Survey Shows Majority Of Experts Agree Humans Are Cause Of Climate Change
May 20, 2013 1:02 p.m.
Naomi Oreskes, Professor, History and Science Studies, UC San Diego
ALISON ST. JOHN: More than 90% of scientific papers agree that climate change is man-made. So why is the public still divided? This is KPBS Midday Edition. It is not a new discovery. Almost 10 years ago San Diego scientists showed an overwhelming consensus of studies pointed to evidence that human behavior is modifying our climate. Now a new study published in the Journal of environmental research confirms the findings yet again. Is politics promoting the information campaign perpetuating the notion this is still in debate? Then the rise of the giant jellyfish. Find out why beautiful and yet deadly jellies are changing the evolution of the seas. The son of Stephen King comes out with a new horror novel. I'm Alison St. John. Stay with us ahead for KPBS Midday Edition. First the news. Public opinion on climate change remains divided, even while scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear that it is real and we are the cause. Also one shocking development the rise of jellies as a dominant force in our oceans. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Today is Monday, May 20th. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh and here are the headlines we are following. Federal regulators have pushed back indefinitely a decision on the proposed re-start at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The nuclear military commission has delayed several release no dates on a decision for a restart. The San Diego grand jury has released a release of report about the chemical leak from QUALCOMM Stadium. It says that the city was not sufficiently proactive in monitoring the contaminated water caused leaks. Major construction got started on San Diego's waterfront as part of the $20 million project to make over the Embarcadero on San Diego Bay. So, a new study calls climate change deniers a vanishingly small proportion of public research on issue. A survey report of 30 scientists say that 97% of published papers agree that human activity is the cause of climate change. But the debate in the media continues to suggest that climate change is still an open question. Our guest is a UC San Diego professor of science studies, professor Naomi Oreskes conducted research almost a decade ago that reached almost the same conclusion. Thank you for joining us.
NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you.
ALISON ST. JOHN: This latest study was actually published in the Journal of environmental research letters and was based on research at the University of Queensland, Australia found that, contrary to public opinion, there's overwhelming scientific agreement that the climate is changing which we see evidence around us that it's become of human activity. Do you feel vindicated with the recent study confirming your earlier research?
NAOMI ORESKES: Of course, not that this is something we didn't already know. But it's gratifying to see a group of independent researchers in a different country using a somewhat different methodology coming to the same conclusion.
ALISON ST. JOHN: You know, your results are remarkably similar, but what does the study add, how was the methodology different?
NAOMI ORESKES: It adds a few things most important thing is that it brings the discussion up to date. My research was published in 2004, nearly a decade ago. So one question is has happened since then and in some climate change skeptics and experience like to say well, the consensus has broken down new evidence has called into question. Blah blah blah. And none of that is true and this study shows that this study brings the research up to date, right up to the present and shows there's been a breakdown of the scientific consensus on this issue. Scientists have continued to work on the question. We've worked on it a lot more in the last 10 years. Many of the details have been filled in but the basic picture tells us that climate change is underway mostly driven by human activities. The basic picture has not really changed.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So now you are a scientist---
NAOMI ORESKES: Historian of science and a scientist.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Rather than a scientist itself
NAOMI ORESKES: I'm actually both the original chaining was in earth science and then I became a scientist
ALISON ST. JOHN: Thanks for clarifying you wrote about which is called merchants of death. The premise of which explains how scientific findings are interpreted by politicians in a way that has resulted in a misleading narrative. What would you say are the forces that continue to keep the public believing that this is a debate rather than a known fact.
NAOMI ORESKES: I think there are a number of things. One of the most important parts is the disinformation campaigns continue even to the state. Just yesterday I lectured in my class about a piece that ran in major newspaper in Utah written by a former senator from the state of Utah claiming that the science is still not settled. So we still have many people out there, including many political leaders who are telling us that the science is unsettled. So given that we are hearing this message repeatedly, over and over again in major newspapers and coming from people who we would like to think our leaders, should be trusted leaders, since we hear the message that the sites is unsettled many of us think that impact is the case.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What do you think are the political forces that keep this really not accurate narrative going?
