Who is Responsible for Climate Change?
Naomi Oreskes has a long-standing interest in understanding the establishment of scientific consensus and the role and character of scientific dissent. For the past decade, she has primarily been interested in the problem of human-caused climate change. She has won numerous prizes, including the 2011 Climate Change Communicator of the Year. In this lecture, Oreskes shares insights from her book, "Merchants of Doubt," which chronicles the extensive political connections and campaigns that have denied well-established scientific facts about tobacco, acid rain, DDT, and climate change.Related Events: Who is Responsible for Climate Change?
This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Anne Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture Series-- world-renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.
Ann Kinzig: I'm Ann Kinzig. I'm the Chief Research Strategist at the Global Institute of Sustainability. And I'm here to welcome you today to one of our Wrigley lectures.
Now, GIOS puts on a lot of activities-- so many, I think, that it could be a full-time job with overtime to actually go to all of them. But even in that constellation of activities, the Wrigley lectures are a bit special. We only hold three or four of these a year. And we invite only world-renowned thinkers and problem solvers to present in this forum on intractable sustainability challenges. So it's not enough to be a deep thinker, but you actually also have to offer some guidance, a pathway towards a better future.
The Wrigley lecturer is selected each year, the set of Wrigley lecturers, by a committee of sustainability scientists, graduate students, GIOS faculty and staff, and undergraduate students. And they don't just give a talk. They actually come and engage for a day or two days with the community. So they meet with undergraduate students. They meet with graduate students. They meet with faculty. They meet with community members.
And as far as I can tell, every single one of these meetings involves food. And so Naomi went from dinner last night to a breakfast with graduate students this morning to a brunch with some more students to a lunch with faculty. And there's going to be a reception afterwards, just in case she's feeling a little famished, and then she'll go off to another dinner. So we get a really great speaker, and she gains weight. But nonetheless, we're looking forward to having a really great speaker, even if she's feeling really full.
And I also want to thank Julie Ann Wrigley. As the name of the lecture series implies, she is the one that funds this. It's through a generous gift from her that we're able to do this. I don't actually get to introduce Naomi directly.
I'm going to introduce Jane Maienschein, who's a historian and philosopher of science, who will introduce Naomi. Thank you.
Jane Maienschein: I don't know why we have quite so many introducers, but Naomi deserves them. I get to introduce her because I've known her the longest, I think-- I realized about 25 years. When she was a graduate student at Stanford and I was a visiting faculty member, she was studying the geological sciences and also history of science. And she organized a series of lectures there that were wildly successful at the intersection of science and society, getting historians to come and talk to geologists about science, about issues of science in society.
And there were hundreds of people there, and there were people sitting in the aisle. And everybody was completely amazed that this graduate student had organized this series and gotten historians and scientists really talking together. So that's one of the things that she's been doing ever since, really-- bringing history to the study of the social issues relating to science.
Right now, she's at UCSD-- well, right now, she's here. But right now, her position is at UCSD. She's held a number of positions there, including chair of the Science Studies program, and really turning that around, and making that a very active group, even in bad budget times. And she served as provost of what's called Sixth College, which is a little mysterious what it is. But it's the other interdisciplinary college, which is a fascinating bunch of different approaches to understanding problems and issues. This fall, she'll be moving to Harvard and to their History of Science department, again bringing together the history and the science.
Naomi asks questions about what leads scientists to build consensus. So when we say things like scientists agree that something or other, what do we mean by that, and how do we know? That's what she's been exploring as that plays out in issues of plate tectonics, for example, deep sea oceanography, and climate change. So she's asking how did the scientific community build its consensus around their views-- their views-- on those issues.
And then how do they take that understanding, that consensus to the public to inform public discussions? That's what she's been doing in her own work as well, looking at how she can take those messages to the public-- the messages about science and how it works in society. That's what she's going to do for us now with her work asking the question who's responsible for climate change. Naomi.
Naomi Oreskes: Well, thank you very much. Can you hear me? No? I think it's turned on. Does it seem like it's turned on? Speak up. It feels to me like it's turned on. OK. Thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back at ASU. Thank you both Anne and Jane for those nice introductions. Nice to be someplace where you can be introduced by someone who not only knows what you do, but knows how to pronounce your name.
So when I got invited to come and give the Wrigley lecture-- I have to say, Anne, that's a very worrisome introduction. The responsibility seems very great. It's not enough to do research. You have to also figure out how to solve all the problems in the world. But I did think I could talk about something I've been thinking a lot about that really came out of audiences like this one. It came out of interactions that I had with audiences when I lectured on the work I did with Eric Conway on Merchants of Doubt.
And it was really this question about responsibility. And it was a question about the responsibility both of the people that we had studied, who had tried to challenge the scientific evidence of climate change, and also the responsibility of all of us, who were either perhaps persuaded by those disinformation campaigns, perhaps confused, or maybe we accepted the science, but we still didn't really know what to do about it. And so that's what led to the talk that I'm going to present to you today.
So the book Merchants of Doubt examines the history of what Eric Conway and I called doubt mongering-- that is to say using scientific uncertainty as a political tool, a strategy to create doubt about the reality and severity not just of climate change, but of a whole set of issues involving public safety, public health, and environmental issues. And in our book, we focused particularly on one group of people that we had become interested in, because it was a group of very prominent scientists who had been involved since the late 1980s in doubt mongering campaigns related to climate change, acid rain, the ozone hole, and some other things.
And so part of what we tried to do in the book was to trace this campaign back to its origins in this place, the George C Marshall Institute, and this group of Cold War physicists, but then also to show how and why their message had spread and how it spread through a network of think tanks and organizations in the United States, some of whom are listed there on the right, and also to explain the political ideology behind it, to explain the motivation to challenge scientific evidence rooted in the political economic philosophy of laissez faire capitalism and the idea or the desire to prevent government intervention in the marketplace.
So that's a nutshell encapsulation of the book. So now you don't have to read it. No, you should still read it in any event. But one of the things that was interesting to me when the book came out and it got reviewed was that a lot of people who talked about the book had obviously not read it, because they said it was a book about the fossil fuel industry. And actually, the book is really not about the fossil fuel industry at all. The fossil fuel industry is in the background of our story, but it really was not the principal focus.
Because the important thing that we thought we had discovered in our research, the thing we thought people needed to understand, was that actually, the roots of this story are not found in the fossil fuel industry. They're found in the tobacco industry. And in fact, there is a direct connection between climate change denial and the denial of the harms of tobacco in the actual person of this man, Frederick Sites, who was the founding director of the George C Marshall institute, but also worked for six years as the director of biomedical research for the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.
