Naomi Oreskes Warps History

Published June 1, 2016

Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes is best known to climate realists by her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt and its scurrilous demonization of climate skeptics as paid hacks parroting the fossil-fuel industry’s self-serving opposition to the “consensus view” of man-made climate catastrophe, but that screed doesn’t reveal the flaws in her work.

A short, obscure, error-riddled essay titled, “My Science is Better than Your Science,” that she wrote in 2011 is more significant. It was a chapter in a book titled, How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge, and examined the 1991 origin of the “skeptics are paid industry shills” narrative supposedly found in a legendary set of “leaked Western Fuels memos.”

That short chapter is important because Oreskes totally misinterprets the “memos” as Big Coal’s plan for a vast national campaign with paid climate scientists that created the lasting public doubt about global warming. That’s the very same interpretation repeated endlessly by climate alarmists including Al Gore, Ross Gelbspan (1997’s The Heat Is On), Canadian public relations flak James Hoggan ‘s attack website DeSmogBlog, and many others.

Appallingly, nobody in this parade of critics did any fact checking of the memos, not even historian Naomi Oreskes, which is a serious lapse for a historian. In fact, Oreskes and the others were using a garbled conglomeration of nearly a dozen different memos from different sources that were collected by Greenpeace and posted unsorted and in no rational order on one of its websites – because they never checked who they really came from.

Critics had no idea what they were looking at in the hundred-or-so pages of “Western Fuels memos.” They simply took the pieces that made skeptics look the worst and patched them together into an assumption-laden fairy-tale, historian Oreskes most unseemly of all.

Had Oreskes, the renowned Harvard Professor of the History of Science, bothered to interview any of the clearly identified sources of the “Western Fuels memos,” she would have discovered that less than one-third of the jumbled “memos” involved Western Fuels Association at all.

It’s ironic that the “Western Fuels memos” became known as “Orders from Big Coal” because Western Fuels Association is actually just the opposite of what the alarmist critics thought: It’s a small, not-for-profit, member-owned co-op serving 24 consumer-owned rural and small municipal electric cooperatives and other public power systems from Wyoming to Kansas. Oreskes never mentions that, probably because she never researched her sources well enough to know it.

The Western Fuels Association co-op members were small and besieged by national news stories that gave only the crisis side of the climate change issue and desperately needed a national campaign with professional support from reputable academics with long track records as outspoken skeptics. WFA created some of the “memos” while trying to assemble a coalition to operate that hoped-for nationwide opposition campaign. That campaign never happened; its ten-day trial run flopped miserably. It was closer to Comedy of Errors than Merchants of Doubt fronting for Big Coal.

Oreskes had no idea what Western Fuels actually did. What WFA really did with coal was to manage contract mining and transportation of coal from member-owned mines and buy additional coal in the open market – facts printed on the inside cover of WFA’s annual reports, available to all. Historian Oreskes either did not examine WFA’s annual reports, which would have shown her it was a not-for-profit electrical co-op, or she knew and did not tell her audience, leaving a false impression.

If WFA was the source of only about one-third of the “memos,” then who were the sources of the remainder? The “memos” were, in fact, the everyday work products of two electric power associations (Western Fuels Association being one) and three of their public relations companies.

The other power association was the giant Edison Electric Institute, the representative and lobbying center of all investor-owned electrical utilities in the United States. These power companies are highly regulated by public utility commissions that are very sensitive to public opinion and would not and did not participate in any climate-skeptic actions at all. In fact, EEI had its own Climate Task Force which publicly denounced Western Fuels Association’s attempt to form a skeptic coalition.

EEI coordinated the most misinterpreted single document of all the “memos,” which was originally contained in a bulky 100-plus page package sent to EEI from opinion survey firm Cambridge Reports of Massachusetts. The fateful page was in a routine public opinion poll and proposal for a related campaign of the type that EEI regularly commissioned, this year on public attitudes about global warming.

That single most misinterpreted Cambridge Reports page was titled “Strategy,” listing nine goals, topped by “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” That was seen by critics as “orders from Big Coal headquarters” to reposition the public into believing global warming is not a fact. Al Gore even featured it in ominous red letters spread across a frame of his movie An Inconvenient Truth. In fact, it was one of several suggestions for an ad layout offered by Cambridge Reports for an EEI campaign that never happened – a fate suffered by many of Cambridge Reports proposals from year to year, according to the owner at the time.

