Ahead of a visit to Auckland, Chris Barton talks to writer Naomi Oreskes about influential scientists who have prevented changes which could improve millions of lives Lecture
It's when she's asked if she sees any connection between global warming denial and Holocaust denial that Naomi Oreskes kicks for touch.
"I would feel very reluctant to be saying much about that phenomenon," says the University of California professor of History and Science Studies.
"Other than to say we know denial is a powerful force and we see it in lots of different ways and different places for different reasons."
She may not want to look at the connection, but the "powerful force", how it operates and its distortion of scientific facts are at the centre of Oreskes' Merchants of Doubt, co-written with Erik Conway.
The book covers a swathe of history beginning in the 50s, telling the story of how a handful of American scientists denied the harms of tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, DDT and global warming.
In the process the scientists, backed by right-wing think tanks, obfuscated and delayed regulatory remedies to address the harm - in tobacco's case for more than 50 years.
"We told the story of a group of people who consciously and deliberately set out to sow confusion for reasons that were largely ideological," says Oreskes, who is a guest of the Writers and Readers Festival. "But the flipside to the story is why did we all fall for it?"
Merchant's big revelation is that the very same scientists who denied that smoking causes cancer, and the right-wing think-tanks funded first by tobacco then by oil corporations selling the doubt, also championed denials about the damaging effects of acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming. The tentacles reach across the world.
In her book, Oreskes writes that American think-tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the Heartland Institute have played a significant role in spreading doubt.
As well as receiving funding from the American Petroleum Institute and the family foundations of oil-service giant Koch Industries, the CEI has received just over $2 million from ExxonMobil since 1998, plus $370,000 since 1991 from the tobacco giant Philip Morris. Similarly, the Heartland Institute has received over $190,000 from Phillip Morris since 1993 and over $670,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006.
Oreskes says that some scientists will provide their scientific credentials to these think-tanks without being paid for their services. "If you are driven by ideology you don't need to take money. You think you are doing the right thing. You think you're standing up for a principle you believe is correct."
What bothers Oreskes is scientists, who rather than arguing their point within the scientific community, and publishing in peer reviewed journals, choose instead to parade and gain support for their contrarian views in the media.
"In my experience, as frustrated as scientists are over this issue, they are still open minded and prepared to listen to a colleague who has data and evidence. But if you hitch your wagon to the CEI, then you are making a different kind of claim."
It's for this reason that Oreskes insists scientists like the ones in the book - Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and Dixy Lee Ray - are denialists and not sceptics. A sceptic, says Oreskes, is a person who challenges opponents to provide evidence for their beliefs - one who rejects articles of faith and positions that defy refutation in the face of facts. A denialist refuses to believe something no matter what the evidence.
The Merchants story raises troubling questions.
How could so few have influenced so many? And why, as Merchants asks, would eminent scientists participate in such work? The book does provide some answers - although none are particularly palatable.
Significant responsibility falls at the feet of a largely scientifically ignorant, gullible and meek media.
Hounded by "experts" conflating scientific diffidence with scientific uncertainty, and who wrote outraged, threatening letters to the editor when a report didn't include their dissent, the media capitulated.
Following their guiding principles of fairness and balance, editors felt obliged, to represent well established scientific facts as scientific controversies - representing the scientific debate over tobacco as unsettled long after scientists had concluded otherwise.
Truth becomes a casualty under the guise of free speech. The misrepresentation has remained a constant drumbeat ever since, perpetuated in "controversies" over acid rain, ozone depletion and continuing today in the ongoing argument over the fact of global warming. "There should be no question in people's minds that global warming is happening," says Oreskes. "The question should be: what to do about it?"
As she points out the science was settled nearly 20 years ago in 1992 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which committed the nations of the world to preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system and led to the Kyoto Protocol.
"We understood the science. We had an international agreement. Kyoto was beginning to do something about it. Then it got derailed. That's the story we are telling in the book - the story of that derailment."
Oreskes doesn't like to characterise the situation with war metaphors - in part because of the lack of immediacy in the global warming threat. There is nothing tangible on the brink or about to invade that must be stopped.
The harms of global warming will unfold over the next several decades and we do not know exactly what form that will take. But there are already plenty of signs. Spring is coming earlier than it used to.
Rivers and lakes are warming. Glaciers are shrinking, while glacial lakes are expanding. Permafrost is becoming unstable. Plants and animals are shifting their ranges upwards in terms of both latitude and elevation.
Oreskes also says there is a credible argument that people are beginning to die from extreme weather events that are probably linked to climate change. In her foreword to Haydn Washington's and John Cook's Climate Change Denial, Oreskes points to the Queensland floods - how some commentators were willing to describe them as biblical, yet almost none were willing to make the connection to climate change.
Yes, scientists have repeatedly emphasised climate is by definition a pattern, and one event does not a pattern make. But she says the Queensland floods are part of a pattern - one that in 2010-11 included devastating floods in China and Pakistan, heat waves and fires in Russia and catastrophic mudslides in Brazil.
It's also consistent with what scientists have long predicted - that climate change would lead to an increase in extreme weather events.
"The reason is simple: conservation of energy. If you trap more energy in the atmosphere, it has to go somewhere, and one of the places it goes into is weather."
While she's reluctant to call it a war between scientists and denialists, Oreskes will call it an impasse and agrees that at present the denialists are winning.
According to national surveys in 2008, 71 per cent of Americans said "yes," global warming is happening. By 2010, the number dropped to 57 per cent. In 2008, 57 per cent of Americans said human activities were causing global warming. By 2010, this had dropped to 47 per cent.
"It is a very serious impasse. There are already signs that people's lives and livelihoods are at stake. I think the gravity of it has not really been assimilated by most people," says Oreskes. "We seem unable to move forward - even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It's not going to go away by just ignoring it. That's part of the whole denial strategy, to pretend it is not there."
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Merchants is its uncovering of the anatomy of denial. How one's underlying ideology - in this case a defender of the free market ethos born out of the anti-communist Cold War era - creates a belief able to deny evidence and sow fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Why? Because to accept the truth that unrestricted commercial activity was doing real, lasting, pervasive damage was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism.
Science had shown something the free market had no signal for - that acid rain, second-hand smoke, DDT, the ozone hole and global warming imposed enormous costs, often on people who did not choose the good or service and did not benefit from their use.
"One of the paradoxes, you might say hypocrisies, of this whole story is that these people argue for free market solutions and against government regulation as interfering with the market place. Yet the market doesn't give an economic signal about the damage that greenhouse gasses do," says Oreskes. "The fact is this is a market failure."
Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Bloomsbury, $49.99.
Naomi Oreskes will give the Michael King Memorial Lecture on May 14 and participate in the "Saving the World" panel discussion on May 15 at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Details at www.writersfestival.co.nz.