NAOMI ORESKES: We know something about forces because Eric Connelly and I spent five years researching and after I publish the article in 2004 I became a target of attack. I started becoming attacked by certain political leaders, I was attacked in the Wall Street Journal, my research was challenged and questioned on the Internet major magazines usually business-oriented venues like Fortune and Forbes, and I got hate e-mail and even threatening phone calls and I thought that was a rather strange turn of events for academic publishing a scholarly article in a major peer-reviewed journal to be subject to this sort of political attack. So I became curious about what was driving at. So, the research that Eric Connelly and I did which led to the book merchants of doubt was an attempt to answer the question and what we found was that in fact there's been a very systematic and organized campaign a sophisticated campaign involving advertising and public relations to persuade both the media, persons like yourself as well as the general public that the science is not settled in order to avoid taking action. In order to avoid taking action to decrease the use of fossil fuels in this country. And as you can imagine it's not hard to guess about who the players are behind that - as they live this is funded by the fossil fuel industry. The one of the things that we learned was that it was not just that. Also funded by other regulated industries opposed to government regulation in general. Other industries who would like to see the credibility of the Environmental Protection Agency undermined. And other industries that rely on fossil fuels like the automobile industry, the highway lobby, so a whole network, a very complicated network of different organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo. We oppose government regulation, then it spreads to include other people who are just generally skeptical about big government in general. So, the latter part of it is very important part of understanding public opinion because there are many people who do not have stock in fossil fuel or General Motors but who are still skeptical about climate change.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Apparently, fewer than half of people
NAOMI ORESKES: The polls go up and down. Right now actually have more than half of the American people to accept the scientific evidence. That's good news of the story but we still see a lot of American people because they are skeptical about government intervention are skeptical about the science that is now pointing to the need for action.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Bearing in mind that there is a gap between the government and getting the study will change it is just my scientific evidence.
NAOMI ORESKES: It's hard to know. On the one hand my initial impulse is to say no because in a sense there's nothing new here there's nothing a study that we didn't actually know. The scientific community has been trying very hard over the last decade to communicate clearly what it knows about this issue and has come up against this very significant opposition. On the other hand, you know every little piece of evidence helps and I think, that people like ourselves talk about the evidence, talk about what it is. Scientists now, how they know and how they are trying to communicate as well as talking about possible solutions are including small government solutions. I think we can make progress. So I like to be optimistic despite the past 20 years of difficulty and frustration.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you think that educating the public, is a key to taking action, or is it more important for political leaders to take a stand. In other words going to change printer come from the bottom or the top?
NAOMI ORESKES: I think it's both. I think we seen in California what the leadership can do and I think one of the best events I've been to in recent years was the Gov.'s conference on climate change last year where both Gov. Brown and Gov. swords maker appeared and spoke about the importance of this issue. So I think California shows that we can of bipartisan leadership and that the leadership makes an enormous difference, but at the same time we also know that in many cases our leaders to actually leave, they actually falsify public education is so important because the public needs to understand why this issue is so important and why it is worth the effort to make a change in our energy system because it long run we will all be better off.
ALISON ST. JOHN: You write in your book that we've lost a lot of time because of the debate but there's been enormous amounts of legislation. For example here in California we have AB 42 which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Do you think there's any hope that that will be effective?
NAOMI ORESKES: Absolutely. California has been a leader on this issue and it's terribly important. What happens here and it's terribly important for us to talk about because the rest of the nation needs to know that there are solutions that can work and we don't have to give up our liberty and live in tyranny. So the fact that California has led the way in environmental protection historically is very important because we know that back in the 1960s when we had terrible air pollution in Los Angeles, California led the way in controlling air pollution and set the standard for the rest of the country and I think the same could be true here for climate change.
ALISON ST. JOHN: And the Sierra Club has challenged the County of Los Angeles action plan saying that it says all the right things and it doesn't have any teeth is that one of the things you're observing?
NAOMI ORESKES: If you think about politics in general. You start with talk and hopefully talk leads to action. It's a misplaced criticism. I think taking the first step is education helping people understand what the issue really matterson every level local state federal and then once you get people on board. I mean our current mayor is really making a big effort here now to change the conversation here in San Diego. I think that's terribly important and once you start to talk about. You can talk about what the steps are to put the teeth it but to try to put the teeth before you have the mouth went not work, that would be premature.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Just to talk about why it is a lot of the deniers claimit is not happening. They say climate change may be real but as part of a natural cycle and they believe anything we do is kind of futile. How do you respond to that?
