Will Coronavirus Change How We Think About Climate Change?

Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes believes the coronavirus may be a 'dress rehearsal' for the climate catastrophe looming on the horizon – and suggests why people want to deny both threats

David Green
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A team of scientists heads through the melting ice of Antartica as it approaches a Chilean station there, in 2015.
A team of scientists heads through the melting ice of Antartica as it approaches a Chilean station there, in 2015. Credit: Natacha Pisarenko / AP

When the Chinese government recognized, albeit belatedly, the threat posed by COVID-19, and imposed a hermetic curfew on Hubei province (and a lesser shutdown of the rest of the country of 1.4 billion), I thought of the book “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” (Columbia University Press). In truth, I often find myself thinking about this 2014 novel by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

It’s not great literature. Its power, rather, lies in its authenticity, even though it purports to be a report written by a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393.

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That date is the tricentenary of the “collapse” – first environmental, then political and cultural – of the West. What was it, asks the report’s anonymous “author,” that paralyzed the United States and its allies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the face of the approaching climate catastrophe? How was it that Americans possessed an understanding of the dangers of atmospheric warming, as well as the resources to avert its worst effects – and yet lacked the political will to act? And why were the Chinese able to survive?

As Oreskes and Conway (both historians of science, she at Harvard, he at the California Institute of Technology) imagine it, China, with its centralized and authoritarian government, had the ability to relocate more than 250 million of its citizens from coastal areas to higher ground, with a mortality rate of “only” 20 percent. While the Chinese acted, brutally but decisively, the Americans continued arguing about whether a problem even existed, while half of Florida became submerged by the sea.

The peculiarly American contempt for science is a subject that has occupied much of Oreskes’ career. In 2010, she and Conway co-authored the book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” which looks at a handful of distinguished men of science who, late in their careers, joined up with the tobacco, chemical and fossil-fuel industries to sow doubt in the public imagination about the proven dangers of their products. For Phillip Morris and ExxonMobil, among other corporations, the goal was clearly profits, but Oreskes and Conway discovered that the scientists were motivated more by political ideology.

Last year, Prof. Oreskes published “Why Trust Science?” (Princeton University Press), a short, scholarly work in which she attempts to understand how science as a discipline has developed over the centuries, and how it establishes its credibility. At the same time, she looks, seriously and without mockery, at how and why public trust in science and its practitioners has been undermined, and what can be done to reverse that trend.

Does a state need to be a dictatorship in order to respond effectively to a looming natural catastrophe? What lessons can already be taken away from the coronavirus drama that might yet help humanity respond to climate change – and what is the likelihood of its doing so?

‘Worst of both worlds’

Naomi Oreskes was the person I wanted to hear address these questions. I tracked her down by phone this week at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was in self-imposed quarantine. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Oreskes. “If you don’t get the ideological piece [of climate-change denial], you won’t understand how it got started in the first place.”
Oreskes. “If you don’t get the ideological piece [of climate-change denial], you won’t understand how it got started in the first place.” Credit: World Economic Forum

Naturally, I thought of “The Collapse of Western Civilization” earlier this year, when the Chinese regime responded so decisively – even if not immediately – to stop the spread of the coronavirus, just as you had it act against climate change in your book. Isn’t it ironic that it’s the undemocratic state that is able to take the action appropriate to save its citizens?

That was the whole point of the book. I sometimes think that’s why the book was more successful in France: The French are much more comfortable with irony.

In the United States [climate-change deniers] said they were defending freedom, defending democracy. The irony is, that, if this turns into a disaster situation, which it will if we continue the way we’re going, we’re going to lose our freedom, one way or the other. And it’s going to be the unfree countries, like China, who are going to be likely to [survive]… So, we [in America] will be in worse shape: We’ll lose both our freedom and our lives, whereas in China, they’ll just lose their freedom. And as you say, the pandemic is proving this.

And the second irony: I think that here in the United States, in a way, we now have the worst of both worlds. Because our government has also lied to us [about coronavirus]. All governments have that potential to lie, whether they’re democratic or they’re authoritarian. But in our case, first they lied and then they mismanaged it.

In China – and I’m not defending China, let’s be clear – the government’s instinct was to lie as well, but then when it became clear that people were going to die, they kicked into gear. They proved to be able to do things that we in the U.S. have been unable to do.

You note that climate-change deniers say they are defending freedom. Is there any reason to believe them? Aren’t they just serving their own, short-sighted economic interests?

You’re saying that I’m being too generous with these people? The answer is that it’s both. Obviously, there’s a huge business interest here, and obviously, companies like ExxonMobil would like to continue making enormous profits. But what Erik Conway and I were trying to do, when we started writing “Merchants of Doubt,” was to answer a question that to us was a bit of a mystery, which was: Why would a group of scientists – Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, who were all very prominent people, who obviously understood the science – why would they risk their professional reputations, and in some cases, betray their colleagues and their science [in denying that smoking causes cancer, and later, that fossil-fuel emissions are driving climate change]?

