Attending Mass at the Church of Global Warming

For years, high school students have been conducting recycling campaigns, promoting solar energy, and telling their parents not to drive SUVs. Now, that environmental zeal has escalated to the college level. Last Wednesday and Thursday, the nation engaged in a series of teach-ins on climate change. Universities throughout North Carolina joined in, trading their traditional team colors for green. At Duke, the Cameron Crazies replaced their Blue Devils colors for green garb at the basketball game against N.C. State.

All this didn’t happen by accident. The event was organized by Focus the Nation, a project directed by Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Goodstein took a sabbatical last year to rally support for the nationwide teach-in. Focus the Nation’s Web site includes the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric we have come to associate with environmentalists (not, typically, economics professors). It predicts that “within our children’s lifetimes” there could be a “swing in global temperatures of Ice Age magnitude.”

I’m a skeptic on climate change: I am not convinced that we face an imminent crisis of temperatures due to actions by human beings.

I know, of course, that the climate will change, and I know that average global temperatures went up in the late 20th century. But I also know, from the prominent MIT scientist Richard Lindzen among others, that the temperature trend since 1998 has been flat – not showing a clear direction up or down.

I have other reasons to doubt that there is a crisis ahead of us, in spite of Al Gore’s apocalyptic movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Some of Gore’s claims are undermined by by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), even though he shared a Nobel Prize with it. For example, Gore shows sea levels rising over 20 feet – the IPCC says that at worst the increase could be 23 inches in this century. There’s no credible evidence that hurricanes are going to get worse, and although the melting glaciers are dramatic, many have been melting for centuries.

Richard Lindzen said at a recent forum that the understanding of the mechanisms of climate change is worse now than it was a decade ago. Billions have been spent on research, but little of it has explored the most critical issues such as the role of clouds and water vapor.

So here I was, a skeptic, visiting Duke University on the second day of the teach-in, to get a glimpse of its climate-change activities. Duke hosted a “critical mass” bike ride (not sure what the “critical mass” is, but I don’t think they reached it), panel discussions, a sustainability fair, and a roundtable on “green democracy.” Topics addressed during the day included environmental justice, global warming in North Carolina, and obstacles to changing political behavior.

The question of whether there actually is a crisis of global warming was ignored – the organizers assumed that everybody is in full agreement that the crisis exists. The “teach-in” concentrated on what to do about global warming, not on what is actually happening with global temperatures and why.

I attended Duke’s first panel of the day. Frankly, I had expected picketers, loudspeakers, and rowdy behavior – a Berkleyesque circus where I would be booed if I spoke up. But rather, it was three panelists quietly discussing what they consider to be the reality of global warming in North Carolina. (Perhaps the weather was too chilly to bring out the crowds and at 10 am it was still early for college students.)

The panelists included a former Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Director of the Center on Global Change at Duke University (who is a biology professor), and the person in charge of hybrid vehicles at Advanced Energy (a private company). If I am a skeptic, these people are enthusiasts, all committed to the idea that crisis looms.

They told the audience that in the near future we should expect scalding summers, deadly hurricanes, and water shortages. (Come to think of it, we already have those. We’ve had the first two for centuries and we know that the water shortages are largely due to failure to manage water sources properly.) They recommended steps that individuals and organizations should take to decrease carbon dioxide and save energy, and thus avoid human-caused climate change.

Acting in the spirit of the panel, I politely asked whether, given the political controversies surrounding global warming and the disagreements among scientists, do they feel that it’s important to present both sides of the issue in the classroom?

The panelists gave lip service to the idea of presenting both sides but exuded confidence that there is a scientific consensus on global warming. Two of them warned against treating the issue as the media might – giving 50 per cent coverage to each side. Robert Jackson, who teaches biology and heads the Center for Global Climate Change, says his goal in class is “ to teach critical thinking.” (Sometimes this is a code for challenging what one doesn’t like in the status quo.) He also said that there are “scientific consensus statements” on global warming, so it would be a mistake to give the skeptics equal time. At the same time, he said, faculty should “be honest about what we know and what we don’t know.”

Ewan Pritchard of Advanced Energy said that it is “very important for the scientific community to present a clear, unified voice to lawmakers, since lawmakers don’t have the scientific background to make the decision. “

Hmm. Scientific consensus was what Copernicus and Galileo had to confront. Scientific consensus brought us eugenics in the 1920s, perpetuated ignorance about tectonic plates till the 1950s, and helped destroy the nuclear power industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

To illustrate what he views as an overwhelming consensus, one panelist pointed out that even President Bush has now switched his view on global warming. (To me, Bush’s change in views reveals more about politics than about scientific consensus.) All in all, this panel conveyed closed minds on the issue, a troubling thing for scientists.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the other panels. Some other event at Duke had wiped out available parking spaces so I had to leave or my car would be towed. Guess I should have biked.

I left puzzling over the single-mindedness of the views of global warming. These folks are so confident that they are right! Yet this is a university, where minds should be open, not closed. Somewhere in all the panels and discussions, especially at a highly respected school like Duke, there should have been some analysis of what we know and what we don’t know. If it occurred, I didn’t hear about it.

Universities’ first allegiance should be to truth and inquiry. Dogmatic views destroy the open marketplace of ideas that should be vibrant on college campuses, of all places.