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Oreskes and Conway do the end of the world

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have penned a rather strange article in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay, we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future. The occasion is the tercentenary of the end of Western culture (1540–2073); the dilemma being addressed is how we–the children of the Enlightenment–failed to act on robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold. Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy. Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind–even those involving imminent threats. Here, our future historian, living in the Second People’s Republic of China, recounts the events of the Period of the Penumbra (1988–2073) that led to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2074).

The sci-fi bit is just millenarian mumbo jumbo of course, but I was amused by some of the more historically oriented stuff.

The year 2009 is viewed as the “last best chance” the Western world had to save itself, as leaders met in Copenhagen, Denmark, to try, for the fifteenth time since the UNFCCC was written, to agree on a binding, international law to prevent disruptive climate change. Two years before, scientists involved in the IPCC had declared anthropogenic warming to be “unequivocal,” and public opinion polls showed that a majority of people–even in the recalcitrant United States–believed that action was warranted. But shortly before the meeting, a massive campaign (funded primarily by fossil fuel corporations, whose annual profits at that time exceeded the GDPs of most countries6), was launched to discredit the scientists whose research  underpinned the IPCC’s conclusion.7 Public support for action evaporated; even the president of the United States felt unable to move his nation forward.

The references given are:

6 At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.
7 [This is just the COP15 home page].

It's extraordinary how this "massive campaign" by fossil fuel interests has gone almost entirely undocumented. There is, to the best of my knowledge, virtually no evidence to support the claim at all. It is something of an indictment of the standards in academia that this kind of conspiracy theorising goes unremarked and entirely unchallenged.

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Reader Comments (91)

So the scientific method that served humanity well for centuries is now "an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims". Claims, mind, not evidence. This is no different than druidism. A self viewed "elite" who know the secrets of the universe and whose claim to do so brings them influence and keeps them very well fed, clothed and at the top of the tree. Challenge their "knowledge" and you will be damned by history. Quite pathetic.

And the fossil fuel funded campaign mantra is again trotted out as it has been for years. This is full on tin foil hattery.

Truly there is no basis upon which we should take these people seriously. They will in fact be viewed by history as the hokey opportunistic "shamans" of our time.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterRB

I write science-fiction.

Theirs is a FAIL.

And, you are right: I've never seen them produce so much as a single 'big oil' or 'big coal' paycheck, from ANY skeptic on the face of the Earth. Not a single tax document. Not a single skeptic computer hard drive exposed to the light of day, containing thousands of 'big oil' emails.

And no one Ever will.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter

Planet Zog.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:19 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

RB: "druidism"

I think it is more gnosticism ...

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterrobert

wow! just sad these people are.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:33 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Both science fiction writers and historians write stories!. Their goals may be to predict/understand future/past developments, but they remain stories. The most important question therefore remains: what will we (society) do with it. As decision makers have stakes in certain stories not much can be expected from the societal learning curve.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:33 AM | Unregistered Commenteroebele bruinsma

"It is something of an indictment of the standards in academia that this kind of conspiracy theorising goes unremarked and entirely unchallenged."

Wheres Lewinsky and the rs when you need them.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:35 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

This is a rather trying approach to fiction. The writers imagine that they are right about everything and describe a dystopian future that emerges as a result of their not being taken sufficiently seriously. If their grasp of history is so weak that they think Western Culture started in 1540, it is little wonder that people ignore them when they get apocalyptic about the future.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

I almost feel sorry for them. Their loony-tunes belief in imminent global catastrophe brought about about evil, cackling corporations that swamped their valiant efforts to alert us to our fate would be embarrassing if written by a 15-year old. And they expect, amid their self-serving posturing, to be taken seriously?

What is the significance of 1540 as the apparent birth of Western culture?

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterAgouts

Just to note that Bhutan's pursuit of Gross Domestic Happiness has included the ethnic cleansing of almost 20% of its citizens who had the misfortune to be ethnic Nepalis.

Shangri-La it is not.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

confused - it is quite legitimate for historians to postulate about conspiracy theories. See here

However they do run a risk of becoming conspiracy theorists themselves. Naomi Oreskes is an activist who appears to be blind to issues with her own work for example the tussle with Nicholas Nierenberg

with even people like William Connolley deciding she had crossed a line

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered Commenterclivere

There is, to the best of my knowledge, virtually no evidence to support the claim at all.

