Today's guest is Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. Naomi is a world renowned geologist, historian and public speaker, and a leading voice on the role of science in society and the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Naomi has authored several prominent books, including "The Collapse of Western Civilization," "Discerning Experts," "Science on a Mission: American Oceanography From The Cold War to Climate Change," and most recently "Why Trust Science." Arguably her most well-known publication to date, "Merchants of Doubt" was the basis of the 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” We have a great discussion in this episode, including Naomi's journey beginning as a geologist to becoming a standard-bearer of public awareness on climate change. We also dive into the legacy of climate denialism, promulgated by the fossil fuel industry. An outspoken critic of the industry’s record of disinformation, Naomi shares her personal experience of being attacked and threatened as part of a larger campaign, led by special-interest groups, to discredit climate science. Finally, Naomi articulates why the public should trust science, and the answer may surprise listeners! Enjoy the show! You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
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Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. The show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Today's guest is Professor Naomi Oreskes, Professor of The History of Science at Harvard University. Naomi's also a world renowned geologist, historian and public speaker, and a leading voice on the role of science in society and the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Naomi's the author or coauthor of seven books in over 150 articles, essays and opinion pieces, including "Merchants of Doubt", which of course went on to become a movie as well. "The Collapse of Western Civilization," "Discerning Experts," "Why Trust Science," and "Science on a Mission: American Oceanography From The Cold War to Climate Change." We have a great discussion in this episode, including Naomi's work that she's doing today. How she got into this work and what led her down the path of focusing on climate change in the first place.
We talk about some of the distrust of science and where that's come from and some of the vested interest in climate denialism that has maliciously worked to cause this distrust. We also talk about some of the abuse that Naomi has taken along the way because of her outspoken views on this topic. We spent a good bit of time on the problem itself, the nature of it, and the best ways to address it.
What solutions are most viable, what types of policy measures should get into place, and what some of the barriers have been that are holding us back on making progress. And we also talk about some of the changes that could be made that would best address these barriers and accelerate the clean energy transition.
Naomi Oreskes, welcome to the show.
Naomi Oreskes: Thanks. Pleasure to be here with you.
Jason Jacobs: It's an honor to speak with you. I've not made it through all of your material. I'm not that old and there's too much of it to get through, but I have been through a decent amount. Most recently, Merchants of Doubt and gosh, you do really important work and I'm so appreciative that you're taking the time to share your knowledge with me and with My Climate Journey listeners.
Naomi Oreskes: Thank you. Well, it's a of pleasure to be here with you.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, well maybe we should just take it from the top. Can you give an overview of the work that you do and how you got to be doing the work that you do? In 10 seconds or less.
Naomi Oreskes: That's a bit of a 30 year story, but I'll give you my short version. So I'm a historian of science.
I studied the development of scientific knowledge. I'm interested in how scientists do science, how scientists collect evidence, how scientists decide what constitutes evidence and how scientists decide when we have enough evidence to say, yes, we know this to be true. My original training was an earth science.
I was a geologist. I worked as an exploration geologist in the Outback of Australia when I was in my twenties and some years ago, about 20 years ago, I was running a book on the history of oceanography, and I was particularly interested in the question of how funding sources influenced research agenda, and in the process of writing this book, I stumbled across some materials in the archive.
Totally unknown to me that there was a group of oceanographers American oceanographers in the 1950s who were warning about climate change. Now, today, a lot of people know that, but at the time, no one knew this. I mean, I was a historian of earth science and I didn't know that, and I thought, wow, if I don't know this, then probably not too many other people know them.
So these were people whose names are probably now familiar to some of your audience. People like Roger Revelle, Dave Keeling, who is a household word. But at the time, hardly anybody knew who these people were except their colleagues. So I started digging into it. This was in the year 2000, 2001 2002. And as I dug into the science, two things happened.
I became really impressed at actually how old this question was, that scientists back in the 1950s were already aware that burning fossil fuels was increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that that could lead to very serious changes in the climate that could have adverse impacts on things like sea level rise, hurricanes, tropical forest, you know, all the things that we know and worry about.
Today, almost all of these, with the exception maybe of ocean acidification, were already being discussed in the fifties and I thought that was pretty surprising. And the other thing that happened was as I began to read the scientific work, I started getting really worried. I started realizing that this issue was much more serious than I had recognized, and I considered myself to be a very knowledgeable and aware earth science historian.
So long story short, I shifted gears and I started. Looking more closely into the climate change problem. And I did an analysis of the scientific literature to try to figure out was there a scientific consensus on climate change or not?
Jason Jacobs: And when was this?
Naomi Oreskes: 2003 so I wrote the first paper ever in a peer reviewed journal that said.
That yes, there is a scientific consensus on climate change that was published in 2004 in science magazine, and I was naive enough to think that the journalists who are presenting climate change as a raging debate were just ignorant that they didn't know. And that if I would just explain to them what scientists knew, that everything would be fine.
Well, that was, as I said, very naive. So I published this paper in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Al Gore's staff came across it, picked it up and Al-- I'm on first name basis with him now I wasn't then-- he put it into his slideshow. He started talking about it, and when a film, an Inconvenient Truth came out, the study is in the film.
