Every year, students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organize a debate on climate change between my friend and colleague Professor Bill Moomaw and me. Bill is a distinguished faculty member at Fletcher, the Director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, an IPCC lead author and an active member of the Climate Community. This debate is always a lot of fun, since it gives the students an opportunity to hear two very different points of view.
The debate always starts off in the same way. I make the following points: (1) global temperatures do appear to have increased over the years, (2) increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are likely a contributing factor, (3) physics, however, indicates that the expected carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will cause only modest warming, on the order of 1° C by the end of this century, (4) catastrophic scenarios require debatable assumptions about feedback loops and (5) the cost of carbon reduction is very high. Bill always counters with: (1) the argument that today’s weather patterns are powerful evidence that catastrophic climate change is already occurring, (2) almost all peer reviewed articles by qualified scientists support his position and (3) we can easily achieve substantial cuts in carbon emissions at low cost.
This year, I tried a slightly different tack. My slides are attached, if you’d like to follow along. I quoted President Obama’s inaugural address “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” I then posed the simple question of whether these assertions are supported by the data. The answer is no.
Wildfires in the US have ticked up in recent years from 4-5 million acres burned per year to 8-10 million acres. Sounds like an alarming trend, until you look at the historical data. In the early 1930s, wildfires burned 40-50 million acres per year, 5-10 times the recent average. Burned acreage declined quickly over the years, reaching the current relatively low level by the late 1950s. It’s obvious that factors other than temperature are at work here. Otherwise, we would have seen a steady increase in fires as global temperatures rose. I’m no expert, but I would guess that forest management has at least as much to do with wildfires as temperature and humidity. Regardless, as a simple factual statement, wildfires are not worse today than they were decades ago.
Regarding droughts, for over 100 years the federal government has tracked the Palmer Drought Severity Index. Although the US is currently experiencing a terrible drought, the data show no trend. We have had worse droughts in the 1950s and 1930s (the infamous “Dust Bowl”). If the current drought is caused by climate change, then I challenged Bill to explain what caused the earlier droughts and how he can tell which drought is caused by which factors.
Finally, regarding storms, it’s widely argued by politicians and the media that Hurricane Sandy is clear proof of catastrophic climate change. Once again, however, the data simply don’t support this claim. Whether we measure the number of storms, the number of severe storms or the accumulated cyclonic energy, there is no upward trend. The President’s statements are simply not true.
Bill responded by accusing me of “cherry-picking” the data and then proceeded to show offer a string of anecdotes, such as the droughts in the US, floods in Pakistan, unusual snow accumulation in New England and, of course, Hurricane Sandy. Bill argued that it was particularly telling that Sandy was an exceptionally large storm occurring very late in the season. He did not, however, show any data sets or attempt to document any trends in these phenomena. This argument seems quite weak for a very distinguished scientist.
The debate went back and forth on these points. As is always the case, the audience starts out mostly in his favor and remains unconvinced by my arguments. I know that there are some students in the audience who agree with me, but they tend to stay pretty quiet. My only hope is that my arguments will at least convince some students to shed the heavy intellectual baggage they carry from as far back as elementary school and begin to think for themselves on this subject.
Prof. Moomaw did make one extraordinary point, however, that was surprising and troubling. He made an argument for a carbon tax, one of the topics the student organizers had asked us to address. He suggested a tax structure with some of the funds rebated back to consumers to avoid an undue increase in the overall tax burden. He also suggested that the funds retained by the government be earmarked for certain carbon mitigation purposes. So far, so good. He then insisted that the legislation include severe financial penalties for those who had “distorted climate science” and “misled the public on climate change.”
This is quite an extraordinary statement in a country built on freedom of speech. I suspect that Bill was being provocative, but why would anyone feel comfortable making in public a statement straight out of a totalitarian dictatorship? I believe that the answer lies in the world view of the Climate Community which has permeated college campuses. Here’s what college students (and in many cases elementary students) are taught to believe.
First, the imminent danger of catastrophic climate change is an established fact, believed by every intelligent and educated person. It’s not only true, it’s obvious. Most sincere “climate skeptics” are ignorant and anti-science, essentially akin to the Flat Earth Society. Since people like the Koch Brothers and the management of ExxonMobil are intelligent and educated people, they cannot possibly believe the anti-scientific drivel they spread. They know what’s true but have a narrow selfish interest in keeping high-carbon technologies alive and highly profitable in the marketplace.
Second, the average American is not really very smart and can be easily misled by rich companies spending lots of money to cast doubt on climate science. Every argument against the climate hypothesis can ultimately be traced back to corporate money, even if we can’t see the connection. There is no legitimate debate, only a war between good and evil.
Third, there is no real democracy in the US, since all politicians have been bought by the fossil fuel industry. By the way, when Bill made this point in the debate, he got a strong round of applause from the audience. The economic analog of this argument is that there is no “free market” since freedom just allows the strong to eat the weak. The only antidote to the current corporate stranglehold on our society is central planning.
Fourth, by implication free speech and open debate will always be captured by the rich and selfish rather than the struggling and under-resourced Climate Community. The only solution is to take control of the future of our society through a strong central government composed of climate experts who will force the public to do what’s right and not what the public misguidedly wants to do. Shoving the oil companies out of the way by whatever means necessary is an essential step in saving humanity. Hence, Bill’s proposal for punitive fines against those who disagree with him.
These premises are powerfully ingrained on college campuses today and are unchallenged by the faculty and administration, especially at elite colleges like Tufts. Fighting climate change and the fossil fuel industry are regarded as acts of community service similar to tutoring inner-city kids or serving food at homeless shelters.
Tufts, like many universities, has an Office of Sustainability – a source of great pride to President Tony Monaco and the university administration. The Office of Sustainability’s web page states that “Sustainability for universities is about their very survival as institutions.” Seriously? Later, the web page states “Tufts leadership continues with bold commitments to regional (New England Governors/Eastern Canadian Premiers Climate Change Action Plan) and international (Kyoto Protocol) goals to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases.” Note that the Office does not encourage students to understand climate change in either scientific or economic terms. The fact that carbon dioxide alters the climate is the “fixed point” and all arguments flow from there. Nowhere does the Office of Sustainability attempt to analyze whether the steps the University is taking, such as shared hybrid vehicles programs and expensive rooftop solar panels, are offering meaningful carbon reductions in return for their high cost. Nor are students encouraged to analyze these issues. The current undergraduate tuition (with fees) at Tufts is $44,666, up over 400% in the last 25 years. How much does it cost to green up the campus and what impact does that have on global carbon concentrations? You’ll never know because nobody at Tufts ever asks this question. Green goals never have a cost component.
As a society, we often get ourselves in trouble with these “fixed points”. Slavery, segregation, creationism, anti-gay bias and denying women the vote all seem strange to most people in today’s world. These views were (and in some cases are) able to exist in a free society because children were taught to believe them, they heard nothing else, no dissent was permitted and other viewpoints were demonized. The flimsiest of evidence was accepted as proof of validity and even strong counterarguments were dismissed out of hand. Fans of Downton Abbey watch in every episode the “fixed points” of early 20th century Britain colliding with reality.
The Climate Community may be right in their assessment of the future of the climate. So far, however, they are relying to an distressing extent on squashing dissent rather than on proving their case. As an optimist, I can only hope that free discourse will prevail in the society as a whole even if it doesn’t on college campuses, our supposed bastions of open thought and discourse. As one of my former students recently told me, “Pretty soon, climate science will have to be replaced by real science.”
Climate change debate 2-28-13 Round 1 (exjpg)