Agreed though a scrap of "evidence" was found in Heartland Institute accounts recording a donation from IIRC an oil-based multi-national. Whatever one thinks of The Heartland, the point simply did not withstand serious scrutiny, not that that stopped many making hay with it. (That damn-fool stunt by Heartland managers didn't clarify the argument any but that's another story.)

What cannot seriously be disputed is that both sides of what passes for "debate" on AGW like to wallow in specious nonsense. For example, no-one has produced a shred of evidence (least of all James Delingpole, who even wrote a book on the topic) to support the notion that the AGW hypothesis evolved as some sort of "leftist" displacement activity following the collapse of the Soviet Union but the notion is aired time and again here and elsewhere.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveB

So what were the actual manifestations of the 'massive campaign to discredit climate scientists?'.

I don't recollect reading any articles or posters or adverts or radio or TV programmes doing such a thing. What did the evil corporations actually spend their huge resources on? A city-wide snow machine for Copenhagen?

And whoever did it, I doubt the total budget for Climategate was much above a couple of hundred quid. Probably a lot less.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

There is, to the best of my knowledge, virtually no evidence to support the claim at all.

Ha ha. Bish, we all know that you are being paid to say this, as I'm sure it-that-cannot-be-named would be the first to point out.

After all, if we all knew about the secret conspiracies, they wouldn't be secret! And I'm sure Lew would conclude that the fact that there is no evidence of secret conspiracies proves that the conspiracies are secret!

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:09 PM | Registered Commentersteve ta

This is hardly Azimov - more like green porn paid for by us. Once again pushing the finish line past our lifetimes so theres no chance of ever having to say you were wrong.

Theres nothing more annoying than articulate children who want to argue every f**king point is there?

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:09 PM | Unregistered Commenterduncan

Serious question...

Can anyone point to serious literature that say for example, correctly and unambiguously correctly outlined major world events in advance.

Say with a time lag of 15-20 years?

Someone sitting in,

1900, predicting the wipe out of a generation, the emancipation of women in Europe, flight, assembly line production of the motor car?
1925, Hitler, ravaging of the planet, the nuclear age?
1935, the rise of iron curtain?
1975, the rise of the internet?
1980, China becoming the driver of consumption?
????, any financial collapse you care to think of?

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

The Great Collapse and Mass Migration? Who's collapsing and where are we going? Sounds like the journey of a bunch of drunks between a nightclub and a kebab shop at 2am on a Saturday morning.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterJit

Well, what's new - most of the previous work from Oreskes has been fiction.

Actually I think this is a spoof article: "The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners,"

Over at New Left Project, Alice Bell is also concerned about the end of the world.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:24 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Ah, they're a certain as any Johovah's Witnesses are. Global Warmery is an unshakeable faith.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrent Hargreaves

Good questions Jiminy. Answer: very few. Though Bernard Levin did predict the end of the Iron Curtain, in a piece for The Times in September 1977, describing how someone like Gorbachev would emerge from within the system and even giving the year as 1989 (based on the French revolution of 1789). He was totally alone in that prediction though. Always a lonely business.

Our host is right to call this ridiculous piece conspiracy theorising. It doesn't go unchallenged here. You hear that, Dr Lew?

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:30 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

At least in Oreske's alternate universe, Hansen and Trensberth are arrested and convicted, and even the SCOTUS throws out the appeal.

Even in bad fiction, good things happen. /sarc

I do not believe that either should be charged, for what its worth.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterLes Johnson

Three hundred climate scientists arrested for "“endangering the safety and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats.”

It sounds like Oreskes has some >interesting< ideas.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:48 PM | Registered Commentershub

Hopefully Oreskes and Conway will have an elongated stay in La-La Land and not trouble us again for some time.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterColonel Shotover

Did you read the part about the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melting, and the 'eustatic refugees' running all over the place? And the part about China surviving the apocalypse due to its having a 'strong government'?

Climate scientists should be kept as far as away from the levers of power as possible.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:58 PM | Registered Commentershub

I see this as not really different from the work of Hansen, Romm, Gore, Greenpeace, the IPCC, etc. They are all peddling derivative, poorly written fiction.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

shub: Oreske's referred to a "strong centralized government", which saved China. And that "selected" liberties need to be taken away.

Can we can call this "Watermelon fiction"? Or perhaps "Watermelon Delusion" woudl be more accurate.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterLes Johnson

When I think of the far-distant future I can't help think that Woody Allen got it right:

Down one road lies disaster, down the other utter catastrophe. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose wisely.