And what Sites did in those six years that he spent with RJ Reynolds was to promote what we have called confounding research-- that is to say, to support scientific research-- real research-- it was research done by scientists-- but whose purpose was not to clarify the role of tobacco in public health, but to confuse it, to distract attention away from the scientific evidence of the harms of tobacco by calling attention to other issues, such as other causes of cancer. So of course, as we all know, there are many causes of cancer. Tobacco smoking is by no means the only cause of lung cancer. So by focusing attention on asbestos or radon or stress or prions or all kinds of other things to distract attention from the role of tobacco.
And obviously, it was a very clever strategy, in part because many scientists accepted the funding from the tobacco industry, because it was, in fact, funding for legitimate scientific research. So that piece of the story alone actually raises a lot of really interesting questions for universities about the ethics and politics of accepting funding from an industry like the tobacco industry, even if the funding is for legitimate and genuine scientific research, which this was.
Now, one of the reasons this story is important is because the tobacco industry was ultimately found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud for these activities. So in the case of United States of America et al. vs. The Philip Morris-- USA et al. and the total list of people-- it's not just Philip Morris. It's RJ Reynolds and many other tobacco companies. The tobacco industry was found responsible for criminal conspiracy under the Rico statutes. This is the statutes that the federal government uses to prosecute organized crime. They were found responsible for creating an enterprise for purposes of committing fraud, and they were found to have falsely denied, distorted, and minimized the significant adverse health consequences of smoking for decades.
So a key part of this indictment was the denial, distortion, and the minimization of scientific evidence. Because after all, the evidence for the adverse health consequences of smoking came from science. So a very significant part of this case-- probably the most important part of this case-- involved the misrepresentation of scientific evidence.
So I thought as a historian of science, well, it's good news for us, because it shows that the question of what science says-- what scientists have to say, what scientific evidence tells us-- is not just a scientific question. It's a cultural question. It's a social question. And in this case, it became a legal question as well.
Now, part of the-- again, part of the finding on the part of Judge Kessler, who ruled in this case, was that the defendants-- that is to say, the tobacco industry-- have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social cost that that success exacted.And I thought that was a very interesting thing for the judge to have said. Because if you think about it, doing business without regard for social cost is not necessarily illegal. It may be illegal, but it may not be. There are many things that businesses do that have social costs that are not illegal. But the judge is saying here these people broke the law, but it's not just that they broke the law. The offense here is both the fact that they broke the law and that they did this with this reckless disregard for human tragedy, for the millions of deaths that were caused by people who smoked cigarettes.
So because our book traced the history of climate change denial back to the tobacco industry, there are some obvious analogies and parallels that it seemed to me were worth exploring in more detail. And I would argue that in recent years, the social costs of fossil fuel use have become increasingly clear. So if you drive a car, heat your home, air condition, do any of the myriad things that we all do when we use fossil fuels, we're not breaking the law, but we are doing something that has social costs. And these social costs have become increasingly clear.
In today's USA Today, there's a whole discussion about the whiplash weather that is hitting the Midwest of the United States right now-- flooding-- drought a few months ago, and now catastrophic flooding. So we're seeing very substantial floods, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, almost all of which scientists now say are exacerbated by human climate change. That is to say it's not that there's never been floods or heat waves before-- of course there have been-- but some component of the severity or the frequency of the extreme weather that we're seeing can be attributed to the human contribution.
Now, many social scientists do, in fact, believe that we're heading firmly in the direction of human tragedy. Because of course, when we think about the social costs of climate change, the human cost, that takes us out of the realm of physical science and into the realm of social sciences and humanities. But certainly, we have lots of evidence now, both from the physical sciences and from social scientific analyses, that climate change will lead-- and probably is already leading-- to both direct and indirect deaths from extreme weather events and to human costs associated with crop failures that may in the future lead to significant food shortages.
So we know that there are social and human costs associated with climate change. But the question I wanted to pose today is can we say that any one is responsible? That is to say, on some level, we're all responsible. But if we're all responsible, does that mean that no one is responsible? And where do we take that idea?
So I want to go back and talk a little bit, then, about the work we did on climate change and then bring this up to some new work that Eric Conway and I are doing thinking about this issue of the responsibility for climate change. So the George C. Marshall Institute was originally set up to defend Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in 1984. But a few years later, they moved into environmental issues, including acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change.
Over time, they also moved from what we could call doubt mongering-- that is to say, raising doubts, asking questions-- to a kind of outright denial of the reality of climate change, and even to suggest that the idea of anthropogenic climate change was a hoax. So in 2007-- this is a screenshot from one of their web pages in 2007. They promoted the work of a Canadian climatologist, Timothy Ball, who argued that the widely-propagated fact that humans are contributing to global warming is, quote, the greatest deception in the history of science. So there it is again. See how important the history of science is? It's being used as an argument against climate change.
Now, one of the things that was interesting about the Marshall Institute is that at its funding, it had no direct connection to the fossil fuel industry. Now, later, that changed. And in later years-- in the 1990s and more recently-- the Marshall Institute has received significant funding from Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies. And so did many other organizations that promoted misinformation about climate change.
Indeed, in 2006, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom sent a formal request to Exxon Mobil asking that the corporations stop funding organizations that spread misinformation about the state of climate change. And in their analysis, the Royal Society explained that they had found that Exxon Mobile had funded 39 organizations. So this is based on Exxon Mobil's own shareholder reports. They had funded 39 organizations that misrepresented the state of climate change by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the uncertainty in the knowledge, or by conveying a misleading impression of potential impacts.
So as I mentioned at the outset, when I gave public lectures, very often, people would ask in the question period, could the groups that promoted climate doubt be held legally responsible for those activities in the same way that the tobacco industry was held legally responsible for promoting doubt about the harms of tobacco? Now, obviously, that's a legal question. And there are, in fact, various lawsuits in progress around the country right now that are beginning to address questions of legal dimensions of climate change.
But I'm not a lawyer. I'm a historian of science. So I wanted to step away from the specific legal questions that might be raised by this issue and just think about it a little bit more broadly in terms of this idea of responsibility. How should we think about responsibility for climate change, and can we use that to help us think about the question Anne posed at the very beginning to guide action in moving forward?
So responsibility implies knowledge. Now, legally, in most cases, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. But most of us do tend to think that people can't be held responsible for what they don't know. If we didn't know that climate change was happening, then obviously, it wouldn't make sense to say that we were responsible for what we had done. And indeed, the heart of the tobacco prosecution was the evidence that industry knew of the hazards of its product and conspired to deny, conceal, and confuse people about those hazards.
So knowledge matters. It matters to us both ethically and morally, and it matters legally. What the tobacco industry did was both wrong and illegal because scientific evidence had demonstrated the harms of tobacco use. And so it is relevant to be reminded of what we know about climate change and how long we have known it.
