Science or advocacy?
By David R. Legates
For almost thirty years, I have taught climate science at three different universities. What I have observed is that students are increasingly being fed climate change advocacy as a surrogate for becoming climate science literate. This makes them easy targets for the climate alarmism that pervades America today.
Earth's climate probably is the most complicated non-living system one can study, because it naturally integrates astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, geology, hydrology, oceanography and cryology, and also includes human behavior by both responding to and affecting human activities. Current concerns over climate change have further pushed climate science to the forefront of scientific inquiry.
What should we be teaching college students?
At the very least, a student should be able to identify and describe the basic processes that cause Earth's climate to vary from poles to equator, from coasts to the center of continents, from the Dead Sea or Death Valley depression to the top of Mount Everest or Denali. A still more literate student would understand how the oceans, biosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere – driven by energy from the sun – all work in constantly changing combinations to produce our very complicated climate.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Global Change Research Program's definition of climate science literacy raises the question of whether climatology is even a science. It defines climate science literacy as "an understanding of your influence on climate and climate's influence on you and society."
How can students understand and put into perspective their influence on the Earth's climate if they don't understand the myriad of processes that affect our climate? If they don't understand the complexity of climate itself? If they are told only human aspects matter? And if they don't understand these processes, how can they possibly comprehend how climate influences them and society in general?
Worse still, many of our colleges are working against scientific literacy for students.
At the University of Delaware, the Maryland and Delaware Climate Change Education Assessment and Research (MADE CLEAR) defines the distinction between weather and climate by stating that "climate is measured over hundreds or thousands of years," and defining climate as "average weather." That presupposes that climate is static, or should be, and that climate change is unordinary in our lifetime and, by implication, undesirable.
Climate, however, is not static. It is highly variable, on timescales from years to millennia – for reasons that include, but certainly are not limited to, human activity.
This Delaware-Maryland program identifies rising concentrations of greenhouse gases – most notably carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – as the only reason why temperatures have risen about 0.6°C (1.1º F) over the last century and will supposedly continue to rise over the next century. Students are then instructed to save energy, calculate their carbon footprint, and reduce, reuse, recycle. Mastering these concepts, they are told, leads to "climate science literacy." It does not.
In the past, I have been invited to speak at three different universities during their semester-long and college-wide focus on climate science literacy. At all three, two movies were required viewing by all students, to assist them in becoming climate science literate: Al Gore's biased version of climate science, An Inconvenient Truth, and the 2004 climate science fiction disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow.
This past spring, the University of Delaware sponsored an Environmental Film Festival featuring six films. Among them only An Inconvenient Truth touched at all on the science behind climate change, albeit in such a highly flawed way that in Britain, students must be warned about its bias. The other films were activist-oriented and included movies that are admittedly science fiction or focus on "climate change solutions."
For these films, university faculty members were selected to moderate discussions. We have a large College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment, from which agreeable, scientifically knowledgeable faculty could have been chosen. Instead, discussion of An Inconvenient Truth was led by a professor of philosophy, and one movie – a documentary on climate change "solutions" that argues solutions are pertinent irrespective of the science – was moderated by a civil engineer.
Discussion of the remaining four films was led by faculty from history, English and journalism. Clearly, there was little interest in the substance of the science.
Many fundamentals of climate science are absent from university efforts to promote climate science literacy. For example, students seldom learn that the most important chemical compound with respect to the Earth's climate is not carbon dioxide, but water. Water influences almost every aspect of the Earth's energy balance, because it is so prevalent, because it appears in solid, liquid and gas form in substantial quantities, and because energy is transferred by the water's mobility and when it changes its physical state. Since precipitation varies considerably from year to year, changes in water availability substantially affect our climate every year.
Hearing about water, however, doesn't set off alarms like carbon dioxide does.
Contributing to the increased focus on climate change advocacy is the pressure placed on faculty members who do not sign on to the advocacy bandwagon. The University of Delaware has played the role of activist and used FOIA requests to attempt to intimidate me because I have spoken out about climate change alarmism. In my article published in Academic Questions, "The University vs. Academic Freedom," I discuss the university's willingness to go along with Greenpeace in its quest for my documents and emails pertaining to my research.
Much grant money and fame, power and influence, are to be had for those who follow the advocates' game plan. By contrast, the penalties for not going along with alarmist positions are quite severe.
For example, one of the films shown at the University of Delaware's film festival presents those who disagree with climate change extremism as pundits for hire who misrepresent themselves as a scientific authority. Young faculty members are sent a very pointed message: adopt the advocacy position – or else.
Making matters worse, consider Senate Bill 3074. Introduced into the U.S. Senate on June 16 of this year, it authorizes the establishment of a national climate change education program. Once again, the emphasis is on teaching energy and climate advocacy, rather than teaching science and increasing scientific knowledge and comprehension.
The director of the National Center for Science Education commented that the bill was designed to "[equip] students with the knowledge and knowhow required for them to flourish in a warming world." Unfortunately, it will do little to educate them regarding climate science.
I fear that our climate science curriculum has been co-opted, to satisfy the climate change fear-mongering agenda that pervades our society today. Instead of teaching the science behind Earth's climate, advocates have taken the initiative to convert it to a social agenda of environmental activism.
Climatology, unfortunately, has been transformed into a social and political science. There is nothing wrong with either of those "sciences," of course. But the flaws underpinning climate science advocacy are masked by "concern for the environment," when climate is no longer treated as a physical science.
Climate science must return to being a real science and not simply a vehicle to promote advocacy talking points. When that happens, students will find that scientific facts are the real "inconvenient truths."
David R. Legates, PhD, CCM, is a Professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. A version of this article appeared on the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy website.