Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science and of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Her writings have exposed the overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, and drawn attention to corporate efforts to undermine this knowledge. Her new book, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, is The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market.
What is the single most important action you think the public, or a specific company or government, needs to take in the next year to advance the climate agenda?
Because the climate crisis is now upon us, for governments and business it is crucial not to be distracted by “solutions” that might work down the road but take too long to implement, and/or lock in fossil-fuel dependency. For citizens, we need to reject the claim that the climate crisis is best addressed by private sector innovation. Climate change is a market failure; history shows that the most effective solutions to market failure involve the “visible hand” of government. None of the major technological breakthroughs of recent history were produced by the “invisible hand” alone. They all involved a major component of government action in the marketplace. So we need to accept that government policy is essential to solving this problem.
What is a climate technology that isn’t getting the attention or funding it deserves?
Energy storage and grid integration need more attention. The safest, most available, and cost-effective energy solutions are solar and wind, but their usage is limited by intermittency. However, this can be addressed by energy storage. I’d like to see the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories system embark on a Manhattan Project-style effort to produce environmentally sound, cost-effective energy storage in the next five years. Intermittency can also be addressed by grid upgrades and grid integration. When we think about renewables in isolation, intermittency is a problem. But if we consider the country as a whole, we realize that, at any given moment, somewhere in the country, the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, so we can solve intermittency by moving power across high voltage power lines. The federal government built most of our existing rural electricity grid in the 20th century through the Rural Electrification Agency; it could now build the 21st century equivalent. This would also bring jobs and economic activity to rural America.
Where should climate activism go in the next year?
It will be crucial to build on the framework established in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. This will include opposing infrastructure that will lock in fossil-fuel energy for decades to come and carbon capture and storage projects that are adjuncts to fossil-fuel production. It will also be crucial not to allow new forms of denial to take hold. We are already seeing examples, such as the false claim that off-shore wind kills whales and that restrictions on gas stoves are the latest excuse by liberals to control our lives and deny our freedom. Scientists will have to work with climate activists to block the spread of such misleading narratives.
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