The obvious thing was to think, they just did it for money. But that’s not what we found. In fact, I never found any evidence that any of these guys even took money personally from the fossil fuel industry. There was no money trail. Instead, there was this big ideology trail. Lots of letters, lots of articles, lots of correspondence, in which they talk about this [Friedrich von] Hayekian view, which is that, if you allow government to intervene in the marketplace, you’re on the road to serfdom and totalitarianism. And all of the evidence suggested that, for them, that was an authentic belief, and that it came out of the Cold War.

In the 1990s, the fossil fuel industries and the libertarian think tanks begin to realize that this is great for them. It gives them ideological cover. It makes them look principled. So, there’s this common cause that emerges in the 1990s, with a toxic blend of money and ideology.

If you don’t get the ideological piece, I don’t think you’ll understand how it got started in the first place. But you also won’t understand the power of it. Most of us understand the concept of a shill, and we understand regulatory capture, and we understand the corporate corruption of government. What we don’t necessarily understand is how the ideology can be used to package the whole thing. In a way, it’s marketing: It makes it look attractive and reasonable. And that, I feel, is a key piece of the story.

In this file photo staff members line up at attention as they prepare to spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on March 24, 2020.
In this file photo staff members line up at attention as they prepare to spray disinfectant at Wuhan Railway Station in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on March 24, 2020.Credit: AFP

Cold War underpinnings

Isn’t there something very American about this philosophy? This individualism, this resistance to having government tell you how to live?

Absolutely. So, part of this story was to understand: Why America? Why is this happening here? Well, it’s two things really. First, the original “merchants of doubt” come out of the Cold War. They accept this Manichean framework, of a cosmic conflict between the evil Soviet empire and the great America, which is characterized by free markets, political freedom, economic freedom – freedom, freedom, freedom. What characterizes the Soviet Union is centralized planning and totalitarianism.

And in their minds, and in the minds of the people they follow, this is a necessary alignment. That is, totalitarianism and a planned economy and communism necessarily go together. That of course is false. And we can unpack all the ways in which it’s not true, but this is what they believed.

But in addition, I think that it works because it taps into this longstanding American individualism, and a kind of deeply rooted cultural commitment in the United States to personal freedom. You know, give me liberty or give me death. Better dead than red.

I used to believe that that was just a slogan. Nobody could really think that. But I actually think that some of these guys really persuaded themselves that living under a Soviet system would be so horrible that you would actually prefer to be dead. Personally, I think that’s nuts. But some of them actually thought that.

This connects to the new book you and Erik M. Conway are writing, correct? What can you tell me about that project?

It’s called, “The Magic of the Marketplace: A True History of a False Idea.” We started tracing back to the origin of why Americans are so committed to the idea that markets are the solutions to all our problems. Because, again, if you look at it objectively, if you look at the evidence, the historical record shows that markets are very good at some things. And they’re very bad at other things: I think that in the United States, we’ve seen that they’re very bad at health care delivery, for example.

Even the most conservative economists recognize the reality of market failure, and we know that climate change is a “market failure.”

So, the book is just trying to understand, where does this belief in the “magic of the marketplace” even come from. I tried to find out who invented that phrase. As far as we can tell, it was Ronald Reagan, or his speechwriters, who came up with it. But what we’ve discovered is a much bigger story that we can trace back to the 1930s and the New Deal, of the American business community actively promoting the idea that big government is bad, the private sector is good, and the whole right-wing idea of low taxation and limited government.

They organized a kind propaganda campaign. In a way, this [new book] is turning into a kind of prequel to “Merchants of Doubt.” This deliberate promotion of an ideological framework that would enable the business community initially just to fight back against the New Deal, but then to fight back against unions, to [pass] the Taft-Hartley Act. It’s a big complicated story.

This Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, file photo shows Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, MT.
This Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, file photo shows Exxon Mobil's Billings Refinery in Billings, MT. Credit: Matt Brown/AP

Interdisciplinary thrust

You’re moving away from science with this, aren’t you? Of course, all of your work has elements of psychology, sociology, economics and history.

It’s more like, each question leads logically to another question. And at a certain point, I realized that this is not just a story about science. Erik Conway and I came to the realization together.

The obstacles to addressing climate change are not scientific. Of course, it starts as a story about science. We wanted to know, who’s fighting the science? Why are they rejecting the science? But then, over time, the more we pursued it, the more we began to see this larger political and cultural history.

I’ve always told my students that I see myself as interdisciplinary. Not in the sense that I have some ideological objection to disciplines. But, think about the big problems of the world: poverty, hunger, inequality, climate change. These are not problems of single disciplines. And so I think that if we really care about the big problems facing the world, we have to not be hamstrung by our disciplinary training. We have to say, okay, this is the question, and I’m going to try to answer it.

