The Denial of Global Warming

Yesterday evening, the annual statutory lecture of the School of Cosmic Physics of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies concerned the topic of global warming. Titled ‘The Denial of Global Warming’, the lecture was given by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science and Ajunct Professor of Geophysics at the University of California at San Diego.

Professor Oreskes opened with some alarming statistics – today, 27% of U.S. citizens do not believe the earth is warming at all and 41% of them attribute the warming to a natural cycle. Indeed, Sarah Palin, the republican candidate for U.S. Vice-President, has publicly stated that there is no consensus that global warming is man -made (I was aware of this, and have been shocked by how little attention it has received in the media).

In the first part of the talk, Oreskes gave a brief overview of the history of the study of climate change, with a tight review of the work of Tyndall, Arrhenius, Callender, Gilbert, Plass, Revelle and Keeling. (For the interested reader, there are several good books on this topic, such as The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart, or Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Masin ).

The main points Oreskes drew out were

– the basic physics of atmospheric warming was well understood by the 1930s

– by the 1950s it was clear that absorbtion by water vapour does not overlap with CO2 absorbtion

-by the 1960s it was realised that about 50% of CO2 produced remains in the atmosphere, i.e. does not get reabsorbed by plants or the oceans

– In 1965, Keeling predicted that there would be 25% more CO2 in the atmosphere by the year 2000, a prediction that has come to pass.

All of this science was accepted at the time, with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson acknowledging the seriousness of the threat. In the 1970s, the U.S. government commisioned three seminal reports on possible climate change due to fossil fuel combustion that were accepted scientifically and politically. A consensus had emerged and the only question was how immediate was the threat (note that all this is pre-IPCC).

So what happened? In the second part of the talk, Prof Oreskes addressed the question of why today, so many think the issue has not been settled. Her answer to this is quite blunt – because that is what the public has been repeatably told. Oreskes then described her own research into the growth of a counter-movement that sought to portray that there was no proof of man-made global warming, or consensus on the topic. Her research traced this movement back to to an entity called the George C. Marshall Institute. This was originally set up to enable a small number of physicists to defend President Reagan’s Star Wars program against the mainstream of physics (most physicists ridiculed the program). The goal of the institute was to challenge established science, and it wasn’t long before its members turned their sights to global warming. An intense media campaign was launched with scientists such as Fred Seitz and Fred Singer reguarly publishing prominent articles in the media casting doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming. In particular, Oreskes emphasised how these scientists used the ‘fairness’ of the media in order to promote the views of a tiny minority. By the 1990s, it looked like they were losing the debate, not least due to the activities of the IPCC. In response, Singer and Seitz simply amplified their attacks, with Singer launching a personal attack on the author of a key chapter of the 1991 IPCC report.

At this point, the talk took a somber turn – struck by the similarities between the above campaign and that of the tobacco lobby, Oreskes decribed how she began to dig a little deeper. Lo and behold, she discovered that several of the scientists above had also been involved in the tobacco campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, they had also been involved in campaigns contesting environmental issues such as the hole in the ozone layer. At this point she posed the question of motivation. In her view it was not money (many of thse guys are rich), but ideology. She explained that the common denominator of all these counter-campaigns was an extreme free-market mentality – virulent anti-socialists, what these scientists were determined to avoid was state intervention in any form. Of course, as Oreskes pointed out, this was a fundamentally dishonest discourse, as theirs was a political argument dressed up as a scientific one.

This was the real theme of the talk and it was argued extremely well. At question time, I asked Oreskes her opinion of well-known European climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg (Lomborg no longer disputes man-made warming, but questions the expense and effectiveness of any possible response). Her answer was that just as Singer et al represent the minority (but highly vocal) view in science, Lomborg et al represent the minority but highly vocal view in economics, with most economists believing that the cost of doing nothing will far exceed the cost of action now. (Come to think of it, Lomborg has quite pronounced right-wing views on economics, so perhaps it’s the same virus as above!). At the end of question time, Oreskes wrapped up with an uncomfortable question – what action should scientists take to protect good science from ideology?

Overall, this was a fantastic talk on science and society, with a crucial scientific issue and its impact on society discussed in a clear, straighforward manner. Oreskes for Vice-President!

Update: The journalist and environmentalist John Gibbons has an excellent article on the talk above in today’s Irish Times

P.S. Answer to the Hubble Puzzle (see post below) at the weekend.


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19 responses to “The Denial of Global Warming

  1. Pingback: Free Environment Blogs » - “global warming”

  2. mick

    Mentally disabled people were being sterylized up into the 1970s. Don’t forget the settled scientific consensus on lobotomy too.