NAOMI ORESKES: First was not sure we've changed the climate system the very fact that we've changed the climate system shows that we can change it again. So she went after this impact on the natural environment. We have so many examples. Now we know that the ozone layer started to become depleted because of industrial chemicals. We took steps of the Montréal protocol to stop the depletion and the ozone layer is not recovery. So what we do is not futile. What we do makes a big difference both negative and positive.
ALISON ST. JOHN: But there are some facts to suggest that climate change is a cycle, right, but what you are arguing is that the cycle now is less important than human behavior has caused.
NAOMI ORESKES: Yes there's an actual variability and no one denies that. Scientists have always understood that there's natural variability in the system and ordinary people know that because we see that we have El Niño years, we have four years, dryers, so we all know that but the fact that there's natural variability does not refute the fact that in addition to natural variability. There are human driven causes in what we are seeing now is that the human drivers are superimposed over the naturally variability and they're actually beginning to overwhelm its own set of the normal ups and downs that we've already seen in the past we now see a trend in a particular direction and the particular direction is warming and it is consistent and it's been warming for the better part of the last 50 years.
ALISON ST. JOHN: In your book merchants of doubted you find that it was not just political but also perhaps cultural or spiritual because there are some who believe that the world is coming to an end and all we have to do is prepare for it. Instead of trying to prevent it
NAOMI ORESKES: We didn't really address the spiritual dimension. We were really interested in our book about certain organize campaigns of denial and we were trying to understand who those people were and why they were doing it and what we found in the book is was much about attitudes toward government and about skepticism toward big government skepticism toward regulation and the fear that regulation getting out of hand and leading us into a sort of backdoor to socialism, said the slippery slope argument, so what we found is these are people who, in general opposed environmental regulation across a wide range of issues, including the regulation of tobacco smoke. For us that was an important discovery because it'll do something about the mindset of the people involved. And much of the funding for some of the early campaigns actually came from the tobacco industry. Not that fossil fuel industry, so that was an interesting discovery because was part of the mindset that said, well, maybe tobacco is hazardous, maybe it is, maybe it isn't we don't really know, the science is unsettled and the government should not tell us whether or not to smoke. That argument would be an argument I would agree with his cigarette smoke came only to hurt you. If it were simply a private choice where you decide to smoke and you decide to take that risk that would be fine but we know is that smoking hurts the people around you as well. And the same is true for using things like fossil fuels. When you drive your car, you don't just affect your own life you affect the lives of every person and every living creature on the planet. That's why it's not just a personal choice and that's why the issues of government are relevant and important.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So Doctor Oreskes, why do you think that the private sector is, or how could we get the public sector more on board because you are saying its distrust of government. That's underlined letter the attitudes that perhaps this isn't even true.
NAOMI ORESKES: How to get the private sector on board one of the interesting thingin California is that many sectors of the private sector are on board and that like to see more people in the business community. Speak up in public because we know that privately, many corporations are taking steps, we know that many businesses are installing solar panels on the ribs because they realize it's actually good business sense as well as good environmental sense. I'd like to see more people in the private sector as well as more individuals who are taking steps step out so people can see there are models and they don't require her to listen us to live under a communist dictatorship.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What gives you the most hope when you look at the current situation.
NAOMI ORESKES: Maybe living in California. I have to say, I traveled around the world intellectual of the world. And last year since the book came out, and I'm always asked this question, and I really feel that living in California is grounds for optimism because we are taking steps in this state and its bipartisan and we've put in a framework now to encourage the transition to a low carbon economy, which is what this is all about. And there has been backlash from some aspects of the private sector what I call the 19th century industries, but there's also been a lot of leadership, both politically and in the business community and we are moving forward in this state. So I see a lot of grounds for hope and we are a big state, there's more than 30 million of us we are the world's seventh largest economy. So what we do here in California really matters and other people are watching. I find one of the most important things when I speak people to know there are examples that work. People are very interested in what we're doing here. People are very interested in a carbon tax in British Columbia. People are very interested in the Australian carbon tax people interested in the history of emissions trading here in California so the positive models I think are extremely important.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for joining us.
NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you
ALISON ST. JOHN: That's Dr. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of science studies at UC San Diego. I really appreciate it.