It's set in the film. So when that happened, a couple of things happen. I call this my Alice through the looking glass moment because my life changed and not in a good way. I started getting hate mail. I started getting threatening phone calls. I started getting death threats. I had complaints lodged against me with my university. I was investigated by my university because I was accused of being a fraudulent historian, and some of the accusations went like this. We all know that there's a big debate about climate change, so if Oreskes thinks there isn't, then she must be incompetent. It was a pretty dark time, especially because I had no idea why this was happening or who these people were or why I was being targeted.
And I could go into more details, but this gives you the general gist of the idea. So it was actually a rather frightening time in my life, and I was not yet a full professor. I was tenured, but not particularly professionally secure. But I started talking to some scientific colleagues about what was happening.
And several of them said to me. You need to talk to Ben Santer. So if you've read my book, you know who Ben Santer is. Ben Santer is the scientist who proved back in the 1990s that observed climate change was definitely caused by human activities, could not be explained by the sun. And that was in the 1995 IBCC report.
When Ben published that he became the victim of absolutely unprincipled vicious attack in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. And like me, he had no idea why he was being attacked. He had done a piece of science, published it in peer review journals, did all the things you're supposed to do as a good scientist, and somehow he was being personally targeted for it.
So I started talking to him, and one thing kind of led to another, but one of the things he said to me was, that was really weird about what happened to him was that when he started reading about the tobacco industry. That was the sort of uncanny similarity that what was happening to him seemed a lot like what the tobacco industry had done.
And meanwhile, I had been doing some research, finding out more about the people who were attacking me. And so I said to Ben, I said, well, Ben, this isn't just a coincidence. These are the same people. And so I started to realize that there was this bigger story about organized and systematic attacks on scientists who did work that proved the harm of some product like tobacco or fossil fuels, and that there was this big story that Ben's story, my story was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. And that iceberg included the ozone story. And that's how I started working with Eric Conway because he had worked on the history of ozone science and one thing led to another, and pretty soon Eric Conway and I realized that there was a big story to be told here.
And that story became the book Merchants of Doubt.
Jason Jacobs: And so. How does that translate in terms of the work that you're doing today? How do you spend your professional portfolio of time?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, it's a mix. Professionally, I'm still a historian of science. I still identify as a historian of science, and I still see my central contribution as a scholar and an intellectual.
In understanding the scientific process so that people can understand. If scientists say to us, yes, the world is warming, how do we know that? And if some fossil fuel industry shill says, Oh, but we don't really know. How can we identify that as a shill? How can we tell the difference between verified or warranted scientific conclusions versus disinformation and as citizens?
How can we make those kinds of decisions? So I'm interested in both as an intellectual project, like what are the principled criteria that we can identify to differentiate between knowledge and disinformation, but also as citizens what are the cues? What are the red flags that we can look for? So that's what I do in my day job, and that's who I am.
And I still publish serious academic books with lots of footnotes. And I still publish articles in peer reviewed journals. But in addition, because of the work on Merchants of Doubt, I've become a public figure. And so, every day in my inbox, there's a request or a query from a journalist or an invitation to give a public talk to be on a panel.
And so a big part of the challenge of my life now is balancing the demands of being a public intellectual. And playing what I hope is a useful role as a public figure while still maintaining what I see as my core activity as a scholar and an intellectual.
Jason Jacobs: So one of the things I've been trying to reconcile is that it's tough for uninformed or semi-informed general public. Life is busy and stressful, and not everybody has the luxury of being concerned about these longterm problems, no matter how important they are, because they have to deal with how to pay their bills and how to put their kids through college and their mortgage and putting food on the table and living paycheck to paycheck, et cetera.
So when they hear again and again that. Things are dire, but also that maybe they're overblown and there's this kind of misinformation going on. I think it's hard for them to reconcile someone without science training or the time to really get knowledgeable about these issues. So for those people, how do they know where to go for the truth?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, that's one reason I do the work that I do. I mean, I agree completely with what you just said, and I feel like most people are basically good people who, as you say, they're just busy. They're trying to get the kids to soccer. They're trying to get dinner on the table, trying to finish whatever job they do for a living.
So I don't blame people. I don't feel mad at people that they aren't more well-informed. I do blame the Merchants of Doubt because what they do is malicious and deliberate and nefarious and premeditated, but they're a very, very tiny fraction of the people on earth. So, I mean, sometimes people ask me, how can you still believe in humanity when you've written the books you've write, right? And I say, well, the vast majority of humanity are fine. They're good people who are just busy or confused. So in terms of anger or blame, the people I'm angry at are very, very tiny fraction of the population. But I see most of my work is actually trying to help the rest of us. Like sometimes people say to me, well, how can I persuade the deniers to change their mind?
I don't see my work at all as about that. I don't think the Merchants of Doubt will ever change their minds. I mean, they might, but unlikely and it doesn't really matter. The important point is that people not be fooled by them and that people can recognize that this is a con game. And so I really see my work as trying to help people do that and make it easy for people.
