Yesterday evening, the annual statutory lecture of the School of Cosmic Physics of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies concerned the topic of global warming. Titled ‘The Denial of Global Warming’, the lecture was given by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science and Ajunct Professor of Geophysics at the University of California at San Diego.
Professor Oreskes opened with some alarming statistics – today, 27% of U.S. citizens do not believe the earth is warming at all and 41% of them attribute the warming to a natural cycle. Indeed, Sarah Palin, the republican candidate for U.S. Vice-President, has publicly stated that there is no consensus that global warming is man -made (I was aware of this, and have been shocked by how little attention it has received in the media).
In the first part of the talk, Oreskes gave a brief overview of the history of the study of climate change, with a tight review of the work of Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callender, Gilbert, Plass, Revelle and Keeling. (For the interested reader, there are several good books on this topic, such as The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart, or Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Masin ).
The main points Oreskes drew out were
- the basic physics of atmospheric warming was well understood by the 1930s
- by the 1950s it was clear that absorbtion by water vapour does not overlap with CO2 absorbtion
-by the 1960s it was realised that about 50% of CO2 produced remains in the atmosphere, i.e. does not get reabsorbed by plants or the oceans
- In 1965, Keeling predicted that there would be 25% more CO2 in the atmosphere by the year 2000, a prediction that has come to pass.
All of this science was accepted at the time, with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson acknowledging the seriousness of the threat. In the 1970s, the U.S. government commisioned three seminal reports on possible climate change due to fossil fuel combustion that were accepted scientifically and politically. A consensus had emerged and the only question was how immediate was the threat (note that all this is pre-IPCC).
So what happened? In the second part of the talk, Prof Oreskes addressed the question of why today, so many think the issue has not been settled. Her answer to this is quite blunt – because that is what the public has been repeatably told. Oreskes then described her own research into the growth of a counter-movement that sought to portray that there was no proof of man-made global warming, or consensus on the topic. Her research traced this movement back to to an entity called the George C. Marshall Institute. This was originally set up to enable a small number of physicists to defend President Reagan’s Star Wars program against the mainstream of physics (most physicists ridiculed the program). The goal of the institute was to challenge established science, and it wasn’t long before its members turned their sights to global warming. An intense media campaign was launched with scientists such as Fred Seitz and Fred Singer reguarly publishing prominent articles in the media casting doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming. In particular, Oreskes emphasised how these scientists used the ‘fairness’ of the media in order to promote the views of a tiny minority. By the 1990s, it looked like they were losing the debate, not least due to the activities of the IPCC. In response, Singer and Seitz simply amplified their attacks, with Singer launching a personal attack on the author of a key chapter of the 1991 IPCC report.
At this point, the talk took a somber turn – struck by the similarities between the above campaign and that of the tobacco lobby, Oreskes decribed how she began to dig a little deeper. Lo and behold, she discovered that several of the scientists above had also been involved in the tobacco campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, they had also been involved in campaigns contesting environmental issues such as the hole in the ozone layer. At this point she posed the question of motivation. In her view it was not money (many of thse guys are rich), but ideology. She explained that the common denominator of all these counter-campaigns was an extreme free-market mentality – virulent anti-socialists, what these scientists were determined to avoid was state intervention in any form. Of course, as Oreskes pointed out, this was a fundamentally dishonest discourse, as theirs was a political argument dressed up as a scientific one.
This was the real theme of the talk and it was argued extremely well. At question time, I asked Oreskes her opinion of well-known European climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg (Lomborg no longer disputes man-made warming, but questions the expense and effectiveness of any possible response). Her answer was that just as Singer et al represent the minority (but highly vocal) view in science, Lomborg et al represent the minority but highly vocal view in economics, with most economists believing that the cost of doing nothing will far exceed the cost of action now. (Come to think of it, Lomborg has quite pronounced right-wing views on economics, so perhaps it’s the same virus as above!). At the end of question time, Oreskes wrapped up with an uncomfortable question – what action should scientists take to protect good science from ideology?
Overall, this was a fantastic talk on science and society, with a crucial scientific issue and its impact on society discussed in a clear, straighforward manner. Oreskes for Vice-President!
Update: The journalist and environmentalist John Gibbons has an excellent article on the talk above in today’s Irish Times
P.S. Answer to the Hubble Puzzle (see post below) at the weekend.