Posted by: bmeverett | January 8, 2014

How to talk about climate change


[I apologize to my faithful blog readers for the lack of postings over the last few months. The semester at Fletcher was extremely busy. I am not teaching this semester, so I promise to post more frequently.]

At the end of every semester, the Fletcher School collects feedback from students through anonymous on-line course evaluations. I find this feedback useful and use it extensively to improve my class. The one area where I really struggle every year to find the right content and balance is climate change. Many of my students react strongly to my lectures (which take about 1 hour out of the 26 hours of total class time). This is one lecture I have changed virtually every year to try to get it right, but clearly I’m not there yet. The student comments cast an interesting light on the climate change debate in general.

Take these comments for example:
The lecture on externalities was painful. It seemed tangential to the course objectives…
[The climate change lecture] ultimately did not even seem that relevant to the content of the course.

These comments surprised me. On today’s college campuses (and in many parts of the federal government), the urgent need for an accelerated replacement of fossil fuels, even at great cost, is an article of faith. This is not a new idea, but the rationale has changed over time. When I was a student at Fletcher in the early 1970s, a common view on campus and elsewhere was that modern industrial society was inherently unsustainable because it inevitably made the air unbreathable and the water undrinkable. The increasing use of fossil fuels was considered a major component of this problem. In fact, cleaning up the air and water turned out to be a quite manageable problem. Although there are still air and water quality issues, the situation in the US has improved dramatically over the past forty years or so. The real pollution problems today are in poor, not rich countries.

Later in the 1970s, the complaint against fossil fuels was their rapid depletion, which would cause economic growth to hit a brick wall with disastrous social consequences when the tap ran dry. This prediction also proved untrue as the advance in oil and gas exploration and extraction technology has outpaced resource depletion and is likely to continue to do so for many decades (if not centuries) to come.

Here’s where climate change comes in. According to today’s prevailing view on college campuses, we have to get rid of fossil fuels as quickly as possible because of the climate consequences of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Note that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant in the traditional sense. It’s a natural component of the atmosphere and has no known adverse health effects at the concentration levels we are talking about.

Unfortunately, climate change is a given on college campuses, and the discussion of the role of fossil fuels in society is supposed to start with this “fixed point”. That, dear students, is why climate change is not only relevant but essential to any discussion of the oil market.

Here’s another comment:
I really disliked the climate change class. Not only did I find the content weak, I thought it was a waste of time to spend the entire class arguing about whether or not climate change was real.

This student didn’t listen to the lecture. I started out the discussion by stating that the reality of climate change is not the issue. Most people agree that the climate has warmed. The question is whether we understand the climate well enough to make meaningful predictions and take serious (and extremely expensive) policy steps in response.

Here’s another:
The climate change discussion was not constructive, as the lecture was built on a strategy of undermining a few select studies in the hopes that it would undercut the plausibility of climate change occurring…

Students have been taught over their entire lives that all intelligent and caring people believe that increasing fossil fuel use will destroy the planet and that those who disagree are either anti-science Luddites or evil corporations who would happily kill millions to make a buck. The student who made this comment clearly sees me as having a “strategy” of undermining good and promoting evil. After all, he or she has been warned about this danger since first grade. In fact, the only point of my lecture, which I repeated many times over the course of the hour, was that climate change is complicated and uncertain and that we should not shut down the debate.

Here’s another comment:
Skip the lecture on climate change. Climate science is not your area of expertise…

Again, students have been told that only climate scientists have the standing to weigh in on this issue. Since scientists all supposedly agree, the issue is solved. The Fletcher School conducts a constant stream of conferences, lectures and panel discussions on every major foreign policy issue. When students attend a discussion of the situation in Syria, for example, they expect to hear a variety of views argued by students and faculty members with a wide range of backgrounds, including economic, legal, military, political, historical and others. Participants assume that everyone in the Fletcher community is entitled to hold and express a view, not just Middle East experts. Not so with climate change. The Climate Community claims that only scientists have standing to discuss this issue. Why should this be true? We don’t leave military policy to the military or economic policy to economists? On balance, I find it remarkable that a university as strong as Tufts would tell its students that climate change is not an issue that should be debated and that views outside the prevailing orthodoxy should be treated with suspicion.

Just for the record, here’s what I’m trying to say:
First, climate science is complicated, and many factors, not just carbon emissions, influence its course. Second, science is not a process of consensus building, but of empirical testing. So far, the climate models on which the Climate Community depends cannot make any meaningful predictions. None. As a result, the science is inconclusive by definition, not by my opinion. Third, the costs of reducing carbon emissions are extremely high, and the steps that are often discussion at the international, federal and state level would be ineffective, even if the Climate Community has the science right.

I should also note a glimmer of hope here. One student made the following (clearly facetious) comment:
Europeans and tree-huggers shouldn’t be allowed to join the course.

Many students comment to me privately that they appreciate hearing a different viewpoint on climate change. It’s interesting that very few of these students would dare say so publicly.

For next fall, I have to bear in mind that many of my students hear what they expect to hear from a “climate skeptic” and don’t necessarily listen to what I am actually trying to say. I take their comments seriously, and hope to do better.

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