So I thought I'd take a few minutes here just to recap some of the historical work that I and others have done on the history of climate science, just in case any of you are still wondering if we really know for sure. Because in my experience, even-- I've served on a nonprofit board of an environmental group fighting climate change, and on our own board, we have someone who, in a taxi ride, said to me, well, so tell me how we really know that climate change is happening. So I'm not going to take it for granted that everybody is 100% convinced. So we'll just spend a few minutes on that.
So like any story in the history of science, there are a lot of different places we could start. But a convenient place to start is with the work of John Tyndall, who is the scientist who first established the idea of something being a greenhouse gas. And in a series of experiments done in the 1850s and '60s, he showed that both water vapor and carbon dioxide have the distinctive and important property of being relatively transparent to visible light but relatively opaque to infrared radiation. So light comes in and heat is trapped, and that warms the planet.
Around the turn of the century, a number of scientists started thinking about what the burning of fossil fuels meant in terms of the greenhouse effect. Because it was well known that when you burn fossil fuels-- at that time, it was mostly coal-- you release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And so the Swedish geochemist Svante Arrhenius was one of the first to suggest that burning fossil fuels could lead to climate change. And he did the first calculations that we know of what the effect of doubling atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be, and concluded that it would warm the average temperature of the globe by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees centigrade, which is not different too different from what we believe today. Now, he was Swedish, so he thought global warming would be a good thing.
By the 1930s, the issue had gotten taken up by a number of other people, including Guy Stewart Callendar, who was the first scientist to compile measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and to suggest that CO2 was, in fact, already increasing. And in the United States, E. O. Hulburt, a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory, who did the first modeling of what the effects of doubling carbon dioxide would be.1940s was World War II. Of course, a lot of scientists were diverted. But in the '50s, scientists came back to the question of climate change-- particularly this man, Gilbert Plass, who worked on the physics of carbon dioxide heat absorption. Plass addressed a question that had already been raised at that time and still comes up today in a lot of doubt mongering literature, which is the question of how much effect can carbon dioxide really have when there's only 390 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, and there's so much more water vapor. And water vapor is a greenhouse gas, too. So why would a little bit of CO2 make a difference?
Well, Plass explained why in the 1950s. He showed that the absorption bands for CO2 are distinct from the absorption bands of water. So even though it's true there's much more water in the atmosphere, it's also true that carbon dioxide plays a significant role, and that even modest amounts of CO2 have a significant impact on the radiative balance of the atmosphere.
Two people who were influenced by Plass' work were colleagues-- well, not colleagues, because I wasn't there then, but we think of them metaphorically as being colleagues-- professors at the University of California, Hans Suess and Roger Revelle, who in the 1950s began to argue that because there was this important effect of CO2, that scientists should begin to systematically measure the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in order to determine whether or not it was really increasing and whether or not that increase was having an effect on global climate.
And they proposed that this issue, this question should be taken up as part of the research for the International Geophysical Year, which began in 1957, '58. And that work was taken up by this man, Charles David Keeling, who began his lifelong work on carbon dioxide during the International Geophysical Year. All of you have probably seen this graph. It's now known as the Keeling Curve. It's probably the most widely reproduced graph now in the history of Earth science.
Dave started these measurements in 1958. He continued them until his death a few years ago. The work is still being done by his son, Ralph Keeling. And we now know, based on his very careful measurements, that carbon dioxide has increased by about 30%, 35% since before the Industrial Revolution. And we see this very steady, inexorable rise. The ups and downs are the seasonal variation, but overall, a very, very, very clear trend.
So we know that carbon dioxide has increased. What most people don't know is that as early as 1965, some politicians were aware of this issue. And in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, in a special message to Congress, noted that this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. So already by the 1960s, Dave Keeling had showed that CO2 was rising. So this is the bit of the Keeling Curve that Lyndon Johnson had available to him. Well, there we go. So here's what we had in 1965. So already, a few parts-- about five parts per million increased. And Lyndon Johnson incorporated this into a speech in 1965.
By the 1970s, the idea of a social cost of carbon was beginning to emerge as well. And there are many examples of scientists beginning to talk about it. One that I like that I think is particularly clear-- in 1978, Robert White, the first head of NOAA, wrote about this in a special issue of the Journal of Oceans and Climate, in which he said we now understand that industrial waste, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society.
So in a nutshell, this is it. It's industrial waste. It's carbon dioxide. It comes from burning fossil fuels. It has consequences for climate, and those consequences are a threat to society. That is the climate change, the CO2 problem in a nutshell. And then he says the scientific problems are formidable, the technological problems unprecedented, and the potential economic and social impacts ominous.
Moreover, by the late 1970s, we also see the word "consensus" being used by scientists to describe the emerging agreement that climate change is likely to occur. So in 1979, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that a plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man's combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use. And they went on to say the close linkage between man's welfare and the climatic regime within which his society has evolved suggests that such climatic changes would have profound impacts on human society.
So again, it's not just that they think the climate may change. It's also that they understand that human societies have evolved in a very narrow window of climate conditions. And our society, our infrastructure, is built to accommodate a certain range of climatic conditions. And if those conditions change, we may not be prepared to deal with them. And I think the kind of flooding that's going on in the Midwest right now is a very clear example of that. And so finally, the Academy concluded in a classic scientific double negative, if carbon dioxide continues to increase, we find no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.
Now, again, one of the questions that I've always been interested in is what I would call the uptake or traction question. Just because scientists knew something doesn't mean that the public at large or the government or politicians understood or knew about this. But actually, there's a lot of evidence from the 1980s of discussion in political circles about what this scientific evidence means. And this is just a little tidbit that I found in Roger Revelle's paper. But it was actually a copy of a bill that was introduced into Congress in 1988, the National Energy Policy Act.
And the goal of this act was to establish a national energy policy to reduce the generation of carbon dioxide and trace gases as quickly as is feasible in order to slow the pace and degree of atmospheric warming. And I thought this is really great, because all those guys in Congress who are gridlocked, they don't need to write a new bill. They could just get out, dust off the National Energy Policy Act of 1988, and it's all there. The work has already been done for them.
Well, that was in 1998, so that's a while ago. And since then, as most of you know, there has been enormous amounts of additional scientific attention paid to this work and an overwhelming confirmation of these earlier conclusions. So just to briefly go over just a few graphs, most of which are probably familiar to you, we have very well corroborated evidence of warming.
In fact, I'd say this is the main thing that's new since the 1970s. In the 1970s, most of the scientific work was written in the future tense. It was a prediction about something that was expected to happen but had not happened yet. That is no longer the case. We now live in a world where warming has occurred.
And this is the famous hockey stick curve that all of you have heard of. And you see this red spike over here represents the human contribution to climate change in the last 50 or so years. There's been a lot of criticism of the hockey stick curve, as all of you know. But I think it's very important to point out that the hockey stick curve isn't just the work of one man or even one laboratory, but that actually, there's a whole bunch of different hockey sticks that have been put together by different laboratories around the globe using different techniques. And they all pretty much show the same pattern. Yes, there's a lot of noise in the climate system. Yes, there's a lot of natural variability.
