The drive to do something about the alleged climate change crisis has been sweeping the world. Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” received an Oscar and he has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his attempt to convince people that we must take drastic action now, or else suffer irreparable harm to the planet’s environment.
As Clarion Call reported in July, Elon University chose the book An Inconvenient Truth as its required summer reading for freshmen. And there is much more global warming action on campuses, in particular the proliferation of the American College & University Presidents Climate Change Commitment.
The Climate Commitment calls itself a “high-visibility effort to address global warming.” It aims at “garnering institutional commitments to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions and to accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth’s climate.” Presidents who sign the Commitment pledge to make their campuses “climate neutral” as soon as possible.
Thus far, eight college and university presidents in North Carolina have signed: Carolinas College of Health Sciences, Catawba College, Duke University, Guilford College, Haywood Community College, UNC-Chapel Hill, Warren Wilson College, and Wilson Technical Community College. Nationally, 415 presidents have signed – roughly ten percent of American colleges and universities.
The Climate Commitment is being pushed by a group of environmental activist organizations such as Environmental Defense and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Its Web site includes the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric we have come to associate with political zealots. Readers are told, “[t]he unprecedented scale and speed of global warming and its potential for large-scale, adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects threatens the viability of civilization.”
This rhetoric is followed by: “The scientific consensus is that society must reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by at least 80% by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worse impacts of global warming and to reestablish the more stable climatic conditions that have made human progress over the last 10,000 years possible.”
If college presidents want to appear environmentally conscious, there is nothing wrong with that. Gestures to lower greenhouse gas emissions or promote solar energy won’t accomplish much except perhaps improve public relations. They will probably raise costs, but otherwise they aren’t harmful.
The Climate Commitment, however, includes a more disturbing requirement. Colleges and universities and colleges must “integrate sustainability into their curriculum” and “provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to address the critical, systemic challenges faced by the world in this new century.” In other words, higher education leaders who sign on are supposed to reshape the way students are taught. The environmental beliefs of the “greens” are to become a catechism for students. Such indoctrination threatens the atmosphere of open inquiry that universities should represent.
The Climate Commitment is changing education by presenting a predetermined worldview and discouraging debate. This represents a departure from universities’ traditional mission of challenging students to think critically and logically about important issues. The Commitment’s narrow view of climate science and its dogmatic assertion of how to address global warming destroy the open marketplace of ideas that should be most vibrant on college campuses.
Despite the assertion that there is scientific consensus on the need for drastic and immediate action, the truth is that there is no such consensus. The causes of climate change, the effects of such change, and the optimal responses to it are debated among experts.
William Gray, professor emeritus of the atmospheric department at Colorado State University, recently told meteorology students at UNC-Charlotte that the human impact on global temperatures is “small.” Dr. Gray, considered the nation’s foremost expert on hurricane prediction, stated: “It bothers me that my fellow scientists are not speaking out against something they know is wrong.”
It’s regrettable to see education leaders, whose first allegiance should be to truth and inquiry, committing themselves to this false and tendentious document and fashioning education according to its dictates.
At Duke, many programs incorporate the popular tenets of sustainability. In the course “Green by Design” at the Nicholas School for the Environment, students learn about “real world opportunities” to assess greening options and learn strategies to encourage and implement environmental improvements. In the “Advanced Living Technology Course,” students design, build, and prepare projects for the Smart House (a live-in laboratory of the Pratt School of Engineering) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s student design competition for sustainability. None of the courses debate the science of global warming, climate change or development –the alarmist vision is correct.
Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, has an Environmental Leadership Center to “catalyze and provide resources for sustainability progress on campus.” It works with faculty, students, and staff to foster “engaged learning about environmental issues.” The Center’s environmental journal, Heartstone, was included in the required reading for all freshman seminars – regardless of the seminar topic.
As part of the commitment at UNC-Chapel Hill, Chancellor Moeser launched an honors program and minor in “Sustainability” in the Carolina Environmental Program. “Green philosophy,” dedicated to such steps as reducing energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, is already a core aspect of the program. Other schools have added courses, leadership programs, and “green” curricula to existing classes.
Teaching about the earth’s climate should emphasize scientific facts, not advocacy. The accounts of global warming presented in the Presidents Climate Commitment go far beyond the evidence. (An interesting development in that regard is the recent decision by a court in Britain that “An Inconvenient Truth” is so badly flawed in its science that it can only be shown there after a disclaimer about its accuracy is read.)
The Climate Commitment’s proponents claim that no other institution in society has “the influence, the critical mass and the diversity of skills” that higher education has to contribute to the fight against global warming. Precisely for those reasons, universities should carefully research and debate the science of climate change according to the facts and refrain from pushing any particular vision on this issue.
Jenna Ashley Robinson is the Student Outreach Coordinator at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.