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

Historians in the News

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

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

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

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

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

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