And so that's why actually most of my books by academic standards are pretty short. The other day somebody said to me that Merchants of Doubt was a long book. I'm like. Really, I know in my world that's a short book. You know, I try to write in plain language that anyone can understand. Anyone who's reasonably educated.
You don't have to have a PhD in science to read my books. Merchants of Doubt has been translated... I think it's...I don't know... I think we're up to nine or 10 languages now and made into a film, so I'm very proud of that, that this work has really had reach. I have a Ted talk that I think has, I don't know, I don't keep that close to count, but it's well over a million views.
So I really try hard in my book to find ways to communicate. That are relatively easy for people. You could watch an 18 minute Ted talk or you could read a 300 page book, or you could listen to this podcast. I mean, one reason that I agreed to do things like podcast is because I recognize that for a lot of people, that's a more accessible medium than a book and my latest book, Why Trust Science, that book came out of my Ted talk, so I did this Ted talk. It was remarkably successful for talking to serious topics. It's not about sex or pornography or psychology or how to make money or any of the currently popular Ted talk topics. It's not about the Patriots, right? It's nothing to do with deflate-gate, although deflate-gate could be in my revenue. Right? The concussion stuff. I get asked a lot about the NFL concussions, but because that Ted talk was so successful that's part of what made me think, okay, this is sign that's worth pursuing. People are really actually interested in this topic. So the new book, I think it's 250 pages or something like that.
So it's a serious book. It's a serious read and it does have footnotes, but you don't have to read the footnotes. You could just read the main texting, get the idea. And the point of a book like that is to help people who are trying to answer that question, why should we trust science? And I try to give an intelligent, principled answer that anyone who is college-educated, let's say, could understand.
Jason Jacobs: So one of the tensions I wrestle with is that on the one hand, there's the practices of the fossil fuel industry for years and decades of misinformation, foot dragging, doing things that protect their nest egg at the expense of the greater good. Then on the other side, there's their size, their expertise, their resource capabilities, how much needs to get done in such a short timeframe.
And I find that it's hard for me to dismiss or shut them out completely and not collaborate with them in some form. So how do you think about that?
Naomi Oreskes: I'm sympathetic to what you just said and I definitely see the point, but I don't agree with it. I think these people have proven that they can't be trusted.
They've had more than 30 years now. I remember Jim Hanson first testified in Congress in 1988 that climate change was underway. So the people I studied, who I talked about back in the 50s they were predicting the climate change would one day happen. But they honestly didn't know when. But fast forward to 1988 Jim Hanson and his team at NASA say, this is happening now.
Right? And by 1992 we have the UN framework convention on climate change, which the U.S. is a signatory to promises to take action to prevent dangerous climate change. So the fossil fuel industry has had more than 30 years to get on board on this issue, and I agree they do have tremendous relevant expertise.
And had they got on board in this issue back in the early nineties or had BP done then what they say they want to do now, it's like, Hmm, well I, I feel like I've seen this movie before. Then, yes, absolutely. There was an opportunity then. Yes, 1995 BP was going to be beyond petroleum, big advertisements when you landed in London and Heathrow airport, giant billboards, BP beyond petroleum.
And I remember being excited at the time thinking, Oh, this is so fantastic. The oil industry, they get it. They're on board, they're going to be leaders. And I was really optimistic at the time. Remember, I'm a geologist. Half my classmates went to work for the oil and gas industry. I had friends at BP, so there was an opportunity for the industry to do that.
But they didn't. And instead they knowingly and deliberately went down the path of disinformation. And we know that because we've demonstrated it, and we've shown it in the documents, show it in their own. Scientists have testified in Congress. I mean, there's no doubt that this happened. And so that raises the question, well, why should we trust them now?
And we know that there's still, I mean, I say they, the industry is complicated, but we know that many leading fossil fuel companies, I won't name names. But you know who they are are still funding organizations that promote disinformation and they're still funding think tanks that are fighting tooth and nail in Congress to prevent any kind of meaningful policy action.
And they're still funding members of Congress who consistently vote again and again against any possible meaningful policy action. And if you look at the voting records of Congress, and you look at who's funding them, the connection is absolutely black and white. There's just no ambiguity in this. So my view is that if these companies want to be on board as partners, then they have to prove the burden is on them to show that they're really changing.
And so far, none of them not BP, Chevron, not Shell, none of them. Even the ones that have better reputations than the one I won't name, none of them have actually done anything meaningful in this space. They talk about energy policy. They have advertisements about biofuels and algae, and it's all great, and it would be great if they were really doing that.
But look at what their budget is for biofuels. Look at what their budget is for research on algae biofuels. How much money have they actually put into DC solar direct DC grids to bring electricity to people in India, in most cases, the answer is little to nothing, right? Pennies. Just pennies, not even.
So for me, this is like the tobacco industry. You know, the tobacco industry wanted to be a partner in tobacco control said, you can trust us. We get it, that this is a real public health. We'll put money into it, but it was a lie. It was a lie then; it's a lie now. And if you look at, say the people who work on tobacco control, the tobacco industry has tried to work their way into the UN framework convention on tobacco control and tried to say, we deserve to be at the table where stakeholders, we have relevant expertise.
But everything they do tells us that they can't be trusted. And I think all the evidence shows that the fossil fuel industry has behaved in the same way as the tobacco industry.
