Naomi Oreskes

The Pope and the Planet

Air Date: September 23, 2015

Harvard University earth scientist Naomi Oreskes discusses a climate change consensus.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we’re undergoing concern and affect us all.” Those were Pope Francis’s inclusive words in September’s joint session of Congress. A first of its kind: papal dialogue with the American people. Echoing this message of his Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Pope Francis stressed the urgency of the present moment. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. To consider the Pope’s ideas, and the future of the climate movement, we welcome today Harvard University Earth scientist Naomi Oreskes. She recently participated in a four-day Vatican conference on the responsibilities of humanity to sustain nature. In a Melville House Press volume, Oreskes introduced Pope Francis’s call to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. Her research has demonstrated a scientific consensus concerning the effect of human-induced pollution. Oreskes says, “The Pope adamantly rejects a dichotomy of people versus planet,” and that, “It’s all one, the planet, the people on it, the plants, and the animals.” So, I turn now to Naomi. First, to ask her … how she interprets this interconnection that underlies the moral imperative of environmental stewardship in this year of 2015.

ORESKES: I think the way I interpret it is to say that, ultimately, the Pope’s message and the scientific message have come together in a really important and moving way. So, scientists have been saying, for an awfully long time, that we’re all interconnected. Scientists would use the word ‘ecosystem’ to express that idea. Obviously, people can’t survive without air and water, and we rely on plants and animals for food, and plants and animals rely on us to preserve their habitats. So, that’s not exactly a new idea, uh, and it’s not new in religious thought, either, but the Pope has now said the same thing, but in a different way, and he’s placed it in the framework of religious doctrine, in the framework of theology, and in the fundamental Judeo-Christian concept of creation. To say that, it’s all God’s work, that when God made the planet, he made the plants, he made the animals, he made the Sun and the Moon, and he made us, and we’re all interconnected, and when we disregard, disrespect, or damage any part of it, we do violence against creation.

HEFFNER: We may be in, interconnected, Naomi, but you’ll … accept that the trees and the air they don’t ha-, share the common currency of … dollars and cents. In a very real way Pope Francis has reflected on the capitalistic system: the vast inequality. And, I want to read something he said, um, this year on … the issue of … arms. He said, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals in society?” And then he … answers the questions, “S-sadly … as we all know, it’s simply for money.” Those animals and the air we breathe, they, they can’t make sense of the dollars …. So, I guess I’m wondering … if we’re all culpable in … the … um, use of money that is not being directed towards their preservation, but only our preservation. How do we, how do we go forward?

ORESKES: Well, of course, that’s the big question, and, and the Pope is really … he hasn’t, he’s not really getting to the going forward question yet, because he, I think he thinks we’re not ready for that. I think he thinks we haven’t even really accepted that there’s a problem, and we certainly haven’t accepted the profundity of the problem, and we haven’t accepted the interrelationship of the parts of the problem. So, up until now, most people have thought of … climate change as a problem about the environment that is separate and distinct from problems of human wellbeing, and in fact, many people dichotomize them and they say things like, “Well, I care about the planet, but I care about people more. I care about plants and animals but, you know, doing something about poverty or social justice is more important, more urgent.” And, the Pope is saying that’s a false dichotomy. It’s a false dichotomy for two reasons. The first, we’ve already mentioned: we’re all in this together. We don’t survive without plants and animals because we rely on them, we rely on plants to put oxygen into the atmosphere, we rely on … fish and crops and cows to eat. Um, so we-were all in this together, and we rely on our human being, as well, we’re in it together as, as humanity as well. But also because when we damage the environment, we damage everything we depend on, so what he’s saying is that, the same mentality that leads to environmental despoliation, environmental destruction, also leads to damage to people. When we exp-, the mentality that leads to a kind of rampant exploitation of nature without regard to the consequences is the same mentality that leads to the exploitation of people. And, so, he’s saying, we fix both these problems by stepping back and actually thinking, again, about what that mentality is.

The analysis is a sophisticated one, it’s a complicated one, and this is one reason I hope that people will read The Encyclical—um, not just to make a shameless plug for Melville House Press, but because there’s some really important work–but he’s also saying, well, what is that mentality? It has a number of components, it’s not just one thing, but a big part of it is the mentality that thinks that we can analyze everything in terms of dollars and cents, and that thinks that we can reduce all motives to the profit motive. And, he wants us to re-examine that and, ultimately, to reject that.