A harmless price of imagination, as long as current power seekers don't take advantage.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:09 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I was especially struck by this:

<I>"the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state."</I>

Apparently Ms. Oreskes is unaware that Bhutan is driving out the largest per capita number of refugees in the world today. It seems that "gross domestic happiness" only applies to ethnic Bhutanese, and not to Bhutan citizens of Nepalese extraction who have lived in southern Bhutan for more than a century. The king of Bhutan, whom Oreskes and Conway appear to admire, is presiding over an ethnic cleansing of major proportions.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Maloney

Bruce Springsteen Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

We're not talking about the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is (apparently) more like fans of Isaac Asimov, radicalized by his promulgation of secular humanism (a.k.a. progressivism). (I hate to think the ongoing debate between fans of Asimov--and secular humanism--vs. fans of Robert Heinlein--true humanists--is behind the descent of climate science into the Abyss--a concept, by the way, much loved by writers of fiction, since the time of the earliest creation myths, like moths to a flame.)

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

'Click to read more...'

With the greatest respect, Your Grace, I'm not sure that I could face it - my BS meter has already gone off the dial.....

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

I thought there was more than a "scrap" of evidence as far as linking "fossil fuel related people/organizations" to "people/organizations with viewpoints different than places like ClimateProgress"

...Something like this, yes?

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterSalamano

Orwell has got it right.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterIbrahim

"Public support for action evaporated"

So what?

Politicians don't always need "public support", as demonstrated by the last Iraq War - they did that anyway, in the face of public opposition. Surely "saving the planet" is a more worthy goal than stuffing Iraq? If the politicians really wanted to do it, they would no it regardless of what Joe Public thinks.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Salamano - hardly surprising - think "Six degrees of separation".

Whoever drew that chart could have found links to ClimateProgress just as easily.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:57 PM | Registered Commentersteve ta

Gunning for some Lew-ny Wolfson Research awards as well are they, or even Fellowships?

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Prior to Copenhagen, Rajendra Pachauri was a speaker at an International Advertiser’s Association seminar in New York, (May 29, 2009). With typical advertising spiel, the talk was reported like this, but I can no longer find the link, not even on wayback, or on the IAA web sites:

“What the Grateful Dead and Dr. Rajendra Pachauri Have in Common - A rapt audience”, by Kelly Stephenson, New York

"…when Dr. Pachauri told members of the International Advertising Association during a special seminar last week in New York that “Advertisement can be a powerful agent of change if focused on information about low carbon products – which will be the products of tomorrow,” you can imagine how the OgilvyEarth attendees scooted to the edge of their seats.

And to light a little fire under our seats, Pachauri told us that we have just a six-year window to stabilize climate change. But he also gave us ample cause for hope. Like OgilvyEarth, he believes there is a viable economic solution to climate change, and that the first step will be the UNFCC’s Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change in December.

And, like Pachauri, we make our living by walking the talk. We’re currently working with the UN and the IAA to develop a campaign – or rather a movement – that will help drive a positive outcome at the conference."

OgilvyEarth is part of the massive global advertising group, Ogilvy and Mather and the Copenhagen campaign was nick-named “Hopenhagen”.

Here is a link to the Ogilvy Mather campaign:

"Recently, OgilvyEarth volunteered to develop a communications strategy and campaign for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP15, to be held in Copenhagen in December of this year. To inform our thinking, we conducted an Eco-Audit with 50 of the world’s thought leaders on sustainability – representatives from major corporations, governments, financial institutions, academia and NGOs in the US, India, China, Brazil and the UK.

We spoke with such eminent figures as Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC; Dr. George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at U.C.Berkeley; Bill Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project; Linda Fisher, the Chief Sustainability Officer at DuPont; Philip Stamp, Sustainable Consumption Manager, DEFRA; Michael Meyer, Chief Speechwriter for the UN Secretary General; Ricardo Voltolini, Director of Idéia Sustentável, Brazil; and Peggy Liu, Chairperson, Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE). We also conducted qualitative research with consumers and an OgilvyEarthscape Audit to determine the “state of green.”"

So how much did all that cost? Or did they do it for free to save the earth. Don't you just love the term "thought leaders"?

In 2012 the India chapter of IAA gave Pachauri a "Green Crusader" award:

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterDennisA

Re Bhutan: Pachauri was there in 2010, notice how he is described as a Nobel Laureate.