Jason Jacobs: So any of these topics we could spend a whole episode on, but it would be great if we can, to just provide a concise frame on why we should believe in science.
And then once you've covered why we should believe in science, it would be great for you to talk about what we should do with that belief once we have it.
Naomi Oreskes: I just want to say one other thing also about the fossil fuel industry. Cause you said a lot of your listenership is in Silicon Valley. So think about it.
I mean, Silicon Valley is all about disruption. It wasn't GM who really pioneered a great electric car. It was Elon Musk. And we see this in so many areas in the history of technology. It's not impossible for an existing major corporation to innovate and change and do something different, but it's really rare. Most often where you see that destructive innovation is from someone else who comes from outside, like an Elon Musk type, or in the case of the intranet, which I'm teaching tomorrow, the federal government through a set of policies that really primes the pump of innovation. So I mean, the internet was not invented by Westinghouse or General Electric. It was really invented by the U S government funding a lot of clever academic scientists. So it's just something to keep in mind when we think about who's likely to really do the innovative work that we need done here.
Okay. Well, I trust science. Okay, so do you want to know?
Jason Jacobs: Well, so pretend or you don't have to pretend, but I have this friend who's busy and who doesn't have time to do the work to really dig into the core of these issues. Not me, but I have this friend that has this problem. But for that person, why should they trust in science?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, one thing we know is that actually the majority, the American people do trust science. So there's been a lot of hand wringing and angst about. When alleged crisis in American science alleged public distrust. Actually, the data don't support that. The data suggests the vast majority of us still do trust science about most issues.
But when you scratch the surface of that trust, you find it's kind of shallow. Because if you ask the next question, well, why do you trust science? It turns out most people, even really educated people actually can't answer that question. And so this came out of my own work that I found that sometimes when I would talk to my own students about this, I would say
well, why do you trust science? And they would say, well, the scientific method, as a historian of science, I know that that's the wrong answer. And so that's kind of what inspired me, that and public talks where people in public were challenging me on this issue and saying, well, why should we trust the science?
So I thought, okay, so let's take on that question. And so basically the short answer is. The scientific method is actually not the right answer because if we look at the history of science, what we find is that actually scientists use all kinds of different methods. The methods of science are quite diverse.
They've changed over time, and the supposed scientific method, which most people think is like have a hypothesis. Do an experiment. See if the hypothesis true. A, a lot of scientists don't actually do that. And B, even if you do it, it doesn't actually prove anything for a bunch of logical reasons that I get into in the book.
So that answer can't be right, but if it's not that, then what is it? And so then we get into a more historical answer that really has to do with the track record of science, that if we actually look at the track record of science, we find it's incredibly good that we can actually judge science by its successes.
And if we look at the case is where things have gone wrong. Well, so this is the other thing. So when I would give public talks. Sometimes people would say, well that's all very well and good, but why should we trust the science? And then I would say, well, actually science has this great track record. And then people would sometimes say, Oh, but scientists are always getting it wrong.
And so I thought, well that's kind of interesting that people think that, cause that's not my impression as a historian. So sometimes I would query people and say, well, what do you thinking of? Like what's an example where scientists have got it wrong? And actually most times people had no answer. They just had some kind of vague sense that scientists were getting things wrong.
So that raises some interesting questions about where that comes from. But if I would press my interlocutor if they had anything to say, it was almost always about nutrition. Well, there's a lot of reasons why nutrition is a problematic science, and we know that now much more clearly than we did when Eric and I wrote Merchants of Doubt.
There's been giant amounts of disinformation in the nutrition space from the food industry, and this is continuing today. So there's a lot of disinformation that has led to confusion about nutrition because in reality, the science about nutrition, it's actually not that complicated. But nevertheless, the point is, if you actually looked at the history of science, what you find is that actually scientific results have held up incredibly well and incredibly wide range of circumstances. So the reason to trust science is actually because scientists are doing something right. So then the question becomes, well, what is it that they're doing right? And so what I argue in the book is if you look at the rare cases where we would say, in hindsight, did scientists actually really did get it wrong?
In almost all cases, you find that actually there was no consensus. So it was not the case that scientists like all agreed the earth was flat or all agreed X or Y or Z, whatever example you want to use. Actually, when you look at these cases, you almost always find that there was a robust argument. There was disagreement in the scientific community.
The scientists didn't actually come to agreement on the subject. And so that tells us that agreement is actually really important. That consensus is a really important category of analysis because it tells us when scientists have come to agreement. And so, if scientists have worked hard and done all these different things and had a free and open discussion and looked at the evidence and finally come to agreement, well, it turns out that's hard to do.
But if they actually get there, it's telling us that what they're concluding is probably right. And this is a difficult thing for a lot of people to accept because it's not that satisfying a way. Like we'd like to be able to say, Oh, scientists have the truth because they used the scientific method, but that's actually wrong.
What it really is is that we actually don't know what the truth is. And we don't have any way of knowing, and there's huge reams of philosophical discussion going back to Plato on this issue, but what we can say, what we can identify are places where scientists have come to agreement. And so I argue in the book that this is why consensus is such an important category.