HEFFNER: Hmm. Well, in terms of actually acknowledging the monetary issue, I had Kate Gordon on this program, and she’s involved in an effort to show the long-term damage when business decisions don’t incorporate—

ORESKES: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: –environmental … deterioration as part of the calculus. So, we record here in New York, and the most intimate example of … um, climate change and its impact on human suffering may have been Hurricane Sandy which, could be ancient history to some folks now, it was before the 2012 re-election of President Obama, but after that President Obama stepped up both, you know, his rhetoric and action on climate change. What are you looking for in terms of moving the dial on this?

ORESKES: I think this is a really tricky issue, because there are many people who have tried to push back against … the … sort of, economic analysis of climate change or the economic analysis of environmental problems by, in a sense, fighting fire with fire, or, or making the argument in economic terms, and saying, Look, there’s real economic costs to climate change – So, Superstorm Sandy led to billions of dollars in damages. The fires out in the west, you know, as we speak, 70 million dollars a day are being spent in fighting fires that have clearly been exacerbated by drought and climate change. So, people have pointed out the true dollars and cents cost of inaction on climate change. And, and I … understand the impulse behind that, and I think it is important for people to understand that there are real serious economic costs and real serious economic damages associated with inaction on climate change. But, I think what the Pope is saying to us is that, that’s all very well and good but it’s not enough. Because the fact is that, we’ve, we’ve had these calculations before. We know that environmental damage costs money, and yet somehow when we only analyze the problem in terms of dollars and, you know, sort of utilitarian calculus, we end up with the wrong answer. We end up with more of the same. We end up doing more of the same things. And, somehow, these economic arguments, even though rationally they should make people wake up and take notice, somehow they actually don’t. So, why is that? And, and I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m not sure the Pope does either. But, he’s sort of saying, look, it’s not enough to show people that billions of dollars at stake, we have to also appeal to our basic sense of humanity, our basic sense of human dignity and say – This is us on the line – This is us as human beings and how we live and how we treat our fellow human being and, ultimately, how we feel about ourselves as well.

HEFFNER: Maybe the answer is because … the Vatican and your own university, Harvard, in their behavior don’t reflect those values. And the Vatican and Harvard don’t seem nearly prepared to divest from fossil fuels.

ORESKES: And if we look at people’s actions, we see that we haven’t really aligned our actions with our thinking and our rhetoric. And, of course, action is where the rubber hits the road. And so, at Harvard, we’ve had a very interesting conversation over the last year. The students have really led a movement asking the university to ve-, divest from investment in fossil fuel. Quite a few of the faculty, more than a hundred faculty, have supported the students, have said yes. These are the students we boast about, we boast about how brilliant they are, we boast about how these are the future leaders of the United States and the world, and they are trying to lead and … good for them, we ought to follow their lead. So, many faculty have said that and have supported the students, myself among them. But, the administration’s response has been, I think, really unfortunate. It’s been to treat the students as if they’re just naïve and that they don’t understand the complex realities of grownup life. I actually think the students understand it only too well. And, what the students are saying is – You cannot say that you take this problem seriously and yet continue to invest in the very activities that are driving it.
And so, that’s really the message that I think those of us who have become involved in dive-divestment campaign are trying to bring across. It’s not enough just to talk about it. It’s not enough just to research it. I mean, we’ve researched this issue to death. We’ve been studying it for … 50 years now. At what point do you say – we actually know enough. And what is the point of knowledge if not to guide informed, intelligent, and sensible, and humane action?

HEFFNER: Naomi, I related to the economic calculus, because that’s not being modeled as realistic, or at least—


HEFFNER: –the Harvard or the Yale, i-is not gonna make the bang on its buck in the endowment game if they divest from coal or … other forms of fossil fuel emissions. So I, I, I wonder from your first response as to … the legitimacy, or, at this point, the legitimacy of the dollars and sense argument—


HEFFNER: –when it’s not out there being modeled.


HEFFNER: People are likely to be naïve, as you’re describing, or accused of being naïve, as you’re describing the faculty’s assessment—


HEFFNER: — of the student population.