But they all show that in the last 50 to 75 years, there's this very clear spike that is different from the pattern of the previous millennium.
We also know that there has been a very significant increase in carbon dioxide. So this little bit at the end here is the Keeling Curve, but now we can map the Keeling Curve on to additional data on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from ice core work done in Greenland and Antarctica. And this is very interesting and significant work, because again, it tells us a lot about natural variability. There is a lot of natural variability in carbon dioxide. We know that during the ice ages, carbon dioxide changed a lot. It was as low as 180 or so about 700,000 years ago. It was as high as 300 parts per million. But it was never as high as it is now.
Here's the envelope of the natural variability for the last 700,000 years based on ice core data. And look where we are today, up here at 390 parts per million, way outside the envelope of natural variability. And of course, this spike at the end correlates with the spike in temperature that we saw on the previous slide. This is just another version of the same thing. Again, if we just focus on the last 1,000 years, very clear tracking of carbon dioxide with temperature. As the CO2 goes up, the temperature goes up, too. OK. I already have that one.
Now, many climate skeptics have claimed that the observed changes might just be natural variability and have nothing to do with fossil fuels. But the fact is that scientists have explicitly examined and ruled out natural variability in the climate system. In fact, I would say one of the most important areas of scientific research in the last 20 years has been this question of detection and attribution. How do we know what part of the climate system we're looking at is natural variability, and what part can actually be attributed to human activity?
And in the fourth assessment report of the IPCC, there's a very extensive discussion of this. I just pulled out one sentence which kind of summarizes it. "The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean together with ice mass loss support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing."
And just one more thing I'd like to raise. So there are many different factors that can affect the climate. Solar variability is obviously one. There's been tremendous amounts of work done on solar variability. But volcanoes are another. And since I'm a geologist by training, I like volcanoes best. I love volcanoes, so it's always good to have the opportunity to talk about volcanoes. And I also love isotopes, because isotopes are this super powerful tool that scientists have for figuring out where things have come. from.and I think this is the most important underutilized diagram in the whole of climate science, because it answers the question that I often get in public-- well, how do we know that the carbon dioxide didn't come from volcanoes? And the short answer is, well, because we can use isotopes as fingerprints. Just like we can use carbon-14 to date archaeological sites, we can use carbon-13 to detect where carbon sources have come from. Because we know that organic carbon sources have much less carbon 13 in them than inorganic carbon sources.
So if you put large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from an organic carbon source, like deforestation or fossil fuel burning, you expect the carbon 13 concentration of the atmosphere to fall. And indeed, this is exactly what scientists see. So this is carbon-13. So this is more carbon-13 going up. This is time based on ice core and other data. And here you see a very clear drop in the carbon-13 concentration of the atmosphere. And that drop is a virtual mirror image of the increase in CO2. So as CO2 has increased with the burning of fossil fuels-- here is the Keeling curve-- so we see carbon-13 falling. And that tells us beyond any possible reasonable doubt that this carbon did not come from volcanoes.
So the historical perspective makes some things very clear. Anthropogenic climate change is not just a hypothesis, nor is it just one explanation among many possible explanations for the changes we are seeing. It's the accepted scientific explanation based on a theoretical understanding that is more than 100 years old and sustains scientific investigations that go back to the International Geophysical Year in 1957 and '58.
Anthropogenic climate change was predicted by scientists more than 100 years ago. And that prediction has come true. So who is responsible for this, then, to return to the question that I started this talk with? Well, it seems to me that we can think about responsibility in many different ways, but three ways that I think can be useful would be to think about personal responsibility, collective responsibility, as expressed through governance, and collective responsibility in terms of the business community that has produced the products that have caused the lion's share of the problem.
So let's talk a little bit about personal responsibility first. Personal responsibility is something that everybody likes. Nobody ever says I don't believe in personal responsibility. Democrats, Republicans, liberals conservatives-- we all agree that personal responsibility is a good thing. And it's a concept that particularly resonates in an in American culture because of our cultural commitment to individualism, our belief in freedom, which includes both the freedom to do the right thing-- includes the freedom to do the right thing without being told, without being forced to do it, and to decide for ourselves what the right thing is.
And this is a very important strand in the history of climate change denial. Because one of the things that Erik Conway and I talked about in Merchants of Doubt is that individualism is at the heart both of American conservative thinking and at the heart of climate change denial. Because virtually all of the organizations that have been involved in challenging the scientific evidence of climate change cite, and are influenced by, and pay great respect to these two key thinkers-- Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom are famous for works arguing for the relationship between capitalism and freedom and arguing that the essential freedoms that people have in a capitalist system to buy and sell goods and services in the marketplace is a kind of bulwark of individual liberty as well.
It's a bulwark against totalitarianism because it vests power in all of the millions of people who participate in the marketplace, and thereby prevents its concentration in centralized government. If you only read one book this year-- well, you should read Merchants of Doubt-- but no, if you read two books, you should read The Road to Serfdom, because it's a very well-written and very thoughtful book. And it expresses very clearly a kind of anxiety that was very understandable at the end of World War II about what would happen at the end of World War II with the power that the Soviet Union had emerged from the war with.
So it's a very important book to understand both historically the roots of American conservative thinking and also the role of that thinking in climate change denial. So it's a worldview that links capitalism and freedom. And as
I've already said, we find these arguments being made in many, many of the websites and organizations that challenge the evidence of climate change.
So the crux of the argument when we turn to environmental issues, and the reason why this argument becomes central in the story of Merchants of Doubt, is because government regulation-- that is to say, government intervention in the marketplace-- has historically been one of the principal tools that we have to protect people and the environment from the true costs of harmful products and activities. That is to say, when the market, left to its own devices, doesn't protect us from harm, then the government can step in-- governments, plural-- can step in through regulations to control those business activities and in other ways protect people and the environment.
But regulation is opposed by both the business community and many individuals who see it as threatening freedom and personal choice. And one of the things we see in the history of climate change denial is that the language of freedom and the free market-- free market capitalism, free enterprise-- is very, very prominent in the writings, the brochures, the websites of organizations that challenge the scientific evidence of climate change. And in some cases, we even see the word "freedom" or "free enterprise" in their names, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom. And this is my favorite-- Let Freedom Ring. That's so great. I want to join an organization called Let Freedom Ring.
And even many environmental groups stress the role of individual action. So this is an ad from the Nature Conservancy that I saw in an airport. How many light bulbs does it take to change an American? Well, I think the problem with that way of thinking is that climate change cannot be solved one light bulb at a time.