It's not because I want to shut down dissent or anything ridiculous like that. It's because it's a proxy for truth. We don't actually have access to truth, but what we do have access is the agreement of experts who have worked really, really hard to try to figure out the answer to a really tough question.
Jason Jacobs: So as it relates to climate, what areas are there broad consensus and where is there still disagreement?
Naomi Oreskes: General consensus on many issues and climate change. And of course it's a moving target because the areas of agreement have got bigger over time in general, but absolute agreement, no question about the fact that the climate is changing.
Absolute agreement no question about the fact that the principle driver of that is the increase in greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere and absolutely no question general agreement that there are two major drivers of the increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. One is burning fossil fuels. That's about 60%. And the other is deforestation and other land use changes, which include agriculture. That's about 40% . There is no substantive scientific disagreement in the community about any of that. Also, broad agreement about the impacts of climate change. This is where it gets a little trickier because the impacts are very complicated and people always like to say climate science is complicated.
I actually don't think that's really true. I think all those first three things I just said are actually pretty straightforward because they all come out of basic physics. Where it gets complicated is the impacts, because then you get into the complexities of the earth as a system, the feedbacks between the atmosphere, the ocean, the biosphere, and so figuring out how climate change impacts any particular one place on earth is a tough question.
And so if you go back, say to Jim Hanson, 1988. Well, let's say 1992 let's say the time of the UN framework convention on climate change. There was already a broad scientific agreement that climate change was probably underway, but there was not yet agreement about how it was going to play out, what was that going to look like in detail and when would it happen?
So this is what I've referred to as the tempo and mode problem. Tempo, how fast will it happen? And mode, how will it express itself? So now if we fast forward to the present, so was 2020 actually a lot of this has been answered too. So one of the things we know is it's happened actually a lot faster than most scientists thought.
So I've written about this climate deniers love to accuse scientists of being alarmists. But what we can now say almost certainly is that. In fact, not only were scientists not alarmist, but they were actually probably a little too conservative. The whole thing is playing out faster than predicted.
Certainly things like the loss of Arctic ice is happening faster than predicted, so there are still things we're not sure about. If you were to ask a scientist to say exactly like in what year will all Arctic ice disappear? No, that's not a question that a climate scientist can answer for a variety of technical reasons, but are we confident that if we continue going the way we're going, there'll be no ice in the Arctic in the summer, sometime in the relatively near future. Like your children's lifetime. Yes, we can say that. Other areas of disagreement? Well, I'd say most of the disagreement really now is about policy. It's really about what to do about it.
So it's some of these questions like you just asked, should we be trying to work with the fossil fuel industry or should we be trying to take a different strategy? But that's not a scientific question. So when I hang out with scientists, mostly what they're arguing about over beers is are these sort of policy and strategy questions, which are really not scientific questions at all.
So I would say the major scientific questions have been largely answered. There are some technical details. I mean, if we get into the weeds about how we know whether a particular storm was made worse by climate change. Again, we can say we know for sure that many storms, including specific storms like Superstorm Sandy, were made worse than climate change.
There are disagreements in the community about the best way to analyze that. So there's still arguments about methodologies, but in terms of the kinds of questions that my guys raised that behind you on the walls, a chart of discussions about climate change in the 1960s. It maps out scientists trying to communicate to government leaders what they knew, and it begins if you look closely on the left hand side, you can see 1956. Weather control. So if I think about all the things that those guys were worrying about in the 1960s I would say almost all the big questions that they were posing in the 60s have been answered.
Jason Jacobs: In terms of the body of your work, how much time do you spend thinking and writing about the potential solution set versus the problem of climate change?
Naomi Oreskes: It's a bit of a mix because it depends how you define the problem and how you define the solution. So about five years ago, I got tired of thinking about problems and decided I wanted to think about solutions in part because frankly, it's too depressing to sit around thinking about the problems all the time.
And I started getting invitations that went like this. We really want you to come and speak to us. Your message is so important to our community. But could you please try to end on an optimistic note? And you know, this is a very strange kind of invitation to get where someone tells you that you have to be optimistic, whether you actually are or not.
So I started thinking harder about where was the grounds for optimism in this space. And I think the answer to that is technology. I think we have very good evidence that. Many of the technologies that we need to solve this problem already exist. Some of them even exist at scale, although most of them need to be scaled up.
So I mean, if you've driven a Tesla, you know, it's a fantastic car, but we need to convert the whole fleet from what we have now to great electric cars on a range of things, including trucks and the whole nine yards. So it's a scaling problem. So how do you do that? So I did two things about five years ago.
One is I started teaching the history of technology. So I changed what I teach. So I don't teach as much history of science as I used to do. And I now teach a year long class on the history of technological innovation because I'm really interested to understand better what do we actually know from history about how technological innovation works?
Cause it, you know, you've been in Silicon Valley, this is a space in which there's a lot of myth and there's a lot of hype. And there's my opinion and kind of a shortage of actually good evidence. So I'm getting my students to think about what we can learn from the history of technology and then use that to think through what approaches are more likely to be beneficial than others, let's say.