    Am I to take it your some kind of eugenics denier or can I count on you to accept consensus in place of falsifiability?

  3. cormac

    The rise of eugenics was an unprecedented example of how a small minority managed to gain ascendancy in a scientific field on purely ideological grounds, however briefly….by contrast, today’s broad consensus on global warming has been built on thousands and thousands of man hours of evidence and analysis

  4. Earl E

    Out of all the planets in the universe, very few probably support life.

    Are we lucky or what?

    Now, what is our goal for humanity?

    Eat dinner until there ain’t no more food.

    Then life will start over again as it has after each climate shift.

    Sometimes lifeforms survive because of the simplicity of their system requirements.

    Extremafiles like the bacteria which survive in volcanic rifts on the sea floor come to mind.

    How often do you think mammals survive climate shift.

    Never. We have no proof that mammals have been around for millions of years do we?

    I ask because I don’t know, but I’ll bet the bigger you are the harder you fall is about as hard as we need to work on an explanation for extinction.

    I, on the other hand, think it would really be cool if humanity could contruct some combination of technologies that allowed for our species to survive a massive climate shift, or even worse, a solar meltdown or asteroid impact.

    But instead, I’ll just settle for scallops wrapped in bacon while we still have cattle and crustaceans.

    We really have it great, right now, don’t we?

  5. Pingback: Global Warming News n Views » Blog Archive » The Denial of Global Warming

  6. Jeff

    The article says that Oreskes wrapped up with the question “what action should scientists take to protect good science from ideology?”

    What an incredible thing to ask!

    What does she mean by “good science?” Doesn’t good science invite dissenting viewpoints? Does good science require defenders such as Oreskes to try to discredit scientists who challenge “good science?” As a notorious example, Oreskes and her ilk tried to discredit those who disputed Mann’s hockey stick graph. In this instance, a couple of things happened. First, the supposedly “good science” was invalidated by a couple of “deniers” whose perseverence breached the defenses of the establishment. Is this the “good science” that Oreskes wants to protect? Second, is anyone who disputes “good science” an ideologue? Who gave Oreskes the authority to proclaim them so? Perhaps she judges them to be “ideologues” on the perceived quality of their funding pedigrees.

    It seems to me that Oreskes has it backward. The better question to ask is: “What should be done to protect ideology from good science.”

  7. cormac

    Hmm..I think the point is that while science thrives on dissenting viewpoints, there comes a point when 99 out of 100 cats are convinced that the evidence points a certain way (of course the evidence may be misleading, but that’s a different point.)
    The fact that good science is built on scientists trying to prove each other wrong does have one unfortunate side effect – that the views of a tiny minority can easily be made to seem that there is a massive dispute where in fact there is almost none.
    For exampe, to my knowledge, the Mann graph is now cosidered correct, despite huge publicity to the contrary

  8. erl

    Oh dear,
    it sounds exactly like this talk she gave in December 2007

    Heavy left wing political:

    Reviewed here:

  9. Jamie

    Two years ago I was a 100% believer in AGW. I decided that it would not hurt to actually “listen” (something most global warming alarmist never do) to what the other side has to say since they are all a bunch of “Loonies, Nazis or Big oil Hacks”, right?

    Wrong! 2 years, 22 books, thousands of internet and newspaper articles and thousands more youtube videos I am absolutely convinced that I had it all wrong.

    AGW is the biggest hoex in the history of the human race!

  10. cormac

    Hope you’re right Jamie.

  11. cormac

    …but I doubt if you are correct. It takes over 6 years to train students to understand scientific data, to evaluate the reliability of the source and to estimate the uncertainty of the data.
    I suspect a great many commentators on climate change assume they have seen all the relevant evidence, and have understood it – a fatal assumption that occurs in no other area of science..

  12. Jamie


    By your logic then has Al Gore been trained to understand scientific data, to evaluate the reliability of the source and to estimate the uncertainty of the data?

    You are correct I have not been trained as a climate scientist but still have eyes and ears and I can see when I am being duped.

    As mentioned before I was a firm believer in AGW. It was practically a religion to me. Any body who would dare to contradict even a tiny bit of the theory I deemed evil or paid off by bid oil. I was so sure of myself that it clouded my judgment. I would dismiss anything other than what I wanted to hear without listening. I’m afraid the same thing is happening to many other people.

    Is all I’m asking is to simply listen to what the other side has to say before you dismiss them as a kook or a big oil hack. Most of the skeptics are neither.

  13. cormac

    I’m not at all sure about Al Gore either! For example, I think his film may have caused climate change to be viewed as a ‘Democrat issue’ – a disaster for someone genuinely concerned with corrective action.

