Friday, September 26, 2008

The Oreskes-Nierenberg thingy

This is very inside-baseball climate blogging, so normal humans might not be interested in reading it. I don't even reach a final conclusion, so even more reason not to bother with this. Still, I've tried to understand the Oreskes-Nierenberg controversy with some difficulty, and here's what I've got so far:

Naomi Oreskes is a respected science historian, hated by climate denialists for her work charting a lack of scientific controversy over climate change.

William Nierenberg was a respected physicist who, very late in his career, became an extreme climate change skeptic and helped found the George Marshall Institute, a worthless denialist spin machine. His son, Nicolas Nierenberg, understandably attempts to defend his reputation.

This fight, unlike others, isn't a standard Oreskes-versus-denialists.

Oreskes traces the beginnings of climate denialism to a National Academy of Sciences report published in 1983, saying the science in the report was fine and appropriately frightened, but Nierenberg's synthesis of the report ignored the science (she makes a similar version of this argument here and I believe in a forthcoming book, but I haven't focused on those). This presaged even more emphatic moves by the George Marshall Institute and countless other ideologues to deny the science.

There's much Sturming and Dranging over other stuff, but the question of ignoring the science is the key - so is Oreskes right? To my knowledge, she's done more work on the historical issues than anyone, so her fairness is an important issue. And unfortunately, the report that's the basis of all the argument isn't online. The Executive Summary is online though, and it clearly doesn't ignore the science. To the extent Oreskes can support her argument from the summary, I think it really comes down to this excerpt:

(b) We do not believe, however, that the evidence at hand about CO2-induced climate change would support steps to change current fuel use patterns away from fossil fuels. Such steps may be necessary or desirable some time in the future, and we should certainly think carefully about the costs and benefits of such steps; but the very near future would be better spent improving our knowledge (including knowledge of energy and other processes leading to creation of greenhouse gases) than in changing fuel mix or use. (Chapters 1, 2, 9)

So the question is whether Chapters 2 and 9 support Nierenberg's point (not Chapter 1, though - see below). If they don't, there's not much left of Oreskes' argument (maybe the full synthesis has more science-twisting, but the Executive Summary is what everyone reads). William's posted some pages from the report here, maybe he'll do more. Or maybe I'll finally get down to the Stanford library and look it up myself.

One last note - I know from experience that newspaper editors will sometimes edit Op-Eds without notice to authors, so problems with Oreskes' Op-Ed might not be all her fault.

UPDATE: See Nicolas Nierenberg's (NN) comment to this post. He points out that Chapter 1 is the synthesis chapter written by William Nierenberg (WN). Since that chapter is only supposed to synthesize the work of others, Summary Point 20(b) has to accurately reflect Chapters 2 and 9. I've edited this post to reflect that.

Also, at least one of the chapter authors was mad at WN:
As far as the summary statement of the Report was concerned, as the Preface states: there were "no major dissents". That means no one chose to fight with the chairman. It was poor, sickly job, deliberately made so for political reasons characteristic of the corruption of governmental purpose in the Reagan regime. Naomi Oreskes has it right.

UPDATE 2: Nicolas adds that Ausubel, not WN, is the primary author of the synthesis.

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