But then the other thing is that there's a question where the solution, the problem get merged because I think that the science of this issue is largely resolved. Then... The solution isn't more science. The solution is breaking through the political obstacles...
Jason Jacobs: To do what?
Naomi Oreskes: To implement the policies that would make a difference.
So for example, the whole point of putting a price on carbon is to send it messaged the marketplace, a strong message to the marketplace to encourage people to use and develop low carbon fuels and to stop using so many high carbon fuels. So it's about the right policies. It's in the right place to those to marketplace to support the right kinds of technology and innovation, right?
So why can't we get those policies? I mean, 20 years ago, I can remember people saying, Oh, well, put a price on carbon. It's simple as straight forward, it'll solve the problem. Well, that's great. And so I was convinced, I'm totally price on carbon. I love those people at the Niskanen center. But guess what?
Here we are 20 years later, we still don't have a price on carbon on the federal level, and we don't have any most States either. And why don't we have, and it was supposed to be simple and straight forward, and it was supposed to be saying that conservatives would support, but guess what? That didn't happen.
Why not? Well, I would argue it didn't happen largely because the political obstacles, because every time we started to get close the fossil fuel industry and their allies fought against it, like what happened in Washington state last year. So that tells us that the solution is to break through the political obstacles.
So in that sense, the solution, the problem are not different. They're actually the same. And so I hired a postdoc a few years ago to work with me on this question, and I thought we would write a book. The plan was to write a book that would be the companion to The Collapse of Western Civilization, which would be like how we saved Western civilization.
And every time we tried to write it, and we sat down many times and we did all this review of the technology and we read all those reports about a hundred percent renewables or 80% renewables and lead. We've read all the fights between Mark Jacobson and all the other people, and it all started to seem silly because whether we could achieve a hundred percent renewables or 80% renewables isn't really the question.
I mean, if we could get to 80% we'd be in a really, really good place because if we got to 80 the other 20 would probably work itself out in the fullness of time. I mean, once 80% of Americans switched from horse and buggies to cars. You didn't have to incentivize the remaining 20% cause then basically the only people left in horses and buggies are Amish.
So I don't think arguing about 80 or a hundred is really productive. We can't even get to 30 and what are the obstacles to getting to 30 and every time we look closely at that, we kept coming back to the politics. So my postdoc is kinda gone back to doing more work on the politics. So I'm kind of upset because I had this vision, we were going to write this happy, upbeat book that was all about all this great technology and how it's all there and we just need a carbon tax or a few of the right policies and we'll get it all.
And that just doesn't feel like an honest answer right now. So that's kind of where I'm at.
Jason Jacobs: Well, there's no way we're going to get through all the things on my punch list here. We could probably do a full episode for each one, but I have some thorny topics that would be great to just bang through if you're game.
So one, do you find the perspective of, say, David Wallace Wells with Uninhabitable Earth or gem Jem Bendell with Deep Adaptation. Are these perspectives alarmist and overblown or are things really going to get that bad?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, we don't know. Nobody knows, but I think they're important to be part of the conversation.
I think we have to confront the possibility that it could really be that bad cause I think if you don't understand that, that's a realistic possibility. You know, you're just back to like, I've got to pay my bills and get the kids to soccer.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Well given that, I'm curious, I read an article recently.
That you co-wrote about a nuclear technology and how it shouldn't be compared with coal, but it should be compared with renewables and how it doesn't make sense to invest in nuclear technology. I guess my concern. When I hear that is that when you do decommission nuclear, you aren't actually accelerating the renewables transition.
You are swapping out nuclear for oftentimes natural gas. So given that if we decommissioned nuclear, it's not actually going to accelerate renewables. It's going to accelerate natural gas.
Naomi Oreskes: Okay. This is a lightning round, so you have to keep your questions short. Okay. So this is a super complicated topic, and I am not in favor of decommissioning existing plants, and I have never said that I am.
I think the existing plans should continue to operate, but I don't think we should be investing a massive initiative in nuclear as the solution to climate change. And the main reason I say that is because of history, because this is a technology that we tried and it failed. So, to bet the bank on something that has not worked based on some promise that somehow you can get it right next time.
Well, I think the burden, again, this is a lightning round, so I'm giving you a very abbreviated answer and probably upset a lot of people. We could spend it more than a full hour on this, and actually I'm teaching this in two weeks time, so why don't you come to class. Because we're going to all get deep, deep in the history of nuclear power and why it worked in France and why it didn't work in the United States.
But nuclear power has never lived up to the promise. It's never been cheap. It's never been affordable, and it's never been truly safe. So all the people who say that in the future, it will be those things. I think the burden of proof is on them to make the case. Well, how are you going to make it safe and affordable and build it quickly in the future?
Because we've never achieved that in the United States. Again, lightning round. So I'm talking fast here. The only place in the world. That has ever got the lion's share of its electricity from nuclear power without a major accident is France. And they did it in a nationalized electricity industry. So here's my question to the advocate of nuclear power United States.
Is that a realistic model for the United States? Are you prepared to nationalize the electricity industry, which Bernie Sanders is, but I don't think most of the advocates of nuclear power are because that's the only model we have for successful nuclear power.
