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August 13th 2012 print

Michael Kile

Queen of Climate Consensus,

How did a US geologist working with Western Mining Corporation in South Australia transform herself into a credible climate change alarmist in less than a decade? 


Naomi Oreskes – Fearless Slayer of Straw Persons, Fervent Defender of Water Melons, Sworn Enemy of Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Serial Doubt-Mongering, Huge Supporter of Carbon [Dioxide] Taxes and Queen of Climate Consensus – is back in Australia.


The University of Western Australia has appointed her a 2012 Professor-at-Large at its Institute of Advanced Studies. Her ten hosts, none of whom are scientists, include well-known atmospheric activists Stephan Lewandowsky (Psychology); David Hodgkinson (Law); and Carmen Lawrence, Psychology).

The Professors-at-Large initiative enables people who have achieved intellectual distinction to visit the university and roam widely across disciplines and the intellectual life of the campus community.” (UWA Institute of Advanced Studies)

According to Oreskes, Lewandowsky was “the driver behind bringing me back to Perth.” Why has anthropogenic global warming (AGW) been embraced so passionately by the social sciences? Why have so many academic psychologists, environmentalists, ethicists, etc, become Oreskian merchants of climate “certainty”; branding those who question the orthodoxy as political stooges, “deniers”, “pseudo-sceptics” or “fools”? Why, indeed?

There is another mystery. How did a US geologist working with Western Mining Corporation in South Australia, a co-author of esoteric papers – from the origin of LREE-enriched hematite breccias at the Olympic Dam Cu-U-Au-Ag deposit to the oxygen isotope composition of Chilean El Laco magnetite – transform herself into a credible climate change alarmist in less than a decade? How, indeed?

Oreskes is now Professor of History and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Geosciences, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, is promoted as a “troubling story of how a cadre of influential scientists have clouded public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.”

Fred Singer is one of the “shockingly small group of people” who Oreskes targets in the book. He continues to dismiss her claims as nonsense. Attempts to set up a public debate – the most recent was in early 2010 – have been unsuccessful. Oreskes reportedly said she didn’t want to debate someone “with a known record of promoting public misrepresentation of science.”

Perhaps there is another reason for this serial avoidance? Singer is a real climate scientist. He has served in the US armed forces, government, and academia. His impressive achievements include playing a leading role in early space research, developing Earth observation satellites, establishing the US National Weather Bureau’s Satellite Service Center in 1962, and becoming founding dean of the University of Miami School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences in 1964.

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words; or in this case a one-hour lecture last week on “Neo-liberalism and the Denial of Global Warming”. Oreskes’ first slide – also her take-home message – was a Regan cartoon, Noah’s Ark: Missing the Boat. Two dinosaurs, stranded on a small mound surrounded by water, with a semi-submerged palm tree nearby, gaze wistfully at an Ark laden with animals as it recedes towards the horizon. “Oh, crap!” one says to the other, “was that TODAY?” The capacity audience loved it.

Albert Arnold Gore Junior, an Oreskes fan, revived alarmist fascination with the ark archetype two decades ago. In his book, Earth in the Balance, he describes how “Noah is commanded by God to take into his ark at least two of every living species in order to save them from the Flood (rising sea levels); a commandment that might appear in modern form as: Thou shalt preserve biodiversity. Indeed, does God’s instruction have new relevance for those who share Noah’s faith in this time of another worldwide catastrophe (AGW, climate change), this time one of our own creation?” (page 244).

The “terrific” dish Oreskes presented was almost identical to what was served up on her last visit; with a few (very thin) additional slices of “neo-liberalism” from Hayek and Friedman, and a pinch of Isaiah Berlin.

“Denial of AGW,” apparently, “is not about the science and never has been about it. It is based on a faulty premise; that environmentalism is an enemy of free-market capitalism. We should not wait until it is too late to act and to solve the AGW problem.”

Quoting Berlin, Oreskes added that “[total] liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs” (laughter). Yet a few pages further in his The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990), Berlin stressed that while “utopias have their value, as guides to conduct they can be fatal…To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity (page 19).” For him, the wolf is clearly not free-market capitalism.

In Robert Manne’s essay in the August Monthly, he described Oreskes’s book as the “most important account of the (denialist) movement’s political and intellectual origins”. It documented how an influential and “ideologically predisposed” group disregarded “any problem that mainstream scientists attributed to market failure” (eg: price on “carbon [dioxide] pollution”).