    Re “I was a firm believer in AGW. It was practically a religion to me”, I’m quite sure it did cloud your judgment…such beliefs simply cloud the debate (there are many in the AGW camp who do tremendous damage by overstating the case.)

    I think the best thing is to forget about debates, and concentrate on summaries of the evidence form reliable sources. There seems no reason to believe that IPCC, Tyndall centre and NASA etc are wrong/lying, and therefore there is an onus on society to take their recommendations onboard…

    if they the evidence changes, then great…but i hear no great debate in scientific circles so far..

  14. Jamie

    Then your not listening hard enough. The media is a lap dog for global warming alarmist. Try listening to sources other than, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, BBC and the NY Times.

    GW skeptics are not being given a fair shake by the media. The media love to scare us, fear sells and to a certain extent people like to be afraid.

    Read a book called “Cool It” by Bjorn Lomborg. He uses only IPCC data and proves with this data that most of the dire predictions we hear in the media are untrue or exaggerated. He also proves using IPCC data that the mainstream methods of “fixing” GW will not work at all and in some cases will actually make things worse.

    Alarmist movies like An Inconvenient Truth have pushed the western world into a needless panic. When people are panicked they make very poor decisions, decisions that will affect every person on earth at an unprecedented level especially the most vulnerable among us, the billions of people still living in poverty. The proposed “fixes” for GW will hurt these people the most, needlessly reducing them even further into poverty and killing millions.

  15. cormac

    First: try not not lecture professional scientists on not listening to the media. I don’t know a single professional who pays the slightest attention to any of the outlets you mention.
    I susopect you are incapable of listening to an alternate point of view, but let me try one last time
    1. Bjorn Lomborg is not a scientist, he is a political scientist. He knows as much, and as little, of scientific uncertainty in climate change, as you do.
    2. Bjorn was prosecuted by a Commision for Scientific Truth in Denmark on the basis of scientific mis-statements in his book – he successfully appealed the prosecution on the basis that they were genuine errors, and that his book was not a book on science! Not the most reliable of references..
    3. While skeptics invariably accuse everyone except themselves of having ‘closed’ minds, the real debate is between informed opinion and uninformed.

    Finally, here is a useful excercise: try resticting your comments to this weblog to cosmology. You may find this challenging, if you know little of the subject. The truth is, you probably know about as much real climate science as you do cosmology – yet you feel free to scorn the opinions of the vast majority of experts…

  16. Jamie

    The words “inquisition” and “persecution” come to mind when I think of what the Commission for Scientific Dishonesty attempted to do to Bjorn Lomborg. This was nothing more than a government sponsored group of GW alarmists in Orwellian-esk fashion, attemting to smear Bjorn Lomborg so people would be able to say, “Hey, look, the Danish Commission for Scientific Dishonesty prosecuted him. Even though they lost he still must be dishonest, right?”

    The Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation robustly and completely overturned their ruling, stating:

    “The DCSD’s judgment was not backed up by documentation, and was “completely void of argumentation” for the claims of dishonesty and lack of good scientific practice. The Ministry characterizes the DCSD’s treatment of the case as “dissatisfactory”, “deserving criticism” and “emotional”

    One of the GW Alarmists most used tools is the smear campaign. Next to aligning the skeptic with big oil it is the most used tactic.

  17. cormac

    Worth checking the reviews of Lomborg’s book: reviews by scientists, that is.
    In fainess to Bjorn, it should be pointed out that since the publication of the book, he has publicly adjusted his position on global warming, and on its causes. Sadly, a great many fans remain unaware of this.
    Nowadays, Bjorn is arguing that intervention may be too costly, and not very effective – a different argument entirely (some feel that he ignores the issue of a tipping point), but it is certainly an interesting argument, and a lot closer to his field of expertise.

    Jamie, it is clear to me that the verdict of hardworking, disinterested specialists does not concern you. Instead you label the entire community as ‘GW alamists’, presuming a bias on the part of thousands of scientists . This is not just a rejection of climate science, it is a rejection of the scientific method.

    The pupose of this blog is to present the mainstream, consensus view of scientists on scientific issues, from the Big Bang model to global warming – not to provide a platform for those who reject the current findings of science.
    For this reason, I suggest you direct your comments elswhere – there are plenty of political blogs where your arguments would be more appreciated… Cormac

  18. Jamie


    You are correct that the science is at the root of the whole discussion and the deeper we understand the science of GW the more prepared we will be to make the right decision to solve the problem. But at the end of the day when it’s time for someone to make that decision, that person more likely than not will be a politician or economist not a scientist.

    With that thought I will leave your forum as you requested and thank you for your time. I can understand how busy you must be.