Jason Jacobs: And the nuclear advocates that are listening.
And I know there are some, Naomi is looking you in the eyes when she says that.
Naomi Oreskes: Exactly. And I'm happy to have this conversation. And like I say. Any of you are welcome to visit my class in two weeks time where we talk about this issue, but I mean this, we know a lot about the history of nuclear power and we know something about why it hasn't lived up to expectations.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, let's keep the lightning round going. So on that topic given things could get pretty bad. What about things like direct air capture, carbon capture and storage, carbon removal and that whole genre? Cause the IPCC says we're going to need a lot of it and that we don't know yet where it's going to come from.
Naomi Oreskes: I know this is one of things about the IPCC that drives me a little crazy because. They've gone into the realm of speculation, if not science fiction here and I, I have some disagreements with the IPCC about how they dealt with it, but my view on those things is we absolutely have to be researching them for sure.
They have to be on the table. I think direct air capture, I don't have any objection to it except that it will be expensive. So then the question is, how does that compare to, say trying to build out the electricity...
Jason Jacobs: Aren't the fossil fuel companies best positioned to bring something like direct air capture to life?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, that's the other interesting thing, right? So if you're talking about not necessarily direct air capture, but the storage part, and again, this is where personally, I mean, carbon capture and storage is something that as a geologist, I believe could be made to work. Because I believe we know that you can actually store fluids in the subsurface, but, and here's the but.
This is why I get actually angry about people who spout off stuff without doing their homework. I'm a professor. Don't come to class without doing your homework. We can put fluids in the subsurface, but it requires something called site characterization. You have to do the work to figure out where in the world you can do it safely, and you can't just put the fluid into the ground.
It's got to stay there, which means there's a certain kind of work you have to do to demonstrate either with the actual prototypes or numerical simulation modeling to demonstrate that it will actually stay where you put it. And that work has not yet been done. I think it should be done. I think it needs to be done.
But then you've got this whole big question of who's going to pay for that? And many of the advocates of this have not actually thought through what that looks like. And again, then we get back to something that conservatives often don't like, which is government. But my view is that I don't think you can do the kind of site characterization that we're talking about on the scale is required without some kind of government incentive or program.
And the other thing, again, look at Yucca mountain. We tried to do the site characterization to store nuclear waste in Nevada, and that was not a success. So again, let's think this through, we know something about how these things work and don't work. I think this could be done in a way that would work, but I have yet to see any serious proposal on the table.
That, to my mind, really take seriously the lessons of Yucca mountain in order to do this right.
Jason Jacobs: Solar geoengineering research.
Naomi Oreskes: Nah, that I'm against because part of the issue here is the cost and the benefit and the risk. So I'm in favor of research on carbon capture and storage because I think if we could get it to work, we could make it do it safely.
And I think the risks are relatively low. I mean, there are some risks. It's not risk-free. Almost nothing in life is risk-free. And this is where the site characterization comes back. You have to make sure you're not doing an areas where you're over pressure and create earthquakes. Again, this is where things do get complicated.
There isn't a simple answer. The solar geoengineering, I'm opposed to, because I think the potential risks are very, very grave, and we have some evidence to support that. And also because I think the governance issues are basically insurmountable. Again, lightning round, so I can't really go into great details and most of all, because even if we could make it work, and even if we could figure out how to do the governance.
It doesn't address ocean acidification. So the only way to solve this problem. Because climate change isn't just climate change. It's carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but also in the oceans. The only way to solve that is to get the out of the atmosphere, which means we have to stop putting it in and maybe take out some of what's already there.
The solar geoengineering doesn't solve that.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Well, last question of the lightning round, and then we have a couple final questions to get through. Then I'll let you get on your way, but we talk a lot about impact and how we need big, bold solutions that disrupt the current way of doing things and move forward aggressively in the timelines that we need. And at the same time, in order for those solutions to have that kind of impact, they need to get enacted into law. And in order to get policy done, it needs to get approved. And we live in polarized times, so I guess my question is, do you believe that it is important for climate policy to have bipartisan support in order for it to be durable?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, yes and no. I mean, again, if you look at history, obviously if you can get bipartisan support, that's always better because it's more likely to be lasting. But you don't need unanimity. I mean, a lot of major changes in this country were pushed forward through a lot of opposition, but yet. Now we go back.
I don't think there's too many people in this country who would, well, it probably some, but I don't think there's too many people who would think we should take away voting rights from African Americans, even though that was deeply controversial at the time. So I think politics is about coalitions. It's about building the coalitions that get you over the 50% mark, and then you build social acceptance alongside that.
So that over time, things that seemed radical at first, like women's rights or gay rights come to seem normal. So I think the whole bi-partisan thing, it's relevant, but I think it's not as relevant as some people think. Yeah, of course, you should always try to be bi-partisan if you can, but I also think you have to recognize that sometimes in life.
I mean, this is a controversial thing to say, but I think it's true. Sometimes there are real enemies. Nobody said we should sit down and try to negotiate with the Nazis. Well, actually somebody did. Neville Chamberlain and look what happened to him, right? I mean, you know, Neville Chamberlain is this reviled character in history because he thought he could negotiate with Adolf Hitler.
