is calling ‘the great derangement’, that there is something frankly deranged about having all these things happening in front of our faces that are terrifically costly—both in terms of monetary damages and impacts on people’s lives—and yet somehow we don’t connect the dots. As you say, we could call this exhibit F and we have not connected the dots from A to B to C to D to E to F and also, I would say, to ExxonMobil and all of the fossil fuels companies that even today are continuing to explore for still more oil and gas reserves. That is a kind of craziness.
Roy Scranton, the author of your second choice, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, writes “civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today”. He also says that “The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect [Manhattan], or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, or signing a treaty…The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.” It seems a very negative place to start.
It is a very dark book and, by recommending it, I’m not suggesting I necessarily agree with everything in it or even necessarily agree with his ultimately bleak assessment, but I do think it’s an extremely important book. I say that for two reasons. I think he’s fundamentally right about the essential point, which is that we have a tremendously difficult time assimilating just how serious this problem really is. For that reason, I think that there’s a tendency for many people—even people who accept that this problem is real—to say that ‘well, we’re going to fix this, we’re going to get out of this mess.’
I’ve certainly seen this among climate scientists. I’ve heard many of them say out loud in so many words, that they are afraid to say how bad the situation is lest it causes people to shut down. So, there’s a sort of truism that prevails in the climate community that if you tell people how truly awful it is then they won’t listen. This came out particularly in the past summer. I don’t know if you saw an article in New York magazine about the worst-case scenario for climate change could, and a lot of climate scientists got upset. There was a whole twitter feed arguing that this was bad strategy. The scientists weren’t really disputing the facts, although a few of them thought that the journalist got a couple of things wrong — and I do think he got a couple of things wrong — but mostly they were just afraid that people wouldn’t listen to a message that negative. I think that there’s something problematic there. On the one hand, we can all get it that if the message is too bleak then perhaps people will shut down – that’s a legitimate and valid concern – but, on the other hand, if it really is that bad then think about it: if you go to the doctor and you have terminal cancer with only three weeks to live, most of us would like the doctor to be straight with us so we could get our affairs in order and figure out what to do with the time left. I think that if we’re not honest with how serious this situation is, then we can’t get our affairs in order, and we can’t figure out what to do. We don’t have the sense of urgency that we need to have, because we really don’t have a lot of time left; we are a bit like that terminal patient. The time is running out, and I don’t think that most Americans have a clear sense of that.
“There’s a very big elephant in the room: the long history of organised systematic climate change denial”
Roy has done something very important by putting on the table just how bad this could be. He may have slightly exaggerated, but consider how many articles and books and newspaper reports understate the threat. Again, I wrote a paper a few years ago in which we showed that scientists had in fact been actually underestimating the threat of climate change. Considering how much underestimation there is, I think it’s a useful corrective to read a book that is may be overstating the case — but possibly not. People need to take that perspective on board and take it seriously.
Your third choice is Love in the Anthropocene by Bonnie Nadzam and Dale Jamieson. What light does this shed on the politics of climate change?
What I really like about Dale and Bonnie’s book is that it’s about the human face. They’ve told us stories that help us imagine what it could be like living in an altered future where, essentially, there’s nothing left that isn’t built or controlled by humans. I think it’s a great book for helping us to think through what climate change could mean for our future and what kind of life we might be living in the future if we don’t get this situation under control. I think it’s a brilliant book to teach with or for a book group, because it’s such a good book to stimulate a conversation about why the authors have told these particular stories, why they they chose these stories to tell.
All of the books I have chosen are about grappling with the meaning of climate change. This is something that scientists don’t like to talk about. In fact, its something they are not equipped to talk about because that’s not really what science is about and it’s not how scientists are trained to think or talk. And yet if we want people to take climate change seriously, they need to understand what it means. And I don’t just mean economically or in terms of hurricane intensification but what it means for our lives. That was the motivation that led Erik Conway and me to write The Collapse of Western Civilisation, to get a sense of what’s really at stake here and – again, like Roy’s book – how bad this could really be. In The Collapse of Western Civilisation we were trying to get at the political meaning, not just in the sense of climate change denial but what massively disruptive climate change could mean in terms of its threat to liberal democracy. So, all these books in different ways are getting at meaning.
Your fourth choice is The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression by Angus Burgin. This is about the origins of ideas that are so dominant in US political culture, notably the sense that freedom and capitalism are inextricably linked. What particularly distinguishes this book for you?