"Meanwhile, on the threat from climate change to the Himalayas, Dr Pachauri said, "Although the IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 was withdrawn, the fact still remains that the glaciers are melting and melting fast. It will disappear if not in 2035, in 2050 or 2060.Quite apart from the dates, he said, the fact is that they are melting and forming large lakes, which can pose major threats.

On Bhutan's Himalayas, he said that any projection would be difficult, but that IPCC is working on the fifth assessment report and more information would be available after the assessment."

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterDennisA

Incredible. Literally, incredible.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

Contributory to the 'failure' of ancient civilisations was the failure to evolve and nurture free markets...the classic example being Rome...where 'free markets' and middle class civic virtues were dismantled in the name of centralisation and ever more onerous taxation...and deliberately introduced inflation to enable the centre to control its 'debts' (money devaluation).....and it took 300 years to finally switch off the last light.

So..."Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy"

au contraire chers ideologues!

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterRGH

Salamano: Nice spider diagram. But it proves only that someone can make flow charts.

I would prefer something like a corporations tax returns, or a foundations IRS declarations.

Oh wait. Those only show that most donations go to non-climate isuses; like health care or tax issues.

Even Exxon's infamous 19 million was over a decade ago, and was spread over a decade. It has since given over 100,000,000 to Stanfords Climate research.

To compare, Phil Jones by himself, raised more than the entire amount Exxon gave.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterLes Johnson

Alarmists, you cannot claim that they are going back to science fiction.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Just to be clear, Phil Jones raised nearly as much for climate issues, as Exxon gave. Jones, IIRC, had 17 million via Climategate documents, and Exxon gave 19 million.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterLes Johnson

I propose we write a skeptic version of this future history. The downfall can be of academic science, where being called a climate scientist is the worst put down anyone can imagine worldwide.

I just saw this today:

"Never forget, the “achilles heel” of anyone who’s driving aim in life is to CONTROL the lives of other people is his or her aching need to be taken “seriously”. No tyrant on any level can handle derision, it deflates them utterly by reducing their stature to its proper level in a way which they cannot escape. Imagine if they held an election and everybody laughed - and then went on about their IMPORTANT business."

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Reynolds

End of the World .Not unless little green men travelling thousands of light years across space and time get to us first.

Genuine story i thought they would have deleted it out of Embarassment.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Ms. Oreskes is an Adjunct Professor of Geosciences :) :) :) at Scripps Institution
of Oceanography - as a school as a professor :)
This piece in 'Dedalus' was surely peer-reviewed.... /sarc (hopefully)
Nice bibliography... Seems to be almost scientific. 'Almost' does make a difference.
This 'professor' should read every day Sokal's 'hoax' story to keep herself in the real world.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterWAM

In sixth and last place, comes Naomi Oreskes, that prolific writer of irritating and mind numbingly boring books. They come with a free foldout DNR form just after the halfway point, as an inducement for the compulsive book finishers, who’re by that stage losing the will to live, to keep going. Of the whole field, I always thought she was the weak sister, doomed to finish near the bottom. She somehow managed to underachieve my worst expectations, by beating Lew the ewe worrier into last place


Apr 29, 2013 at 2:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterPointman

Historians will look back and wonder why the likes of Oreskes and Conway were allowed into the community without carers and without proper medication.

Apr 29, 2013 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteveB

I like the way that, according to them, Western civilization started 90 years after the Gutenberg Press, 21 years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci, 36 years after Michelangelo's David, 23 years after the 95 Theses and 4 years after the death of Erasmus.
Complete ignoramuses.

Apr 29, 2013 at 3:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid S


You note that, in 2009, Dr Pachauri told the International Advertiser’s Association that "we have just a six-year window to stabilize climate change" - i.e. until 2015. Yet in 2007 he said:

If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.

Funny that.

Apr 29, 2013 at 3:11 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Agouts, re: 1540

I assume they are referencing Copernicus, although the date of publication of his great book is 1543 (reportedly he held the printed volume on his deathbed). The manuscript was completed in 1539-40 so that may be what they are referencing, although it needed the work of Galileo and Newton in the 17th century to really give birth to a modern science, or even to make the heliocentric view decisive.

Complicated arguments exist about what was and was not "modern" about Copernicus, but much of his work remained immersed in the older tradition even while he offered his heliocentric theory. It is difficult to equate "Western culture" or "Western civilization" with beginning in the 16th century: so much that came before and so much that came after is essential to the discussion. If one wants to talk of "modern science" a lot more than the heliocentric theory is needed......

Apr 29, 2013 at 3:11 PM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

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