Posted by: bmeverett | January 15, 2016

Tufts and Climate Change


“Tufts Now” is the on-line newsletter covering happenings around the campus. The January 12 edition (at http://now.tufts.edu/articles/reaching-global-accord-climate-change?utm_source=Tufts+Now+-+Faculty+and+Staff&utm_campaign=1e1209bae1-Tufts_Now_internal_160113&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e2c82ed1e3-1e1209bae1-207305033) included an article entitled “Reaching a Global Accord on Climate Change”. There has certainly been a lot written about the recent Paris Climate Accord, but the interesting part of the “Tufts Now” article is the subtitle “How a pledge signed by Tufts and other colleges nationwide helped pave the way for success at the Paris conference.”

The article quotes extensively from my friend and colleague Professor Kelly Sims Gallagher, who, following the retirement of Prof. Bill Moomaw, has assumed the mantle of chief climate guru at the Fletcher School. In addition to teaching energy and climate policy, Prof. Gallagher is the Director of the Fletcher School’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP), an appointment she received after returning from a stint as a senior policy advisor to the Obama Administration on climate change.

I won’t spend any time here arguing the merits of the Paris Accords. My views are laid out at length in my December 18 post “Alice in Climateland”. The “Tufts Now” article does raise, however, the issue of the appropriate role of a university in advocating for public policy positions. There’s no obvious line of demarcation here. Almost all faculty members and students have strong views on politics, and robust political debates are a healthy part of campus life. Most people would probably object, however, if the university administration formally endorsed a presidential candidate and asked students to work toward his or her election. Universities often take strong stances on issues like genocide, racism, poverty and torture. These positions are easy to take, since there is almost universal support among Americans. Very few members of the Tufts community would endorse genocide, nor would many find a debate on the merits of genocide particularly interesting or useful.

The problem with the climate change issue on campus is its characterization as a moral issue. The “Tufts Now” article discusses Tufts’ decision to sign the American Campus Act on Climate Pledge developed by the White House last November. Signed by over 200 universities, the pledge states, in part, “We recognize the urgent need to act now to avoid irreversible costs to our global community’s economic prosperity and public health and are optimistic that world leaders will reach an agreement to secure a transition to a low carbon future.” When Prof. Gallagher was contacted regarding the pledge, she passed it on to Tufts University President Anthony Monaco. According to Prof. Gallagher, “He immediately thought it was a great idea. The values embedded in the pledge are already those that have informed Tufts’ own sustainability pledge.” These “values” include Tufts commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10-25% by 2020 compared to 1990 (See my previous post regarding “slick tricks”) and a 5-7 percent reduction in energy consumption each year for 3 years.

The problem here is that climate change is a scientific, not a moral issue. The reduction of carbon emissions and energy consumption is important only if the scientific basis for catastrophic climate change is valid. As an analogy, there is no moral imperative to help poor Martian refugees unless we can establish that there actually are Martian refugees and that they are in need of assistance. This mischaracterization is a severe disservice to the Tufts University community.

The costs of decarbonizing the world economy would be massive. In addition to threatening the living standard of middle class westerners, the elimination of fossil fuels would put serious obstacles in the path of economic development for the world’s poorest people. Furthermore, the levels of carbon dioxide likely to persist in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future have made a major contribution to the “green revolution” around the world, increasing crop yields and helping the world’s poor escape poverty.

Students come to the University to learn critical skills. A college education is supposed to teach students how to define problems, how those problems have been addressed in the past and what methodologies are available to address them today. Students ought to be taught, in particular, logic and science as the keys to truth in the modern world. The University’s unequivocal support for the catastrophic climate change hypothesis, however, profoundly undermines the University’s mission. Climate activists, including the Tufts administration, argue that consensus, not empiricism, should determine the validity of the catastrophic climate hypothesis. This view is fundamentally anti-science and risks serious confusion on the part of students.

If you’d like to see for yourself how unbalanced the views of the Tufts administration are on this issue, see http://sustainability.tufts.edu/climate-change/#Science. Beyond being terribly out of date, this supposedly informative background material includes a defense of the “Climategate” emails and an article from the Vancouver Sun questioning the credentials of climate skeptics. There are members of the Tufts faculty, myself included, who hold very different views on this issue, but there is no mention of this debate in the University’s material.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church took the view that major issues, including those regarding the natural world, should be addressed by asking committees of scholars, invariably clerics trained in the scripture, to consider the issue and resolve any controversy. Different viewpoints were always welcome, provided everyone accepted the Church’s findings as definitive, a requirement that Galileo ignored to his peril. The Church did not object to Galileo’s argument that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but it would not tolerate his argument that empirical evidence, rather than Church Committees, should have the final word.

The Tufts Administration is effectively supporting the Church’s view with regard to climate change. Freshmen students entering Tufts are told in no uncertain terms that climate science is settled, that climate skeptics are without exception paid spokesmen for the fossil fuel industry and that raising questions about the climate agenda violates Tufts’ core values. A key scientific issue has been settled by official committees, and their conclusions should not be questioned. A Tufts student taking any course in the physical sciences might be tempted to question this apparent contradiction, but these kids are highly intelligent and understand the negative reactions such questions would provoke from the administration, faculty and even their fellow students. Better to avoid this issue altogether.

An interesting irony here is that Tufts was founded in 1852 by Christian Universalists who saw a need for a non-sectarian university. Harvard at the time focused on training clergy, predominantly Congregationalist and Unitarian. The Tufts Administration’s climate advocacy is a betrayal of its original mission. The University is now explicitly training climate clergy. Think that’s an overstatement? Check this out: http://sustainability.tufts.edu/get-involved/.

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