Monday, January 23, 2012

The verdict is in on climate change

 Recently I had jury duty, and during jury selection something remarkable occurred. Early in the proceedings, the judge posed a hypothetical question to the 60 or so potential jurors in the room: "If I were to send you out now and ask you to render a verdict, what would it be? How many of you would vote not guilty?" A few raised their hands. "How many would vote guilty?" A few more raised their hands. "And how many would say you didn't know enough to decide?" Every remaining hand — about 50 people — went up immediately.

That, of course, was the wrong answer, and the judge proceeded to explain why. In the American system of justice, there is a presumption of innocence. Because no evidence had been presented, the state had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and we would have to render a verdict of not guilty. After her explanation, she posed the question again, and (except for a few who clung to guilty and were sent home) we all raised our hands for not guilty.

Jury duty was in some ways difficult, but in one respect, it was easy: We were given clear instructions by a recognized authority and we followed them. No one argued about who had the burden of proof. No one suggested that the judge was not an appropriate authority, or that we should reject her instructions. On the contrary, when the time came to deliberate, we referred on more than one occasion to her instructions, and when the time came to vote, we had little trouble reaching a unanimous verdict. Driving home, I found myself contrasting this with the issue on which I work in my professional life: climate change.

I study the history of climate science, and my research has shown that the think tanks and institutes that deny the reality or severity of climate change, or promote distrust of climate science, do so out of self-interest, ideological conviction or both. Some groups, like the fossil fuel industry, have an obvious self-interest in the continued use of fossil fuels. Others fear that if we accept the reality of climate change, we will be forced to acknowledge the failures of free-market capitalism. Still others worry that if we allow the government to intervene in the marketplace to stop climate change, it will lead to further expansion of government power that will threaten our broader freedoms. More
Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history at UC San Diego and the coauthor of "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming."