Naomi Oreskes on “The Collapse of Western Civilization”

A Chronicler of Warnings Denied: Naomi Oreskes Imagines the Future History of Climate Change

By Claudia Dreifus, Oct 27, 2014, New York Times

“I get from the scientific community a feeling that things are going from bad to worse. I hear people in private saying gloomy things they never used to say. You now get the sense that many scientists feel we’re approaching a point of no return. It’s depressing.”

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science at Harvard, but she is attracting wide notice these days for a work of science fiction, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future,” written from the point of view of a historian in 2393 explaining how “the Great Collapse of 2093” occurred.

She told me, “I can tell you that a lot of what happens — floods, droughts, mass migrations, the end of humanity in Africa and Australia — is the result of inaction to very clear warnings” about climate change caused by humans. The 104-page book was listed last week as the No. 1 environmental best-seller on Amazon.

Q. You are a geologist and historian by trade. How did climate change become the center of your research?

A. Like many people, I used to think the scientific community was divided about climate change. Then in 2004, as part of a book I was doing on oceanography, I did a search of 1,000 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific literature in the previous 10 years.

I asked how many showed evidence that disagreed with the statement made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: “Most of the observed warming over the past 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” I found that none did. Zero.

That was astonishing, because if someone like myself had believed that the science was unsettled, what did the ordinary citizen think? I published my finding in Science. The article was called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

It ignited a firestorm. I started getting hate mail. Letters arrived at my university demanding I be fired. At the same time, Al Gore talked about my paper in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Suddenly, I was a hero to the left because of Al Gore and a demon to the right because I was now part of the conspiracy to bring down capitalism. I thought I’d entered a parallel universe

What was actually happening?

I didn’t know it, but when I’d used the word “consensus,” I’d hit a land mine. For those who claim that climate change is a myth, the term “consensus” will — boom! — trigger a backlash. That’s because their strategy is based on spreading the idea that the science is still unsettled. Why? Because if you don’t know for sure there’s a problem, you can’t justify doing anything about it.  As an ad from the coal industry had it, “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”

Then I met  Caltech historian Erik Conway. He’d come across material about the campaign to stop ozone depletion by curbing chlorofluorocarbons use. Erik said one of the people attacking me had done the same to Sherwood Rowland, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on ozone depletion.

I did some digging of my own. I learned that my critic was among an informal group of physicists who’d risen to prominence in weapons and rocketry during the Cold War. Though none were climatologists, they became key figures in climate change denial. On the various issues where members of the group had been active — acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change — there appeared to be a playbook drawn from the tobacco wars: Insist that the science is unsettled, attack the researchers whose findings they disliked, demand media coverage for a “balanced” view.

As a historian, I knew I’d stumbled upon something important.  “We’ve got to write a book about this.” I told Erik. It took us five years. Their book is “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”

What did you discover?

That the battle wasn’t about science, but economics. From reading their papers, you could see that these physicists were very strong believers in the unfettered free market. They believed that without free markets, you couldn’t have democracy.

When we began, we wondered about the common thread linking smoking, acid rain and global warming — what was it? Well, each was a serious problem that the unregulated free market didn’t respond to.

How does the free market prevent acid rain or climate change? It doesn’t. How do we know about the potential harm to individuals or the environment? Because of science. And how does one prevent harm? With regulation. To prevent regulation, we’ve had this campaign of doubt-mongering about science and scientists.


Erik and I had a hard time ending our book because it’s not clear what the remedy is. I don’t think the scientist community alone can solve it. In fact, I think the I.P.C.C. should declare victory and close down Working Group I [which assesses the science of climate change]. They’ve laid down the science. Now it’s time to hand this over to our political, economic and social institutions.

Interestingly, the public is ready. Recent polls show that 70 to 80% of the American public accept that climate change is real and the majority is willing to spend money to act. So now we’re in the larger realm of why American politics have become so dysfunctional.

There are lots of areas where the American people want the government to act, but it doesn’t. A few months ago, after Henry Paulson and colleagues issued their “Risky Business” report, which showed the economic cost of climate inaction, you had Republicans on the Hill saying that climate change was a hoax. And just a few weeks ago, 400,000 people came to New York to have their voices heard about the need for action on climate change.

Why is your new book written in the science fiction genre?

Erik is a big science fiction fan. As historians, both of us have spent a lot of time looking back. That made us wonder how a historian of the future might view the decisions being made today.

Writing in this genre gave us the freedom to extrapolate and show what’s at stake. Our narrator concludes that in the 21st century, the forces of climate denial prevailed.

Do you think that’s likely?

It depends on what day of the week we’re talking about. Five years ago, I thought that most of us would get it. But fossil fuel use is increasing, not decreasing. We should be cutting it down.

Also, I get from the scientific community a feeling that things are going from bad to worse. I hear people in private saying gloomy things they never used to say. You now get the sense that many scientists feel we’re approaching a point of no return. It’s depressing.

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