And the reason is because energy use is structural. Various studies at MIT at the Rocky Mountain Institute and many other places have looked at questions of energy efficiency. They've looked at questions about what individuals can do on their own to reduce their energy consumption. And almost all of them agree that most of us-- the vast majority of us-- could reduce our energy consumption by 20% to 30% without significant changes in our lifestyle, without significant hardship, and we would save money at the same time. So why we do that is an interesting social scientific question, but not my topic here today.
My topic here today is what about the other 70%. And if we look at the data that's available-- this particular chart comes from the IPCC, but there are similar charts you can get from the Environmental Protection Agency and many other groups. World Bank have all done analyses, and they're all more or less the same. They vary a little bit.
The principal areas of greenhouse gas production are associated with four major sectors. The biggest one is electrical power generation, then industrial use, forestry, and agriculture, residential and commercial buildings 8%.
Less than 10% of all energy use in the United States is personal residential.
These four sectors-- electrical power, forestry, agriculture, industry-- as individuals, most of us, with some exceptions-- maybe you're the CEO of a corporation-- but most of us have very little or no control over these sectors, except through the arms of our government, through laws and regulation. So if we want to see changes in the way industry operates or changes in the way electricity is generated in the United States, we can't just act as individuals. We have to act in some kind of collective fashion.
Now, I'm not saying-- and let me be very clear about this-- I'm not saying that we should not do what we can as individuals. There are many good reasons why, as individuals, we should do what we are able to do. But the statistics of energy use make clear that individuals acting as individuals cannot stop anthropogenic climate change.
So then this leads us to the role of governments. And indeed, I would argue that most of the history of the last 20 years of thinking about climate change has really focused on the role of governments, particularly governments on the level of nation states. And I say that because the main instrument, the main policy instrument that we have for dealing with climate change, is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed in 1992.
Many Americans have forgotten or are unaware that the United States is a signatory to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. In fact, when President George H. W. Bush signed the framework convention, he called on world leaders to translate the written document into concrete action to protect the planet. So it's an international law. It's an international convention. And it commits the signatories, include the United States, to preventing, quote, dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system. Right now, there are 195 signatories to the framework convention. It includes, essentially, all of the-- practically all of the countries of the world, include the United States, the Russian Federation, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Brazil, et cetera.
Sometimes, people say that the framework convention is ambiguous, because this question of what constitutes dangerous interference is very vague. But I actually don't think that's true. I think the people who wrote the framework convention actually did a rather good job of making clear what the point was. And you find it in Article 2 in the objective, where it says the ultimate objective of this convention is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
And then here is the crucial next sentence where they define what that is. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. So I think that's actually pretty clear. If it's so rapid that ecosystems can't adopt, then that's not stabilization. And if it's so rapid that it threatens food production, that's not stabilization. And whether or not we know what sustainability is, well, that's your job, because you guys have the Sustainability Institute. So it's pretty clear. It's defined as activity that threatens biodiversity, food production, and sustainable economic development.
Now, the UN Framework Convention necessarily-- because it is an international conventions among nations states-- focuses on nation states, or what are sometimes referred to as state actors. And it implemented the concept of common but differentiated responsibility. And this has been a source of tremendous contention, so I want to say a little bit about this idea.
So according to the framework convention, all countries of the world share responsibility for acting to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system. But the degree of responsibility varies. And it varies according to how much those countries have contributed to the problem in the first place. So the UN Framework Convention relies upon the notion of Annex I nations, which are the wealthy and highly industrialized countries, who are expected under the framework convention to take the lead with other nations to follow later. So the Framework Convention was designed as a kind of staged approach where the wealthy countries would act first, and then the developing nations would be brought onboard in time.
The industrialized and so-called EIT economies-- economies in transition, like Russia-- were most responsible because we became wealthy by trapping and tapping the energy in fossil fuels. That is to say, our wealth is, to a very large extent, because we tapped into fossil fuels. And for the same reason, we also have large historic cumulative emissions. That is to say, we burned a lot of fossil fuels, we used the energy, we did good things with those energies, we became wealthy, we created a good standard of living for our people, and in the process, we also produced a large amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. And therefore, it's logical to say that these countries, including the United States, are most responsible for the greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere.
And there's one other important point about this. It's logical to say that the countries responsible for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today are most responsible for climate change, because it's those greenhouse gases that are driving both present climate change and will continue to drive future climate change for at least the next 50 years. And that's because of the fact that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time.
Carbon dioxide is what's sometimes referred to as a stock pollutant. That is to say, when you put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it doesn't just hang around there for a couple of days or a couple of weeks. It hangs around for more than a century. And indeed, part of the reason why carbon dioxide is rising in the atmosphere is because there are mechanisms that remove CO2 from the atmosphere-- so-called sinks. So we have-- well, this is, in a way, a bad metaphor, because it's confusing. Because we have a sink, and the sink has sinks. But maybe think of it as a bathtub. I guess it does say it's a bath tub.
So we're filling the bath tub. Think of the atmosphere as a bath tub. We're filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. The atmosphere does have a drain. It actually has two drains. One drain is the ocean, which absorbs CO2, and the other drain is the biosphere, because plants take up CO2. But the rate at which the ocean and the biosphere take up CO2 is much less than the rate in which we are putting CO2 into the atmosphere. And so the bath tub is filling.
It would fill even faster if the oceans didn't take up CO2. It would fill even faster if plants did not remove CO2. But it is filling fast. And if we cut down forests and reduce the amount of plants, then we've reduced one of the sinks, and then it increases even faster. If the surface ocean gets saturated with respect to CO2 and is no longer able to absorb as much, that will cause CO2 to rise as well. My colleagues at Scripps are doing a lot of work right now trying to better understand the ocean sink.
But for these reasons, most of the CO2 that is in the atmosphere today has accumulated over the past century. And therefore, it's appropriate to ask the question, then-- well, what countries are responsible for the accumulated carbon dioxide that was put into the atmosphere in the last century? I'm going to skip this, because somehow, the slide went weird and lost the bottom axis. Because it's not actually that essential. So we're just going to go straight to this.
The bottom line is that it's the rich countries that are most responsible for the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere today, and therefore, mostly responsible both for the warming that has already occurred and for much-- if not most-- of the warming that will occur in the next 50 to 100 years.
Now, this argument-- the whole idea of the Annex I, Annex II, the idea of accumulated emissions, has led to a lot of contention, particularly here in the United States, where we often hear the question posed what about China.
And indeed, when President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which put binding targets onto the UN Framework Convention, which was mostly just a statement in principle, he said I'm not going to agree to any treaty that doesn't include China and India.