Okay, then: What is the connection between the coronavirus and climate change? What is the virus teaching us about the world? And do you have any hope that lessons will be learned in this crisis that may help us to contend with other problems?

The answer to your questions is yes, and yes. I think it’s the obvious question, and I’ve had maybe 15 reporters wanting to discuss this with me this week.

If I believed in an intercessional God – which I don’t – I would say that coronavirus is a dress rehearsal. She’s giving us a chance. This is an opportunity to learn.

Look at it. This is like climate change on fast forward. You have this threat recognized in advance. Already years ago, people said that the United States and the world were not prepared for the next pandemic threat. You even had specific proposals for things that could be done, like stockpiling ventilators. And the government ignored that, mostly. And, then, when it happened, the initial response of our government was to reject the advice of the scientific experts. And to privilege “the economy” – whatever that even is – above protecting the lives of people.

But, at the same time, we also now see the world responding, when the severity of it is recognized. I think that the crisis brings into sharp relief the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” We can act, we know how to mobilize expertise, to mobilize technology. And we now see that the American people and people around the world are great at sacrificing. Whereas, it’s always been said that the problem with solving climate change is that people are not willing to sacrifice.

The RWE Niederaussem lignite-fired power station releases steam, behind two renewable energy producing wind turbines in Bergheim, Germany, Jan. 13, 2020.
The RWE Niederaussem lignite-fired power station releases steam, behind two renewable energy producing wind turbines in Bergheim, Germany, Jan. 13, 2020.Credit: Martin Meissner / AP

People not only can, but will, sacrifice, if they’re given the right information and leadership. What we have to do for climate change is a whole lot less of a sacrifice for most people than this is. We don’t have to self-quarantine, or stockpile things.

But the thing is, it’s not about the people; it’s about the vested power interests. It’s about the control that the fossil fuel industry has over politics in this country. And it’s about figuring out a way to break that stranglehold.

A matter of power

So you think that dealing with climate change doesn’t require changing the way we live our lives, but just changing the way we produce our power?

A: Yeah, pretty much. The bottom line is that climate change is basically driven by two things: It’s a matter of fossil fuel, and of land-use changes and agriculture. And that’s about a 60-40 split.

If you focus on the fossil-fuel piece, it means changing the way we produce and consume energy. And that means, mostly, a switch from carbon-based fuels to renewables. And solar and wind are now cost-competitive on the open market. In fact, they’re cheaper than coal in most places now. I mean, at this moment, everything’s a little crazy with the price of oil.

So, there’s no economic argument against renewable energy. It’s cleaner and safer than coal. And it generates more jobs. So what is the real argument against renewable energy? There’s really only one argument, and it’s the intermittency problem. The sun doesn’t shine at night, the wind doesn’t always blow. But that can be solved with energy storage, and right now, energy storage is not cost-competitive. So, to my mind, the answer is pretty clear. The government should have the equivalent of a space program, or a Manhattan Project, or a New Deal – whatever metaphor you prefer. I like the space program because it’s less partisan than the New deal, and I don’t like military metaphors. I think we need an Apollo program for energy storage, and that if the U.S. federal government would commit to that, we could solve the energy-storage problem within the next 10 years.

And then the other piece that would help, would be grid integration. In order to maximize the efficient use of renewable energy, you need to be able to move the energy around from one place to another. It might not be a windy day in California, but it might be windy in Utah. So if we can integrate the electricity grid to move the power around, there’s good evidence that the United States could meet all of its energy needs pretty much with renewables, with grid integration and storage.

So that should be our focus. It’s a very clear technological challenge. It’s totally doable, It’s not like we need to violate the laws of physics to store energy. We know how to do it, but we don’t know how to do it cheaply. That’s where the government piece comes in. Because, I can’t do that myself.

If we look at the other 40 percent [agriculture and land-use changes] – there people have more agency. Because, I can change the way I eat. And I think we’re already starting to see this. I can’t tell you how many of my undergrads are vegans. Thirty years ago, none of them were. And of course, you don’t need to be a vegan. You just have to greatly reduce your consumption of animal proteins. Less cattle. And it’s better for your health anyway.

But again, we face the influence of the beef industry: They’re horrible. They’re doing a lot of thing now that are similar to what the fossil fuel people has done. Funding disinformation about the health effects of food.

As for the problem of deforestation: That brings us back to governments. Why are they letting forests be cut down? It’s complicated, but the bottom line is: We don’t have to cut down forests to be healthy and wealthy. Obviously, we’re not wise.

These are all solvable problems, at least in principle. But up to now, the trend has been to continue to cut forests, to eat lots and lots of beef, and to continue to use lots and lots of fossil fuel.

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