Until the Fog Lifts: The Uneasy History of Former Scripps' Director, William Nierenberg


“These problems can also be so important that they should not be avoided or ignored until the fog lifts. We simply must learn to deal more effectively with their twists and turns as they unfold.”

- Changing Climate, the National Academy of Science, 1983

A brief glance at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s website leaves the viewer with a singular impression: this is a place for those who passionately care about climate change. Boasting a 118-year history of “understanding and protecting the planet since 1903”, you’d never guess the role that William Nierenberg, who served as director of Scripps for 21 years, played in obfuscating climate change in the public eye.

During Nierenberg’s time as director of Scripps, the institution became a world-class research station. Under his leadership, Scripps started projects including surveys of the ocean, adding computers to the campus, and strengthening the relationship between Scripps and UC San Diego. According to the National Academy of Science’s biography on Nierenberg, “[Charles] Keeling recalled with admiration the political skill Bill [Nierenberg] employed to ensure continued funding of the program at Scripps by the Department of Energy in 1981.” Keeling was the namesake of the famous Keeling curve for his work on the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Keeling Curve is a staple of environmental studies.

But here’s where it gets complicated.

“Nierenberg and Keeling held differing views about climate change, but they agreed about the necessity for continuous measurements,” notes Nierenberg’s biography. So what were these differing views?

Scientists were sounding the alarm bell about climate change as early as 1965, when Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee wrote that “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. The CO2 produced by this combustion is being injected into the atmosphere; about half of it remains there.” (Incidentally, this report was led by Roger Revelle, of whom Revelle College is named after).

The controversy over climate change that is still well and alive today, on whether it exists and whether it should be mitigated, was born in the 1980s. Naomi Oreskes, Eric Conway, and Matthew Shindell argue in their paper “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss,” that the 1983 report that Nierenberg led arguably ignited the climate change “debate”.

The report, which was written by the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, was titled “Changing Climate,” and was nearly five hundred pages long. It ultimately concluded that “The prospects are therefore much less alarming than some of those earlier calculations made them appear. And if successive increments in CO2 were going to be increasingly harmful to climate, the lowered estimates of CO2 correspond to even more significant reductions in the impact of climate change. Nevertheless, there is still the prospect of climate change within the coming century that takes us outside the boundaries experienced within the past 10,000 years.”

Oreskes et al. suggest that, as the lead for the committee, Nierenberg had beliefs on the severity of the climate crisis that differed from his colleagues. “While the natural scientists on the committee all expressed the opinion that global warming was a serious, if not grave, concern, Nierenberg repeatedly tried to bring forward suggestions that it might not be.”

The “Changing Climate” report itself provided an early review of the scientific knowledge on CO2 accumulation and its effect on the climate. However, the report also included the perspective of economists (two of which served on the committee that wrote the report), who argued that “While climate change was uncertain, technological improvement was not, and the latter might solve the former with no need for policy intervention. And it was the economists’ view that the final report would place front and center.

Thus, the National Academy of the Sciences report advocated for a softer response than the concurrent EPA report on climate change, which was loudly condemned by President Reagan’s science adviser, George Keyworth, who said that it was ''unwarranted and unnecessarily alarmist,'' and that ''There is no evidence to indicate that the gradual rise in carbon dioxide in the air would have environmental effects pronounced enough to require near-term corrective action.''

The news of “Changing Climate” was disseminated to the public through newspapers, most notably an article in the New York Times that presented a muddled portrait of what “global warming” actually is, and whether or not people should be worried about it.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the answer to the latter question was a firm no.

The headline of the article emblazoned: “HASTE OF GLOBAL WARMING OPPOSED,” and then went on to say: “A report issued today by the National Academy of Sciences says that the coming warming of the earth caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is '’cause for concern’' but that there is sufficient time to prepare for its impact.”

Nierenberg is quoted in the article saying “We feel we have 20 years to examine options before we have to make drastic plans. In that 20 years we can close critical gaps in our knowledge.'' Nathaniel Rich, in his article covering this subject, notes dryly: “Nierenberg’s remarks, which were probably 1/500th of the length of the report, received 500 times the press coverage.”

This would not be the end of Nierenberg’s actions to arrest the response to climate change. He would also go on to found the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that has a sordid history of spreading doubt about the climate crisis. Oreskes and Conway list the Marshall Institute amongst a litany of groups that promote “free-market solutions to environmental problems” in an article for Yale Environment 360. They note that these think tanks often directly challenge the scientific evidence behind climate change. As a result, they have managed to spread “manufactured doubt” about the reality and importance of the climate crisis. According to Greenpeace, the Marshall Institute, now rebranded as the CO2 Institute, “has a long history of global warming denial, including publication of junk science reports funded by the American Petroleum Institute.”

The Marshall Institute even published a “Cocktail Conversation Guide” in 2009 that promotes blatant misinformation about the climate crisis. Against a cute pastel background and a polar bear chilling in a drink, the guide advises its readers that “Natural sources of climatic change are poorly understood and inadequately measured. Until science better understands natural climate change, large uncertainties will remain regarding what part of past, current, and future climate change is due to human activities.”

“Bill actively battled what he felt was exaggerated concern over the role of CO2 in climate change… [But] his priorities were the nation (he was patriotic to the core), science in both its methodology and institutions, and honesty and fairness.” So writes Nierenberg’s memoirs, and it is not my place to judge whether they were true or not. Nierenberg was undeniably a brilliant and important man, and many who knew him admired and loved him. However, as Oreskes et al. write, “Nierenberg’s position as a distinguished scientist—a prominent physicist, a member of the Academy, and a director of a leading oceanographic institution—was crucial to his capacity to reframe the question [of climate change] in the way he did.”

As someone who is inheriting a time that has greatly fallen short of Nierenberg’s visions of a future unfettered by climate change, I am obliged to use a more critical eye. Nierenberg’s son, Nicolas Nierenberg, combined with the efforts of Walter R. Tschinkel and Victoria Tschinkel published a rebuttal to Oreskes et. al’s piece, which can be read here. They conclude that “We have therefore found no evidence supporting the assertions by OCS [abbreviation for Oreskes, Conway, Shindell] that the synthesis favored the economists’ view and contradicted an emerging consensus.”

What to think?

For me, I am okay with not having an answer. I rather like the final lines “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss.” It says that “We are indebted to… the University of California, San Diego, for providing an intellectual environment where difficult questions can be asked, even about ourselves.”

It has almost become cliché for this generation of discontent youth to look with resentful retrospect at the people earmarked by history whose denialist claims about climate change are further disproved with every passing day. They ask, if we knew about climate change so long ago, how could it have gotten so bad now?

And we’re right. Greta Thunberg captures this desperate rage in her rousing speech, “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

And how could this happen? I believe answering that question lies in acknowledging how tightly the seemingly separate “social sciences” and “humanities” and “natural sciences” are bound. How can you understand the climate crisis as it is now without understanding the nature of the species that is causing and suffering from it? How can you understand it without history?

As a UC San Diego student, I’ve taken classes from Scripps; I’ve gone down to see the ocean from its pier; and I’m even currently completing a Scripps’ minor (Climate Change Studies). I want to be proud of where I belong, but it is irresponsible to do so without viewing what lies behind the skin of history.

As a hopeful climate change communicator, I want to stand on a foundation that I understand, rather than a shallow and unexplored one. This is why history is important; ignoring its complexities does it a disservice. I believe that we must look deeper, be more honest, and then do better. If you have taken the time to read this far, hopefully that means that you believe in it too.