In some ways, this book gets back to your first question about how we came to be in the situation we’re in. It overlaps with the work that Erik Conway and I did in Merchants of Doubt to identify the ideological underpinnings of climate change denial. You’re right that this book is quite different from the others in tone and topics, but again it’s about meaning. One of the things that Erik and I argued in Merchants of Doubt was that many of the people who deny climate change believe — and I think in some cases authentically so — that they are defending freedom. What we showed in our work was that the climate change deniers that we studied were resistant to accepting the scientific evidence of climate change because they feared that it was going to be used as an excuse to expand government and limit personal freedom. That motivated them to downplay, discount, and ultimately deny the scientific evidence of climate change. But they really did think that they were protecting freedom. And, this, on some level, is the story of 20th century neoliberalism—or at least its founders. It’s the story of a group of thinkers who wanted to place individual liberty and freedom at the centrepiece of their ideological thinking and also at the centrepiece of economic theory. Otherwise, they argued, we’re on the slippery slope to socialism. or as Friedrich von Hayek called it ‘the road to serfdom.’
“You work because you believe that if you get the factual information clear, explain it well, and make it available, then people will respond in a rational way. For scientists to discover that’s not true has been shocking”
Angus Burgin’s book is relevant because I want to argue that these people who apply those arguments to climate change have got it upside down. They think they’re defending freedom but, in fact, they’re putting freedom at risk.
At the end of the movie version of Merchants of Doubt, we argument the following: think about American society or European society, think about any liberal democracy, what are the conditions under which we consider it acceptable for the government to force people to leave their homes, order martial law, and order the national guard to come in? The answer is in one of two situations: warfare and natural disasters. We take it as routine now that in the case of a natural disaster the government has the right – even the obligation – to order evacuations to protect people for their own good. This is an extreme loss of freedom. So, there’s a deep irony here.
The people we studied worked with the tobacco industry because they didn’t think that the government should regulate tobacco because they didn’t think that the government should protect people from themselves; they thought that people should make up their own minds about whether to smoke cigarettes or not, or ride a motorcycle without a helmet, or anything else. They thought that any time that the government begins to intercede, even if it’s for your own good and even if it’s to protect you from the harms of tobacco, you’re on the slippery slope to socialism.
But now look where we are with Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Of course, the government is intervening to protect people because actually that’s what most people think should happen — including most conservatives and Republicans. But now imagine a future where Hurricane Harvey isn’t an unprecedented terrible catastrophe but a frequent, normal thing. One can picture a situation where troops are mobilised to go in wherever they’re needed, and where people are not just relocated temporarily but permanently. A situation in which governments begin to say ‘you can’t live in the Texas gulf coast anymore or you can’t live in the Louisiana gulf coast anymore because it costs too much money to protect you. So, we’re going to make you move. We’re going to move you to Austin or we’re going to move you to Salt Lake City.’ In our science fiction dystopia The Collapse of Western Civilisation, this is what China does: it moves three hundred million people away from coastal areas. We wrote that as a sort of fantasy — a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario — but as climate change unfolds we begin to see it’s no longer a fantasy. Governments may forbid people from living in certain places that are simply too costly to protect. What’s happened to your cherished personal freedom then? It’s gone. You don’t even have the basic right to decide to live where you want to live.
Your final choice is The Madhouse Effect by Michael Mann and Tom Toles. Mann is a well-known climate scientist. Tom Toles, by contrast, is an editorial cartoonist.
I chose this book for a couple of reasons. As you said, the politics of climate change is a difficult and dark subject and none of the books I have chosen so far is exactly an upbeat read. So, it is helpful in all this to find a way to keep a sense of humour. It’s not always easy but Tom Toles does that. And, of course, satire can be one of the most effective means of communication. So, I thought it would be good to add something that – even though it’s a very serious book in some ways – is also not as hard and difficult as the other books. It also connects back to Amitav Ghosh’s point: that this whole situation is pretty much insane. One of the brilliant things about Tom Toles’ cartoons is that he shines a light on that and he makes people realise how really crazy some of the things that climate change deniers say are and how crazy some of the things they do are. I could go on for hours lecturing about some of these things but with Tom Toles’ cartoons you get it in an instant.
How do Mann and Toles make their case that ‘climate change denial is destroying our politics, and driving us crazy’?
Because the politics of denial is so closely linked with the world of post-truth, post-facts, and alternative facts. Climate change deniers didn’t invent the phenomenon of alternative facts — that goes back to the 1930s and the origins of public relations and mass marketing media and, the tobacco industry had a lot to do with that. And there’s a fine line between advertising, disinformation, and alternative facts. That’s part of the point of the paper that Geoffrey Supran and I just published on ExxonMobil. A lot of ExxonMobil’s disinformation was published in the form of advertorials – advertisements presented in the form of an editorial – made to look as if they were discussing factual matters. This is partly why those advertorials were so damaging. The seemed to be making factual claims, but actually they were promoting disinformation.
