by Claudia Dreifus
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 with Erik M. Conway, takes the point of view of a historian in 2393 explaining how “the Great Collapse of 2093” occurred.
“Without spoiling the story,” 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. Dr. Oreskes, 55, spoke with me for two hours at her home in Concord, Mass., and later again by telephone. Here is an edited and condensed version of the conversations.
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 ACTUALLY WAS 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.