Now, on the face of it, that might seem logical. But before we get to China, I just want to say a little bit more about why that wasn't done at the time, why that wasn't done in 1992. So at the time the UN framework convention was negotiated, which was 1992-- so there's 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, so here we are on this chart-- here's the accumulated emissions up until 1992. And what you see here is that actually, it's very interesting-- the country most responsible for accumulated emissions is the United Kingdom, not the United States. And that's because of the very simple reason that the United Kingdom industrialized first, burned a lot of coal in the 19th century.
But as of 1992, when the UN Framework Convention was negotiated, four countries-- the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe-- so we'll cal it four entities-- but the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe were responsible for something like 90% of all the emissions. So actually, it made a lot of sense to focus on those countries. In fact, you could argue they should have focused even more. In hindsight, you could argue that if those four countries had just gotten together-- or let's just say the three-- Germany, United States, United Kingdom-- could have made substantial headway just by focusing on those three countries alone. That's not what happened. Instead, the focus was on all the wealthy countries, partly in order to include the rest of Europe.
Now, if we look at emissions per capita-- that is to say, not just looking at a country as a whole, because after all, the United States is a much bigger country than, say, France, so you could argue that one should really look at per capita emissions. If we look at per capita cumulative emissions-- so this is all the emission since 1751 up until -- this one is until 2000-- we find that we get essentially the same result-- United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, but we have to add Canada, Russia, and Japan. So Russia becomes a pretty significant player. Canada is quite significant, and Japan. India and China are still very modest.
But as we all know, the United States refused to sign Kyoto, because we're citing the need to include China, India, and Brazil. And as many people don't seem to know, Canada actually withdrew from the Kyoto Accord last year. Having been a member of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada withdrew. So now we have a situation where two of the top five countries most responsible for the accumulated carbon dioxide emissions are refusing to play ball, are refusing to participate in the Kyoto process at all.
Now, here's what the emissions trajectories look like since Kyoto. So these little purple diamonds represent the base year for the framework convention. Here it is. And here are the Kyoto targets. So this is what Europe agreed to do. This is what Japan agreed to do. This is what the United States agreed to do.
And you see that actually, Japan is more or less on target-- maybe a little high, but pretty close to coming in on target. European Union, depending upon-- these are different estimates-- but depending on who you look at, maybe coming in just on target, maybe a little above. But look at the United States-- not even close. Our emissions are continuing to increase at a rapid rate while European and Japanese emissions are essentially stable. In fact, if we look at specific countries, the United Kingdom has cut emissions 18% since the framework convention. Germany has cut 26%, and the European Union as a whole is on track to cut 20% by 2020.
So these figures are important, because in contrast, in the United States, our emissions have gone up. I thought I had a slide that said how much ours have gone up, but I don't. I seem to have lost it. But I think it's something like 12% for the United States. And Canada's emissions have gone up 30% since the framework convention.
So the contrast between what has happened in the United States and Canada versus what's happened in the United Kingdom and Germany shows that it is clearly possible for countries to cut their emissions without wrecking their economies. In fact, what it shows us is that economic and energy policies play a very strong role and a very strong impact on total greenhouse gas emissions.
So let's get back to China, though. So if we look at cumulative emissions, we see that there has been a dramatic increase in Chinese emissions just in the last 30 years. And now, as of today-- as of 2010-- Chinese emissions are now almost 10% of the world's total. So we see that China has actually surpassed Germany in its total emissions and the United Kingdom and Russia. So it's on track to become a major player in greenhouse gas emissions. So it is legitimate to want to have China as part of the conversation.
I think I can skip that. That's just the backup numbers. And moreover, if you look at a chart like this, which shows changes in emissions over time, you can see why many people are very worried about China. Because look at this. Here's total emissions, cumulative emissions, since 1960. Here's India going up significantly here. Here's the European Union going down. Here's the United States. Well, it went down. It's going back up again now. It's about here now. But look at China. This is really catastrophic, this incredible increase in emissions from China since the year 2000.
So this is why many people would argue that we do have to be talking about China in our conversation. But here's the interesting thing. China is a country of a billion people. So what happens when we divide the Chinese emissions per capita? Then what do we get?
Well, we get a very different picture. Then we see China is still down here. And then we see the same pictures we talked about before-- the United States, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada are responsible. If we think of it in a per capita way, China is still not really a player despite the huge growth in emissions in the last 10 years. The average Chinese citizen has contributed only about 1/10 the average greenhouse gas contributions of the average American. So it takes 10 Chinese people to produce the greenhouse gases of one of us.
So I'm going to skip over this, because time is getting short. We pretty much said that. So just one more consideration about China. We could also ask the question, how much of China's greenhouse gas production is in the manufacture of goods that end up being used by Americans and Europeans? This is what some people refer to as embedded or embodied emissions. So if I manufacture goods and it takes carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide is produced, but I give those goods to you and you use them, whose greenhouse gas emissions are those, really? It's an interesting question.
Well, if we look at the transfer of carbon dioxide in international trade-- don't tell me I lost it. This is a kind of funky slide that came out of the World Bank, and i don't really like their graphics. But if we do this, here we go. So the red bars represent embodied greenhouse gas emissions-- that is to say, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacturers of goods that get exported to other countries where those goods are used.
So the red bar represents embodied emissions that go from developing countries to industrialized countries-- 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. That's a net transfer. And almost all of that-- in fact, more than all of that-- I don't know how that adds up. But look at that-- it's essentially all from China. So what it's telling us is that the lion's share of that catastrophic growth in greenhouse emissions in China for the last 10 years-- almost all of that is being driven by the export market.
So what we see here is that government economic and climate policies clearly play a strong role in total greenhouse gas production. They play a strong role in the trajectory of greenhouse gas production. It's going down in Europe. It's going up in North America. And the way we credit greenhouse gas emissions can be misleading if we don't take into account both per capita usage and embodied emissions.
So finally, let me just say a few words about industries. I'm more or less out of time, but that's good, because I wanted to leave the industrial piece as something for you to think about. So I don't actually have very much to say.
This is a work in progress. I was encouraged to present new work. So just a few words, then, a few thoughts about the industries who produce the products that have caused the problem. Because those same industries have also played a role in disinformation.
We know that the tobacco industry was prosecuted by the US Department of Justice for its role in spreading disinformation about the harms of tobacco, because it produced the product and it produced disinformation about its harms. So this raises the obvious question-- could the fossil fuel industry be prosecuted for its role in spreading disinformation about the harms of climate change driven by its products?
Well, one of the things we know about the tobacco industry was that it used groups that claimed to be independent to spread its message of doubt. And we see a very similar pattern in the case of climate change. Not a lot of disinformation has been funded directly by the fossil fuel industry, but a tremendous amount of disinformation has been funded indirectly and promoted by what are sometimes referred to as third-party allies, like the Global Climate Coalition.
