In 2004, Naomi Oreskes wrote a seminal essay, The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, showing that 97% of scientific articles identified humans as the primary cause of warming over the past fifty years. She later co-authored the book, “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” The book explores the public-relations tactics used by the tobacco industry to obfuscate the health risks of smoking, and draws a parallel to the similar tactics used by the oil industry to forestall government action on climate change.
In December, Climate One honored Dr. Oreskes with the 6th Annual Stephen Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication.
As a scientific historian, Oreskes was led to research the issue of climate change through an interest in oceanography. “One of the things that I saw was that these scientists were saying already in 1988, ‘89 that climate change was likely to be a very serious problem,” she recalls. “That there were important scientific questions related to the ocean atmosphere interactions and ocean heat uptake, many of the issues that we’re concerned about today.”
Like Schneider, Oreskes recognizes that it’s not enough to do scientific work and assume the world will receive and act upon it. “[Schneider] recognized that he had to do active work to explain it to people, to communicate and to talk about what possible solutions we might have,” she says.
But she acknowledges that stepping into the public realm is a risk that many scientists are unwilling or unable to take. “You don’t become a scientist because you love politics,” Oreskes laughs. “You become a scientist because you love science…so you have a kind of self-selection against political engagement, against communication.”
Oreskes’ work has sparked public attacks from prominent politicians and climate deniers. But she takes the doubters in stride. “I mean, without doubt, we wouldn't have curiosity. Without curiosity, we wouldn’t have science,” she maintains. “So to me what is so noxious and so pernicious about what these people do is they take a good thing - healthy curiosity, healthy skepticism, healthy doubt - something that drives inquiry that drives discovery, and they turn it against science. They turn science against itself.
“So that's part of the challenge,” Oreskes continues. “We can't give up on the challenge of explaining science. We have to do that -- but we have to find ways to make it make sense to people.”
Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former Secretary of Energy, calls Oreskes a “great example of this.” He echoes her approach in responding to climate denial.
“You patiently point out that the whole basis of science is skepticism,” Chu says. “Scientists are professional skeptics…you get your charge from saying, oops, maybe something was overlooked. Oops, you know, maybe there's something we didn't understand -- and then you pursue that.”
The Schneider Award was established in honor of Stephen Henry Schneider, one of the founding fathers of climatology who died suddenly in 2010. Internationally recognized for research, policy analysis and outreach in climate change, Dr. Schneider focused on climate change science, integrated assessment of ecological and economic impacts of human-induced climate change, and identifying viable climate policies and technological solutions. He also consulted with federal agencies and/or White House staff in the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. His work is chronicled at climatechange.net.