For others, however, it is Manne’s “mainstream” bunch that has put the ideological horse before the evidentiary cart. Joanne Nova, for example, argues Oreskes’ “consensus” is a fabrication. It is Oreskes who “seeds doubts about skeptics by claiming skeptics ‘seed doubts’ about climate change”, while wasting time “digging through biographies, researching unrelated topics (tobacco) and drawing tenuous conclusions”.

On planet Oreskes, doubt and denial allegedly link apparently random events, preventing the inhabitants from seeing the truth. They are like cancers, consuming our critical faculties. Yet when most skeptics raise doubts, they are based on careful critique of empirical evidence and argument; and not some “nefarious agenda” driven by political belief.

Nova is in good company. Some high-profile scientists also have a problem with Oreskes. On 23 January, 2012, Judith Curry posted this note on her blog with the heading, “Open-mindedness is the wrong (?) approach”.

“Naomi Oreskes has an op-ed in the LA TIMES today entitled “The verdict is in on climate change”, with subheading “When it comes to climate change, openmindedness is the wrong approach.”

What we need, according to Oreskes, is a Climate Court, presided over by a “scientist general”. “The problem is that there is no judge, no recognized authority giving us instructions we accept, and no recognized authority to accept the scientists’ verdict and declare it final….Without a scientist general to instruct us on climate change, we as a nation have been adrift, looking for leadership and not finding it.” 

Oreskes wants an Orwellian institution, where activist scientists are the “jury”, not merely a group of expert witnesses trying to prove a case. As to her opponents, the “think tanks, institutes and fossil fuel corporations” and those who “take on the mantle of defence”, they will have no role. Condemned to silence, they presumably will be exiled to gulags designed by schools of psychology for promulgators of “denials, dodges and pseudo-scientific studies”. Here, they will spend years in programs of cognitive modification, self-criticism and re-education. Welcome to the realm of post-modern science.

Curry commented:So am I to infer from this piece that the only way to support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consensus is to close your mind? And trust the ‘experts’, like those we saw in the UEA CRU (Climategate) emails? This is a big step, worse than reversing the null hypothesis.” (The null hypothesis for climate change attribution research is that humans have no influence. Curry argues that recent discussion about it “serves to highlight fuzziness surrounding the many hypotheses related to dangerous climate change”.)

Oreskes’ last slide was another cartoon. A wife points a gun at her husband and says: “I’m sorry, Harold; but I’m reducing our carbon footprint.” Sacrifices must be made to placate the angry God of Decarbonisation.

A sense of humour is de rigueur in any game that claims to deal with the “most serious moral issue of our time”. Ironically, however, the serious ethical issues here involve junk science, academic eco-activism and faux alarmism, not “dangerous” anthropogenic climate change.

There is more to come in this space from the UWA IAS. In early October, University of Melbourne political science professor Robyn Eckersley, will lecture on “Taking Responsibility for Climate Change” and “weather of mass destruction”. Eckersley will take a UN-style “climate debt” perspective, “connecting historical responsibility for causing climate change with the present capacity to prevent and/or reduce risks of dangerous climate change and protect the most vulnerable”. 

Early next month, catastrophist Lawrence Torcello, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, will lecture on “Free Speech, Public Discourse and the Moral Blameworthiness of Suffering Fools”. 

Torcello’s “fools” are – yes – the blameworthy folk suffering from “climate change denialism – a species the speaker refers to as ‘pseudo-skepticism’”. They allegedly are fed this rubbish by a mischievous cabal of “corporate-sponsored public relations firms, by ideologically-driven politicians, hack journalists, pundits, and ill-informed private citizens”. Hack philosophers and ill-informed ethicists, by definition, are naturally too busy pointing out the “significant advantage that nonsense has over factual information critical to informed public policy” to become involved in climate agitprop.

At least one person on campus would support Torcello’s expressed desire for “a robust ethics of enquiry” and more “public discourse”. His bust stands on a pedestal on the north side of Winthrop Hall. There is an inscription on it: This undercroft is dedicated to Socrates, who sought truth always by the path of open discussion and free enquiry. May his spirit preside here at all times.

It’s time. It’s time for a Socratic conversation – one that skewers confected moralising masquerading as insight and argument by absurd analogy; one that exposes the neuro-psychological dysfunction at the core of climate activism; one that challenges irrational fear-mongering about the “dangers of climate change denial”; a conversation that asks again and again: “What is the truth about climate change attribution, variability and predictability”?

Meanwhile, until folks in academia determine (with certainty) whether there are more denialists on the head of a pin than in a red herring, the nation cannot move forward with confidence. 

 

Disclosure Statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. He has no relevant affiliations, except as author of the Devil’s Dictionary of Climate Change.