The Global Climate Coalition was a group that was founded right around the time of the UN Framework Convention and for many years played a major role in spreading challenges to those 39 organizations that the Royal Society identified earlier. And it included almost all of the major petroleum producers around the world, including Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum, Shell, Chevron. And it was responsible for developing a number of policy statements and materials that were then distributed to many other organizations to help spread doubt mongering messages.
One of the most famous documents is this one, which was actually published on the New York Times website. But look at this very interesting thing about this document. The letterhead is AIAM. Well, what fossil fuel company is that? It's not. It's the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. So a good deal of the work of the Global Climate Coalition was actually done by a front organization that represented the automobile industry.
And if we dig a little deeper and find out who else funded this organization, it wasn't just Exxon Mobil and BP. and Chevron and Shell. It was also Ford and General Motors and Daimler Chrysler and the American Highway Users Alliance and the Aluminum Association, who represent the manufacturers of aluminum-- of course, large amounts used in automobiles.
So these are all reputable, distinguished, Fortune 500 companies-- Ford, GM, Exxon Mobil. But what is their responsibility? And what is our responsibility as shareholders? Because I dare say that many, if not most of us, probably have shares in these companies through our mutual funds or our pension plans. Should we object to this use, arguably a misuse, of corporate funds? Should we divest from these corporations? Some people are advocating now. And should we think about supporting the possibility of prosecuting some or all of these people for activities that may have been not just wrong morally, but possibly also illegal?
So clearly, we all share responsibility for climate change. But I would argue that some of us are more responsible than others. Thank you very much.
Audience: What one thing do you think could be done today at the federal level to begin to address this in a serious way?
Naomi Oreskes: What do I think can be done on the federal level? Well, obviously, it's a very difficult question since the federal government seems to be gridlocked on just about all issues, and Waxman-Markey failed in the Senate last year. So I guess, I think, two things-- one thing is I talked mostly-- I talked about government on the level of nation states, because that's what the UN Framework Convention is all about. But obviously, governance operates on lots of different levels, including state and local. And even though the federal government is frozen on this issue, many states are not. In California, we now have emissions trading for greenhouse gases. Many states and local governments are passing various kinds of bills. So I would say that probably-- if I were an activist, I would think about what I could do on the state and local level.
And then the other thing I think is really important to talk about is emissions trading. Because emissions trading was developed in response to business and conservative concerns about excessive government intervention in the marketplace. The whole point of emissions trading was to find a mechanism to reduce pollution, to reduce the harms of pollution, while giving the private sector the flexibility to figure out the best and most efficient way to do that. And many conservatives supported emissions trading for acid rain, including President George H.W. Bush, because it was a market-based mechanism and because it addressed this anxiety about excessive government regulation or growth of the federal government.
So the fact that conservatives have turned against emissions trading, to me, is kind of unconscionable. And I think they need to be called out on it. And I think that people need to start asking the question, why have Republicans and conservatives turned against emissions trading when the whole point of it was to address this concern about trying to use the marketplace. And I think that's a conversation that needs to happen. And it hasn't happened yet, but I hope that it will.
Ann Kinzig: And our new School of Sustainability professor, the director of Carbon Nation, Peter Byck would like to ask a question.
Naomi Oreskes: Oh. Peter, hi. How are you?
Peter Byck: How are you? Are you seeing any corporations that are coming up with solutions at scale with regards to carbon and things like that?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, the scale issue is obviously a huge problem, as you know. And I think one of the difficulties is because the regulatory climate is so ambiguous, the incentives aren't there. So I haven't spent a lot of time talking to people in the private sector. But the ones I have-- invariably, you always hear the same thing-- is that they want a clear signal. They want to know that if they invest in green technologies, that it's going to be a worthwhile investment.
So one of the things that's going on in California, of course, and one of the reasons why I think the renewable portfolio standard will be successful in California, is because there have been very, very clear signals from the government and because Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger came together to support AB32. And one of the most positive experiences I had last year was in California. Jerry Brown organized a governor's conference on climate change, and Arnold Schwarzenegger came. And the two of them were together there and talking about the support they had had from the business community, the support they had had across the aisle in Sacramento. And that was a great moment, because that's what we need to see on the national level. And I think for the business community to know that both Republicans and Democrats in California are committed to this, that sends a very strong signal. And of course, California is a huge market. And if we can make it work in California, then it means that those technologies can be spread and sold elsewhere. And there's a good historic tradition of that because of catalytic converters on automobiles and other forms of pollution control that California led the way on. So that's a point of light for me, and I think a model for things that could happen in other states as well.
Audience: Hi. I just wanted to address something you said earlier about government regulation. We know that sometimes when the EPA regulates and fines corporations, they have a hard time actually doing damage to those corporations, because a lot of those corporations just write those off as the cost of doing business. Can you address that in a little more detail?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, I think two things. I don't think the point of the APA is to do damage to corporations. That shouldn't be the goal. The goal should be to have business opportunities and activities that don't do damage to the environment. And so then the question is, how do you enforce it. But my view would be that if corporations see the price of regulatory compliance as part of the price of doing business, that's a good thing. That's what should happen. And this is where the environmental economists have played an important role.
The reality is that environmental pollution is a market failure, and even Milton Friedman acknowledged that. So the question is how do you remedy the market failure. And one way you remedy a market failure is to put a cost on that market failure. And you can do that in a number of ways. And one way you could do it for climate change would be with a carbon tax. Emissions trading is another. Regulatory compliance is a third mechanism.
We have a number of policy instruments that have been used in the past that we know can work. So what you want is to internalize the externalities. You want the cost to reflect the true cost and not hide those hidden costs. So if the cost of doing business goes up a bit because you have to put scrubbers on your utility or catalytic converter on your car, well, that's a good thing. And as long as everyone does them, the law is enforced, and you have a level playing field for business activity, then no one business is favored at the expense of another.
And it's really interesting. If you read Von Hayek, which I've done, Von Hayek did not think that there was no role for the government in the marketplace, not at all. In fact, he has a very interesting and rather subtle discussion about when the government should intervene. And pollution is one of the places he talks about. I spoke about this at the American Geophysical Union last year.
So what Von Hayek says is it's not that the government can't intervene. It's that the government should not intervene in a way that benefits your company and not yours, that the government should not be playing favorites, picking winners and losers, that it should be fair across the board, and it should be transparent so everybody knows what the regulation is and everyone has an equal opportunity to comply with it. And so that's really what regulation is all about. So as long as the law is clear and as long as the law is enforced in a fair and equitable manner, then the business community should be able to operate within the law.
And just one other example on this-- I'm not good at short answers. But I used to work in the mining industry. And one of the things that I always say about the mining industry-- and I love the time I spent there, and I love the people I worked with. But when it came to environmental issues and health and safety, my company obeyed the law. Period. That's what we did.