The other “memos” included letters, meeting notices, reports to Western Fuels from a hired Washington public relations firm and sample ad layouts from Simmons Advertising in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a direct mail firm, for a proposed test run – a ten-day radio and newspaper campaign, and that’s all.

The Western Fuels climate skeptics picked the semi-humorous acronym “ICE” to use in creating a name for themselves, and asked EEI’s communications executive to include that and numerous other requests to Cambridge Reports for inclusion in the report. He agreed. EEI gave a copy of the resulting 100-page report to WFA’s Washington public relations firm, but the WFA CEO never even saw it, and when interviewed and told me about it, he said WFA would never use “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact)” because it was too abstract and egg-headed for its rural audience. WFA’s communications director says that, unlike his CEO, he saw the page and had no idea how to “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact),” so he left it in the pile and selected useful pages to send to Simmons in North Dakota.

Cambridge Reports suggested several names to fit the “ICE” acronym, including “Informed Citizens for the Environment,” and “Information Council for the Environment.” Western Fuels selected the latter, so “Information Council for the Environment” was the only name the public ever saw for the “Big Coal Front Group.”

Thus, the businesses that created the “memos” had no grandiose plan or the power to impose one. EEI rejected a publicity campaign and relied upon their expertise, which was lobbying, to raise public concern about a proposed “carbon tax,” or cap-and-trade law. Western Fuels selected climate skeptic approaches with well-established skeptic scientist spokesmen as a balance to the deluge of alarmist publicity of the day.

However, even the national campaign planned by Western Fuels never happened: Its test run failed from the start, and their informal coalition dissolved in public disagreements between the skeptic faction and the lobbying faction. In July, 1991, the aborted coalition was an obvious impossibility. The factions went their separate ways, smaller ones with the skeptic message, big investor-owned ones with lobbying, fearing upset among their urban environmentalist consumers.

Everyone actually connected to the “Western Fuels memos” said that Oreskes did not contact them for comment, and none had ever heard of her.

The package of “Western Fuels memos” is publicly available today only in 50 poorly scanned and frustratingly incomplete images on a Greenpeace Investigations site. The originals were destroyed in a North Dakota flood that washed away the facilities of Simmons, so where did Oreskes get the entire set? She claims that she found them “in the archives of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) headquarters in Washington, D.C.” and advises that “scholars wishing to consult these materials should contact the AMS.”

Contact with AMS revealed that the Society is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, not Washington, D.C. It maintains a small Washington office that deals with government affairs but keeps no archives. The AMS archivist in Boston verified that no such documents ever existed in Society archives. Oreskes’ claim is disputed.

Oreskes said in her chapter in “How Well Do Facts Travel?” that an “Anthony Socci” brought the documents to her attention. The AMS archivist said that Socci – a Senate Commerce Committee staffer from 1991 to 1993 who managed hearings for Senator Al Gore – had been an AMS employee for a short time, and likely had a personal copy in his office that he made available to Oreskes. Perhaps that does not sound as scholarly as “an acquaintance gave the documents to me,” so she may have just made it sound respectable by calling Socci’s file cabinet an “archive.”

Going back one step, how did Socci get the “secret Big Coal documents”? The answer is almost laughable. Among the “memos” is a letter on EEI letterhead dated May 6, 1991 showing that the Institute’s global warming task force strongly disparaged the Western Fuels skeptic campaign and said their entire file would be sent to every Edison Electric Institute member – all the regulated electrical utilities in the United States. So, any one of thousands of utility workers could have given them to anybody they wanted to. The documents were never secret. Probably the only one who didn’t know about them were real members of Big Coal – Peabody, Arch, all the big names – which were busily lobbying Congress and had no faith in PR campaigns.

Within a month of the EEI’s letter, the documents were circulating in the streets, especially among environmentalists in Washington, D.C.. The Sierra Club forwarded a copy to the New York Times, mentioned in a July 8, 1991 article headlined, “Pro Coal Ad Campaign Disputes Warming Idea.” More people saw that article in one day than everything Western Fuels did in months of struggle, puzzling, engaging climate skeptic scientists for a ten-day, three-city trial run, and coming up with nothing.

But activists needed to create outrage in order to attract attention and satisfy their need to dominate. So science historian Naomi Oreskes took what amounts to climate skeptic vanilla pudding and labeled it as deadly poison peddled by Merchants of Doubt without any investigation into the original source documents and no requests for comment from the clearly named involved parties. That breaks every rule of journalistic ethics, not to mention scholarly historiography.

A noted historian, asked for the ideal definition of history, once said, “Ideally, history is what really happened.”

Oreskes didn’t ask.