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Difference Maker

Naomi Oreskes: fierce defender of climate change science – and scientists

Naomi Oreskes has become a leading voice in defense of the science underlying global warming and the scientists who are researching it.

By Randy Dotinga/ Correspondent / July 18, 2011

Naomi Oreskes, a historian who studies scientific findings and funding, was drawn into the emotional debate around global warming after she publicly stated that climate change is a settled scientific fact.

Will Parson/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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San Diego

Postcard after postcard came addressed to Naomi Oreskes after she wrote her first book on how scientists study the movement of continents.

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A groundswell of attention, perhaps? Not exactly. Her mother wrote them all, dashing off each postcard after finishing a chapter. Outside the worlds of science and academia, the book didn't attract much attention.

But 12 years later, the Manhattan-raised historian is traveling a much more public path, drawing both praise and condemnation. She's a fierce defender of scientists and a leader in the vanguard of those who strongly advocate that the world must acknowledge and deal with global warming.

"Professor Oreskes has turned vilified scientists into the heroes they deserve to be," says John Abraham, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She's performing a service regarding global warming by showing "how a few organized and influential people were able to confuse the country long after the science was settled," he says.

Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, acknowledges that she's trying to save the world. Earlier, though, her goal was simpler. She wanted to understand scientists by studying their past, in terms of both their findings and their funding.

"What difference does it make who pays for scientific research?" she says. "I'm interested in how scientists decide they have enough evidence to say they know something, and what difference it makes who pays for the work. We want science to be objective and neutral, but someone has to pay for it, and there's that old cliché about whoever pays the piper chooses the tune."

After writing about continental drift and plate tectonics, Oreskes began focusing on the efforts of oceanographers.

They were working to better understand the relation between the ocean and the atmosphere. In the process, they uncovered signs of global warming.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is unbelievable, there's this whole history that no one talks about,' " she says. "People have no idea how old the science [of global warming] is."

In 2004, Oreskes wrote a brief paper in the influential journal Science debunking claims that scientists disagreed about global warming. Instantly, she found herself at the center of an emotional dispute. News media cited her work, as did the Al Gore movie "An Inconvenient Truth."

Then, as now, Oreskes offers a simple message backed by extensive documentation: There is no scientific debate over climate change. None, zero, zip.

"The science is stable, the science is real, and there's no reason to doubt climate change," she says.

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