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The problem of disinformation and the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction is a central in our society today. Many people want to say how horrible Donald Trump is — and, of course, I do think he’s horrible — but Republicans have been saying that climate change is a hoax for fifteen years or so. And even the ones who didn’t say it was a hoax had been disparaging, downplaying, and discounting the scientific evidence and saying ‘it’s not really that bad and we can adapt, and don’t worry the technology will rescue us.’ There’s been organised denial in the Republican party for a long time and that’s a pretty scary state of political affairs. I think this is what Michael Mann is referring to when he talks about it driving him crazy. It’s really hard as a scientist, when you’ve dedicated your entire life to try to understand the natural world and to articulate factual information as best as you humanly can, working incredibly hard at that and participating in mechanisms designed to help people identify factual information like the National Research Council or Royal Society panels or the IPCC. You work at these activities because you believe that if you get the factual information clear, explain it well, and make it available, then people will respond in a rational way. For scientists to discover that that’s not true has been quite a shocking state of affairs. And especially because people of our generation — Mike and I are of a pretty similar age — grew up in a time where governments did accept scientific information and did use it to do things and make policy. We now see a reversal where science is deeply disparaged. It’s at the point now where people aren’t shocked anymore, but we should be shocked. It’s a shocking state of affairs. It does make you despair a bit because if people won’t even accept the factual information, how are we supposed to have a reasoned conversation about different potential remedies?
I was raised to think that you could disagree with somebody but still respect them, and you could have a reasoned conversation about the best approach to, say, ending the Vietnam War or the best approach to ending racial discrimination. When I was growing up, nobody I knew would say that racial discrimination wasn’t a real thing. We all agreed that it was real and bad; the question was a strategy and tactic question about how best to address it. Now you have people who won’t admit that climate change is even a real thing, much less that it’s bad. What does that do to democracy? How can you have an informed debate when people are in denial about the facts of what’s happening in the world around us? I think that’s what Mike and Tom Toles are referring to when they talk about damaging our democracy and driving us crazy.
To conclude, I’d like to suggest that in some respects the history of environmentalism has been one success after another. People learnt to provide clean water and proper sewage systems. After long struggle, campaigners got lead out of petrol, and they dealt with the ozone hole. Can you envisage a constructive politics of climate change? Is this largely down to technology?
I think it’s already changed for the better in most places in the world but not the United States. I see the US as an anomaly. I travel all around the world and see a green technology revolution taking place. It’s quite amazing what’s happening in many places with the incredible uptake of renewable energy technology and a really rapid decline in the price to install solar and wind electricity just in the last five years. I think there’s tremendous grounds to be optimistic, particularly when you look carefully at what’s been happening and you can see the drivers of these changes and there’s been some very good work done partly by colleagues at MIT. It’s been a question of what’s driven the fall in the price of, say, solar photovoltaic technology in the last few years? And the answer is that it’s a combination of technological innovation and policy. The right policies send clear signals to the marketplace that then encourage the private sector to commit and really work on these things. When you get the right policies in place, the private sector can step in and make a difference. That’s not happening in the United States right now. The policy signals are in the wrong direction, with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement and saying he wants to expand coal development and increase offshore drilling for oil and gas.
But elsewhere in the world, in many places, the signals are much better. The United States is the single biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions from a historic standpoint and one of the top emitters from a per capita standpoint but, nevertheless, about eighty percent of emissions now don’t come from the United States. So, if all the rest of the world gets on board and addresses this issue, the world as a whole could largely solve this problem. I think if the world moves forwards, I’d like to believe – I have to believe – that what’s going on in the United States right now is a temporary aberration. A lot of people are saying that maybe it’s a last desperate gasp of a number of retrograde tendencies in American culture. I hope that’s true. I don’t think any of us really know, but if the world moves forward then one of two things will happen: either the United States will get on board, or it will be left behind. If it is left behind, then that will be sad because America has made great contributions to the world, but if that’s what happens then that’s what happens.
At one point I started planning a book project about solutions — what it would look like to fix this problem — and I imagined the story would take place in Korea because South Korea is a very innovative country. But my husband said to me, Naomi, if the solution takes place in Korea then Americans will not view that as a happy ending. I realized he was right. I think it’s easier right now to imagine a happy ending that is not centralised in the United States, but I also think that a lot can change in a few years. I don’t think the situation is hopeless — I don’t take Roy Scranton’s view — but I do think it’s very serious and more deeply serious than most people have acknowledged.
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