ORESKES: Well, I think there’s two things there. I mean, it’s extremely hard to know what the economic consequences of any decision will be. And I’m not a, a, a financial analyst, so I, I generally don’t try to make some kind of prediction about that. But, I will say that, if Harvard had done what the students had asked for a year-and-a-half ago and divested from coal, Harvard would have made money on that decision. So, we should not necessarily assume that doing the right thing morally necessarily costs money. Um, if you get ahead of the curve on some of these issues, you can sometimes make money doing the right thing. So, that’s the win-win scenario. But, even if that were not true, surely there’s a point at which we say – yeah, we could make money selling drugs. We could make money in prostitution or gambling, or we could make money by still being invested in tobacco – but we don’t do it, because we know it’s wrong, and we know it’s inconsistent with our mission as a university to be a leader and to guide, uh, the future. So, I mean, and this is, I think, why we see the sovereign wealth fund of Norway. We see major foundations like the Rockefeller brothers. Um, many highly responsible groups who take their fiduciary responsibilities very seriously, have said yes, the time has come to divest from fossil fuel. So, the leadership is out there, and what’s disappointing to me, as a Harvard faculty, is that we at Harvard, who like to think of ourselves as leaders are not really exercising leadership on this issue … yet [LAUGHS].

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] What will it take?

ORESKES: Well, that I don’t know, I mean, I’m not a, I’m a historian, not a psychic, but you know—

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] Well, I, I was, I was interested in having you apply your background—

ORESKES: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: –in climatology and earth science and geology—


HEFFNER: –to this.

ORESKES: Yeah. Well, what will it take? I mean, I think that, you know, the student movement, the faculty movement, a continued conversation, a continued articulation of why this is the right thing to do. I mean, you know, why does any institution move or change? It’s because enough people in it say, point out the logic and the rightness of that kind of action. So I, I think my institution will change. Harvard’s a very … conservative institution. It’s been around for a very long time. Most conservative institutions move slowly. So, it’s not, you know, hugely surprising that Harvard hasn’t, you know, taken this up very rapidly. But, but, I think we will. I think we’re going to see some action in the next year or two. That’s my prediction. [LAUGHS].

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] And how are you forging ahead with your fellow geologists and colleagues in the department and elsewhere?

ORESKES: You know, one of the things that I think is very interesting for the scientific community right now, the scientific community has said, in no uncertain terms, there’s a consensus about climate change. It’s real. It’s happening. It’s … manmade, and it’s getting worse, and it’s very serious, and there’s no time left to lose. That message has been stated very, very clearly. So, then the question is, well, what is the role for scientists going forward? And I think, on some level, one of the tensions in the scientific community now is that fundamentally this is no longer a scientific question. That, what to do about climate change is political, it’s social, and it’s moral, which is one of the reasons the scientific community reached out to the Pope, to ask for his involvement in this issue. Because, at the end of the day, scientists are scientists. They’re not really in a position to speak clearly on the moral dimensions, and they’re not really comfortable doing that. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t still science to be done. Scientists should continue doing what they’ve always done, which is to understand the Earth as well as they can. And also, going forward, scientific monitoring is going to be terrifically important, because whatever steps we take … we will have to monitor those steps in order to know if they’re actually working. And there’s going to be a lot of things that happen in the years to come that will require … very high-level, detailed, and technologically sophisticated monitoring. So, I’m not saying there isn’t a role for the scientific community going forward. Of course there is. But it’s, I think it’s a little different than what it’s been up ’til now, and now I really think the ball’s in the court of, you know, economists, politicians, social scientists to really get at how we, how we fix this problem. And, and also because we know, the technology to fix this problem exists. We don’t need a technological miracle. We don’t need a technological breakthrough. We need to implement the technologies that already exist. And we need to implement the policy instruments that economists have already shown can make a difference, like carbon taxation, for example. But we can’t get there because we’re sort of stuck in this position of denial and … you know, we still have … many important leaders in, in Washington saying that they’re not even persuaded this is a real problem. We even have political leaders saying it’s a, still saying it’s a hoax. So, we’re really stuck politically and socially, and the real question is, how do we break through, um, that social, political, and conceptual roadblock?

HEFFNER: Without all the glaciers melting.

ORESKES: Before the glaciers melt, right, which many of them already are doing, right.