And guess what? That didn't work. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that people are not operating in good faith. People are not trustworthy. And I think that the tobacco industry proved itself to be that. And that's why tobacco control advocates came to conclusion they couldn't work with them. And I think there are some people in the climate change space that are like that.
And we have to acknowledge that and we have to say, look, these people cannot be trusted. These people have lied to us. These people have done everything they could to protect their own self interest no matter who they hurt. And those people are not credible partners. Lots of other people could be credible partners, and I think there are plenty of them out there.
So I don't think we need the coal industry, for example. I think we do need Elon Musk, and I think we do need the electronics industry. You didn't ask me this, but one lightning round question I got is like, what's the source of optimism here? Especially if I don't like geoengineering? Well, there was a really great study...
Jason Jacobs: We'll geoengineering wouldn't be a source of optimism. I mean...
Naomi Oreskes: Well, for some people it is. Some people think, Oh, we'll solve it this way. But it's a kind of optimism though. It's a kind of techno optimism. But there was a really great paper published a few years ago, I think it was in nature, climate change by a group of people.
I was a collaboration of people at NOAA, and the national renewable energy lab, McDonald was the first author, and basically what they demonstrated was that you could meet the electricity needs in the United States with existing nuclear and gas, but no more, no extra nuclear gas. And renewable energy.
But the key was grid integration. Now that's a kind of optimistic story. I talk about this a lot cause I don't understand why this study hasn't gotten more attention because integrating the grid is something that we know how to do and a sign that the federal government did once and could do again. Now you're right, the present political moment is not exactly right for it, but things can change a lot in short periods of time.
So I don't think it's pie in the sky to think that with the right political coalition. Particularly considering how a lot of red States would benefit from this. Like a state like Utah could benefit hugely from this because Utah has huge potential for solar and wind power and lots of empty space. I say that because I spend a lot of time in Utah, I've actually gone on field trips to some of these places with grid integration.
You could satisfy a tremendous amount of the energy amount of this country with renewable energy. And that's an optimistic story. It means we don't need a technical, logical miracle. We don't need to geo engineer the atmosphere. It's a relatively safe thing. And it could be done and it could be done pretty quickly.
I mean, it wouldn't take 50 years to reengineer the grid, probably take a decade. So there are models in history for how these things could be done. So that's why I take some degree of optimism. And always argue that history is a much more practical and useful subject than people think. I like to think of myself as teaching the apply history of science and technology because there are so many lessons to be learned about what we can do with the right policies, but almost all of them involve the government.
And so that's like my message to friends in Silicon Valley who are anti-government. If you think that this is going to be done by the private sector alone, then I think you're smoking something because we don't have a single good example from the 20th century of a major technological innovation that didn't involve the government in some way and often in a really big way.
Jason Jacobs: So if you had $100 billion and you could put it towards anything to maximize its impact in the climate fight, where would you put it? How would you allocate it?
Naomi Oreskes: I do the grid. I do big smart, integrated grid across the United States, top to bottom right, left and into Mexico and Canada. Get them on board so we can use hydro in Quebec, solar in Mexico, wind in Oklahoma. Everybody's involved. Everybody contributes, everybody benefits, everybody's happy.
Jason Jacobs: And that would be through the government.
Naomi Oreskes: Well, the government would incentivize it. We'd have to figure it out. I mean, the private sector would build it, but the government would play a role in cause you need the government, cause you need to have standards.
All the bits have to match up. I mean, you're the techie, but you know, right. I mean, you gotta make sure that all the standards are uniform. You've got to get the States to agree. If you're going to build a new grid line, you know there's property right issues. I mean, it's kind of like how do we build the railroads.
Federal government played a really big role in the land grants that made the railroads possible. So there'd be land issues. The federal government could play a role in that. So hard to see how any one private sector person could do it alone. That to me is a perfect example of what a public private partnership can really be transformative.
Jason Jacobs: And last question, for anyone who's listening, who is chomping at the bit to work on this problem at the system level and play a big role in helping to figure it out, what advice do you have for them in terms of how they should be figuring out where to anchor?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, I think that depends on what your own talents are.
Students often ask me this question like what should I do? And they'll sometimes say like, should I become a climate scientist? And I always say. No, you should figure out where your interests and talents are. And then that's the point of connection. Because the good thing about this being such a big, complicated issue is that if you're an engineer, you could go work on smart grids or smart appliances.
If you're a lawyer, you could go work on the regulatory issues. If you're a journalist or writer, you could work on the communication and education side. So there are opportunities in this issue everywhere. And I think that means that whatever gets you motivated, that's what you should do.
Jason Jacobs: Anything I didn't ask you that I should have or any parting words for listeners?
Naomi Oreskes: I always ask people that question when I do interviews. I dunno I'm exhausted. I spend 50 years of my life learning to speak more slowly, and now you've got me speaking like the New Yorker that I once was.
Jason Jacobs: Well, this was great. Naomi, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed our discussion.
Naomi Oreskes: You're welcome.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at My Climate Journey dot C O note that is dot C O not dot com. Someday we'll get the.com, but right now, dot com you can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.