Cold War politics has fueled the debate over climate change, historian says

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations Program for the Environment and many other scientific associations, there is no controversy about global climate change. Nor has there ever been any controversy in the scientific community, said Stanford University alumna Naomi Oreskes (PhD '90), professor of history and science studies at the University of California-San Diego.

Oreskes made her remarks during a Feb. 22 lecture titled "Cold War Scientists and Global Warming" that was presented by the Earth Systems Program and the School of Earth Sciences.

Oreskes, who earned her doctoral degree in geological research and the history of science, has long been skeptical about claims of scientific controversy surrounding climate change. Over the years, the IPCC has clearly stated in its reports that climate change is the result of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by human activities, she said.

"The drafting of such reports and statements involves many opportunities for comment, criticism and revision, and it is not likely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies' members," she wrote in a 2004 essay in the journal Science. In preparing the essay, Oreskes analyzed the abstracts of 928 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. It turned out that not a single paper disagreed with the opinion presented by the IPCC.

The potential for humans to change the Earth's climate through emission of carbon dioxide has been understood since the beginning of the 20th century, when Swedish geochemist Svante Arrhenius first proposed it, Oreskes said. Following Arrhenius, steady progress was made toward understanding the extent to which climate change was occurring, and in 1965 the Environmental Pollution Board of the President's Science Advisory Committee acknowledged that humans were indeed having an impact on global climate. "Compared to other pollution problems and social issues of the day, greenhouse gases were not seen as a significant concern," Oreskes noted. But subsequent reports commissioned by Presidents Carter and Reagan also agreed that climate change was occurring and represented a potential problem for the environment.

So where is the current controversy coming from? Oreskes argued that the so-called "debate" is not really a debate at all but rather the work of a handful of influential scientists who have been very adept at using the media to play on the scientific uncertainties surrounding climate change. These now-elderly scientists emerged during the Cold War as staunch anti-communists and strong advocates of market fundamentalism, which Oreskes described as the belief that a capitalist market will provide all necessary regulations for society.

"We often think about the influence of religious fundamentalism on politics, but we don't often think about the influence of market fundamentalism," she said. "Lots of people believe in a free market, but they don't attack scientists. To these people, environmentalists are the green 'reds.'"

Oreskes has monitored the activities of these "Cold War warriors" over the years and found that they have been instrumental in creating controversy around the science behind other environmental issues, including acid rain and secondhand tobacco smoke.

In 1984, several of the scientists founded the George C. Marshall Institute, whose stated mission is "to encourage the use of sound science in making public policy about important issues for which science and technology are major considerations." In reality, Oreskes said, the Marshall Institute is not a scientific research center but rather a biased organization whose goal is to manufacture debate about climate change, energy policy and other global issues.

"These scientists use uncertainty to recommend that we wait and see what will happen in the future," Oreskes said. "But this is where history is important, because we have waited and seen. Global climate change is here and there are no communists left."

Kendall Madden is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.