ORESKES: And, the monitoring that you and your colleagues do shows that—

ORESKES: Oh, I mean that it’s—


ORESKES: –bad and getting worse. I mean, we know that glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate. We know that Greenland is melting at an accelerating rate that’s contributing to … quickening sea level rise. There are very disturbing results coming out of Antarctica now that … uh, a situation that as little as five years ago many scientists thought was kind of … um, what’s the word I want, kind of like a science-fiction fantasy. Now, scientists are saying, Oh my God, this actually might be true. So, in our book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Eric Conway and I developed a kind of worst-case scenario in which the West Antarctic ice sheet begins to break apart, leading to, you know, meters and meters of sea le-sea level rise. And, when we wrote that book, which was only two years ago, we thought, yeah, this is a worst-case scenario, we’re not really expecting this ha-to happen anytime soon, but we want people to understand, you know, what the worst case really looks like. Well, now, scientists are saying that, actually, that worst-case scenario is not a fantasy, and could actually begin to unfold, you know, as, in as little as 100 years. And 100 years, that’s the lifetime of our children and grandchildren. So, this is no longer the stuff of science-fiction. This is a very real and profoundly troubling development happening right now. And, I think that, as much as we’ve talked about this issue, I think there are a lot of people who still don’t quite get that. They still think that climate change is … something that’s far off in the future, and they don’t understand that, no, this is something that is taking place right now before our, before our scientific eyes, at least, if not before everyone’s eyes.

HEFFNER: Let’s turn back to The Encyclical. Um, on page 29 of the Melville House, uh, publication, um, and thi-, and this is from The Encyclical, “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. We cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” Uh, I was thinking about his comment about fundamentalism in, in terms of … being fundamentally true about something. And … whether … there is not a differentiation being made now between … ideology, religion, and fact.

ORESKES: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well of course, the whole … question of what’s a fact is a very fraught one, and we could do a whole other show on that of co—

HEFFNER: How do you combat climate change without … um … um … being perceived as fundamentalists about it, you know?

ORESKES: You mean fundamentalists about climate change?


ORESKES: Well, I think this is exactly what the Pope is doing, because he’s saying, look, this isn’t just about climate change. This isn’t like being a one-issue voter. This is really about a set of issues that are all interconnected. So, many people want to say, or many people think, or they sort of accept the idea that environmental damage is the price of progress, right? I think a lot of people think that, and yes, okay, some trees get cut down, but, you know, we need to feed the poor. But what he’s saying is, we’re not actually feeding the poor. We’re doing all this damage, and in fact we’re leaving a huge number of people behind, and we’ve had this period of tremendous economic growth in the last 30 or 40 years, but that economic growth has not included a huge proportion of humanity. So, the argument that the rising tide raises all ships, it just hasn’t proven to be true. So, now, and, on top of that, we’ve done this tremendous environmental damage, and in doing so, we’ve actually undermined the po-, the possibilities for prosperity and wellbeing of future generations. So, in a way, it’s almost like we’ve stolen from the future in order to, um, feed the present. And he’s saying, that’s immoral. That’s not right. And so, if we begin to think about this as an integrated problem of, how do we … how do we fix our system? That we take environmental damage seriously, and we take equity seriously, as well, we get a different picture of how we have to behave. And, you know, it’s not clear … how radical the solution has to be, but it is clear we have to have a discussion about that solution and we’re not, and right now we’re not even having that discussion.

HEFFNER: Would you apply … the, the carbon tax … um, based on use, based on, you know, as you would progressively with the tax code?

ORESKES: Well look, we can, we can argue about the details of how a carbon tax ought to be implemented, but there are certainly plenty of mechanisms that people have discussed that can help the poor, you know, you can make it revenue neutral, you can use it to replace the payroll tax. There are a lot of things you can do to make a carbon tax fair and equitable. But I think there’s a bigger question, stepping back from that: we don’t have a carbon tax, and we don’t even have the prospect of having it any time soon. Because, the reality is, the idea of a carbon tax is a very old one. It was promoted by Al Gore back in the 80s, and the right wing vilified him for it. It was pro-, promoted in the 60s, the idea of a pollution tax was … touted, uh, even in the Nixon administration, it was discussed. And the idea, the, the very basic concept, called a “Pigouvian tax,” goes back to the 1920s. So, I think the real question is not, you know, the details of the carbon tax, or whether we have carbon tax versus emission trading. We’ve spilled tons of ink, you know, on that issue. How do we actually even get it? How do we even get to the point where we all agree, this is a real problem and it needs to be fixed? And again, I think that’s what the Pope is asking us to do. We’ve been distracted by fussing about the details of the mechanisms, and we haven’t addressed the fundamental fact that we haven’t, we haven’t implemented any of these mechanisms. We haven’t done any of the things that we could do. And why is that? Well, one of the reasons, he says, is because we’ve just … sat around waiting for the markets to do it, and he talks about the deified market. We’ve imagined the marketplace as really some kind of god that will take care of it. And he’s saying, no, the real God [LAUGHS] is actually kind of over here [LAUGHS] and you’ve been ignoring that, and you’ve been nor-, ignoring the whole spiritual dimension of this issue, and the spiritual dimension that actually motivates people to do right in the world. And again, so that’s what he’s asking us to really think about, and that’s, kind of my hope for this whole thing. That people who’ve been in denial about this issue, who want to argue and fight about … whether this is a liberal hoax, will realize … no, this is not a liberal hoax. It’s not a hoax of any type. Uh, it’s not a conspiracy to bring down capitalism. It’s a real problem in capitalism as it’s currently practiced, and we have to fi-, find a way to fix it, or we’re all going to suffer.