And if the law required us to do something, then we did, because we weren't crooks. But if the law didn't require it, then we didn't do it, because we were a business and not a charity. And I've been thinking about that a lot in recent years, because that's as it should be. The point of a business is to do business, and the point of government is to make sure that the business does it in a way that doesn't hurt us.
Audience: So this is with respect to your uptake traction side. So in the practice of science, we think doubt is important, in constitutive-- organized skepticism and so forth. So with respect to science for science policy, doubt clearly becomes counterproductive at some point and has limits. But with respect to the idea of responsibility, insofar as demarcating those limits of doubt is a political commitment, who is responsible for making that commitment and why?
Naomi Oreskes: Making which commitment? I didn't quite get the end.
Audience: Determining the moment at which doubt becomes counterproductive.
Naomi Oreskes: Oh, like where do you draw the line. Well, here's the thing. We talked about this this morning with the students. This is part of the brilliance-- and also, the evil brilliance-- of the doubt mongering strategy. Because it's taking a positive thing and turning it into a negative. It's taking something that we would all say is part of the strength of science-- that science is about curiosity, it's about inquiry, which means you have to question existing ideas, that doubt is, as you say, a constitutive of science. And it's constitutive of education.
We always say we want our students to have critical minds and to ask questions and not just take for granted what's in the textbook. So we have to say that as scholars and educators and scientists, we embrace doubt. But what the doubt mongering does is it flips that on its head, and it creates a kind of corrosive doubt that becomes an impediment to action. And that's the whole point of it. The point is that it's meant to be an impediment to action, because these people do not want the government to control tobacco use. They do not want the government to implement a carbon tax or whatever it is in a particular case.
So how do you get around that? Well, I think that's a really complicated question that I think we need to think more about. But I guess my short answer would be in the law, we have this notion of reasonable doubt, and that's a concept that everyone is familiar with. And no one says that you can't put a criminal in jail until you've proven absolutely positively that this person committed a crime. We don't say that. We say it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And we invoke a standard of a reasonable person.
And I think that that's a very useful metaphor for policy. Because in a sense, policy is similar to a court of law. We need to make decisions. We want to be able to move forward. We know that there are problems that need addressing. We know that science is not ever, ever, ever, ever going to prove anything absolutely positively, because that's an impossible standard. So we have to reject the demand for an impossible standard, and we have to say what's a reasonable standard, just as we would say what's a reasonable doubt in court.
What would a reasonable person do? And what is the risk of inaction? Because that's the other important part of this. There's risks associated with action, but there are also risks associated with inaction. And one of the reasons why climate change is such a difficult problem is because the risk of inaction is very great.
And the National Academy of Sciences said this in 1979. Vern Suomi wrote this in one of the documents associated with those materials I showed you earlier. He said the problem with climate change is by the time we know for sure for sure that our predictions are true, it'll be too late to do anything about it. So by the time we know that our models are right, it won't do us any good.
So we're in the situation where if we want to prevent more damage in climate change, we have to act now even though we will never know for sure. And if we do act, we'll never even know for sure whether those actions were all completely necessary. But if we don't act, we know that we are now running-- I'd say it's more than a risk. In 1979, you'd call it a risk, because scientists thought it would happen, but they weren't sure.
Now it's happening. So climate change is no longer a risk. It's a reality. The risk now is worsening climate change. The risk is climate change that becomes unmanageable. Right now, we're seeing climate change, but it's all still manageable for most of us. But there's some risk that it starts to become unmanageable and that social systems break down. And that's a pretty serious risk that needs to be weighed against the people who want to say, well, but it will cost too much, or solar power is too expensive, or whatever it is.
Audience: We've spent a lot of energy throughout the years in trying to debate whether climate change is caused by man or not. And I was just wondering if you thought it would be more beneficial to move toward an argument of we prepare for the worst. Flooding is natural. We prepare for it. Wildfires caused by lightning are natural. We fight them. We build houses to withstand earthquakes, which are natural. But yet we never use that argument in talking about preparing for climate change and fighting to protect ourselves, just like we do in other ways.
Naomi Oreskes: Some people are. There's certainly a lot of people in the adaptation community who are making that argument now. The problem I have with it-- if it's a both and argument, then I agree 100%. If it's an either or argument, then I'm not so persuaded. Because the fact is, you're absolutely right. We need to prepare for climate change, because it's happening, and we're already seeing some of the effects. And it's foolish not to take steps to prepare to the degree that one can.
But it does matter to know that it's caused by man, because the solutions are somewhere different. This is an interesting thought experiment that will actually reveal a lot about your own life philosophy. Ask yourself the question-- if climate change were completely natural, would you be in favor of massive government intervention to stop it? It's kind of an interesting thought.
But the fact, as we know, it isn't natural. We know what's driving it. We know what the causes are. And so therefore, it's logical to address those causes. Because if we don't address the causes, then we do run the risk of unmanageable climate change. So I think to talk about mitigation-- to talk about adaptation without talking about controlling the drivers that will ultimately make this potentially unmanageable-- to me, that just doesn't add up.
And the other reason why it's really important to talk about-- some people are saying, well, let's talk about energy security, because that's something we can all agree about. And I think energy security is important, and I think we should definitely talk about the fact that we have an economy that relies incredibly heavily on countries who are not our friends and don't wish us well. I think that's a really important point.
But here's the problem. If you talk about energy without climate, then you could burn a lot of coal. You could burn a lot of natural gas. You could frack. There are huge resources of unconventional gas in North America. You could develop the Keystone Pipeline. There are a lot of things you could do if you were only concerned about energy security and you weren't concerned about climate. And many of those things will make climate even worse, climate change even worse.
So I think it has to be an all of the above thing. It has to be we understand the drivers. We know it's mostly fossil fuels and deforestation. We know that if we continue to use fossil fuels, it will get worse. And yes, we should prepare for adaptation, because we have to. But at the same time, we need to understand that if we don't control the drivers, the odds of climate change that we cannot manage become quite substantial.
And then there's one other piece of it, too, which gets back to the uncertainty piece. So there are substantial uncertainties associated with climate change. That's absolutely true.
And if you ask yourself the question where do those uncertainties really play out, they play out on the level of adaptation. Because we know, in a pretty good way, what's happening to the planet as a whole. The overall warming of the planet over the last 100 years is not at all controversial among scientists.
But if you ask scientists what's going to happen in Arizona, what's going to happen in San Diego, what's going to happen in my congressional district, then you find that most scientists will say, well, I can't answer that question, because we don't have the scientific capability to answer the question on that level. But adaptation has to happen on that level. Adaptation is going to be local, because climate change is going to play out locally, and because adaptation is going to be organized by human institutions that operate mostly on local levels. So you have a kind of mismatch between the science that you have in terms of climate change versus the science you would need to really plan for adaptation in a really robust way.
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