Have The Merchants of Doubt Sold Us Out?

We are no longer talking about the future. We are talking about us, now. I think this is what Americans do not yet understand. But if current trends continue, they will soon. Climate change is all around us, and most of it is not good.
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Who says America's lost its manufacturing edge? We may not make things like sneakers or TVs anymore, but there's one industry of which we're the undisputed king: the doubt industry. And what an insidious industry it is, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway reveal in The Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

Merchants of Doubt documents the ethically challenged business executives and academics who've waged a decades-long campaign to mislead us about profitable but problematic substances from tobacco to DDT to fossil fuels. People have died and communities have been degraded as a result.

For exposing these morally bankrupt folks who are willing to fill coffins if it helps fill their coffers, Oreskes and Conway have been accused of being part of a liberal conspiracy to bring down global capitalism.

The Merchants of Doubt's true agenda, though, is not to condemn capitalism but to counter the doubt industry's corrosive influence on public opinion. At Bard College's Hannah Arendt Center last month, Oreskes gave a keynote for a conference entitled "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts." After presenting a concise history of climate change denial in the U.S., she expressed her hope that we'll move beyond doubt and find the political will to reduce our fossil fuel use and step up our investments in renewable energy instead.

I attended the conference and was scheduled to interview Oreskes afterwards, but fittingly enough, global weirding got in the way; the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast forced us to abandon that plan and do the interview via email. Below are her answers to my questions:

KT: Why do you characterize climate change as 'a market failure' ?

NO: I follow Nicolas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank. The point is that climate change is an "external cost" not accounted by market prices. We do serious damage by burning fossil fuels, but the price of those fuels does not reflect the costs of that damage.

KT: The Merchants of Doubt has been described as a kind of 'murder mystery.' Since its publication last year, the body count -- and the greenhouse gas emissions -- just keep rising. "Deaths and health problems from floods, drought and other U.S. disasters related to climate change cost an estimated $14 billion over the last decade," according to Reuters.

The International Energy Agency warns "that the world is hurtling toward irreversible climate change and will lose the chance to limit warming if it doesn't take bold action in the next five years." Yet, as the New York Times reports, "only 59 percent of Americans even believe that the planet is warming, as compared to 79 percent in 2006."

The real mystery, then, is how to persuade American skeptics that we face profound disruptions in our own lifetime and that of our children. Can you describe, in a lay-person friendly way, some of the scenarios we might anticipate?

NO: Well, the best example is the "monster storm" that just hit Alaska, described by one media outlet as a storm of "epic proportions." Climate change is underway, it is affecting American citizens, and it is going to become increasingly costly and disruptive.

We are no longer talking about the future, about people far away in time and space. We are talking about us, now. I think this is what Americans do not yet understand. But if current trends continue, they will soon. Climate change is all around us, and most of it is not good.

KT: The method of drilling for gas known as fracking has been generating a lot of controversy lately. The natural gas industry has responded with upbeat ads featuring attractive young folks touting natural gas as the environmentally friendly way to achieve energy independence. Do you think this apparent strategic shift from doubt mongers to peddlers of false hope will allay fears about flaming tap water?

NO: Well, it may, but it should not. Switching to natural gas will not solve the problem of climate change, regardless of how it's extracted, because gas is a fossil fuel that produces GHGs when you burn it -- not quite as much as coal or oil, but still quite a bit.

KT: After the 70's energy crisis, the citizens of virtually every other industrialized nation found ways to reduce their energy consumption. Americans alone defied this trend. Despite having the technology, now, to use energy far more efficiently, the average American currently uses about twice as much energy as his or her European counterpart, though our standards of living are about the same.

And now we're ceding leadership on this critical issue to developing nations. You're a historian as well as a scientist. Has your research unearthed other factors beyond the doubt industry that help explain our apparent reluctance to embrace conservation and innovation?

NO: Well, first of all it's important to note that not all Americans defied this trend. Californians greatly increased our energy efficiency, even while our economy continued to grow. So we know that Americans are capable of making this shift, and we aim to do it again now, in California, with AB32.

But certainly, Americans cherish the ideals of freedom and abundance, and I am one of those. We are the land of plenty. And we want to remain so. So the key for us is to transition over to renewable energy sources -- ones that do not produce GHGs -- so we can continue to live the good life. No one wants to freeze in the dark.

The irony is that by delaying action, the Merchants of Doubt have made the challenge before us more difficult, and we have less time available to implement solutions. Had we begun this in 1992 -- at the time of the UNFCC (U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) -- we would be well on our way now.

KT: You're not an advice columnist. But you are an expert on denialists, so perhaps you'll have some insights into this dilemma: a close friend of ours is dating a climate change denialist. He seems like a smart, nice guy, and she's smitten, though she's perturbed by his views on this issue.

We're just hoping it doesn't get serious. You dedicated your book to your two daughters with the admonition that "it's in your hands now." What would you do if one of them started dating a denier?

NO: Well, that would never happen! Or if it did, you can be sure my daughters would change their minds.

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