HEFFNER: And I think, fu-, fundamentally—


HEFFNER: –you’re, you’re talking about … the sanctity of life.

ORESKES: Absolutely. And the Pope was very clear on that, and in his speech to Congress, he talked about respecting life at all his stage-, at all its stages, and I think that’s really a beautiful way of thinking about it, because that’s something that all of us can agree on at least in principle, even if we might actually still argue about what the stages of life are, but—

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] Or what life is.

ORESKES: Or what life is, right.

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] De-definably, trees—

ORESKES: [OVERLAP] We-, right. Well, there’s no question that trees are life, I don’t think—


ORESKES: I don’t think you can claim—

HEFFNER: [OVERLAP] I’m not disputing that, but I think–


HEFFNER: –he’s also attending to a materialistic, or fighting back against a materialistic culture–

ORESKES: [OVERLAP] Absolutely. He’s pushing back against materialism, absolutely.

HEFFNER: –that takes for granted trees, that takes for granted—

ORESKES: Absolutely. And I think one of the most moving parts of The Encyclical is actually where he talks about Saint Francis, and it’s really interesting and kind of beautiful, because he quotes this section, um, from scripture about how Saint Francis preached to the trees, and the animals. And think about it, you know, if anyone did that today, they would be completely dismissed by the media, by the Congress as some kind of lunatic tree hugger, but that is what Fra-, Saint Francis did. Because he viewed it as creation. And that is the man for whom this Pope has taken his name. So, it really is a very radical call … to reject materialism as our central value and to think about the sanctity of life and what that really means if we take it seriously.

HEFFNER: Hmm. Last question.


HEFFNER: The world has … a Pope Francis, and the U.S., and you really were highlighting that this message had to be resonant for us, he was talking to an American population. Maybe he will make a trip to Asia and to China where everyone is experiencing the air pollution, and the asthma attacks are … are profoundly disturbing. But the last question is: who is America’s Pope Francis? Because American can’t take ownership, and the left can’t take ownership of him exclusively, and also he has other things on his agenda [LAUGHS].

ORESKES: Well, I think Pope Francis is our Pope Francis. I mean, the point of him is that he’s a global leader, and he’s trying, I think he’s embracing that role. Um, the American Catholic community is large, it’s diverse, and it’s important, and I think that, uh, we don’t need a different Pope Francis, we just need to embrace his message. And especially, he’s made it clear that this is a message not just for Catholics. He began his speech in Congress by pointing out Moses on the wall of Congress, and I think that his message is a message, this is a largely Judeo-Christian country, or Judeo-Christian-Muslim in-increasingly. We all worship the same God. The roots of this gigantic … religious tradition all come from the same place. It’s the same Ten Commandments. And I think he’s really trying to bring our attention to that, and to be a Pope to all people and not just to, to religious Catholics.

HEFFNER: Well, and on that note of Abrahamic faith, uh—


HEFFNER: –we, we have to … say goodbye, but thank you, Naomi, for being here.

ORESKES: [OVERLAP] Thank you. Thanks, it’s a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And, and, when an American does step up to be that vehicle through which this issue is addressed outside of you and your colleagues in the scientific community, we’ll … we’ll have to keep wondering who that will be, in the meantime.

ORESKES: Well, that’s certainly true. Thanks.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

ORESKES: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And, thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.