Penn State professors Michael Mann, Donald Brown, Janet Swim and Rick Schuhmann, and graduate student Peter Buckland spoke Monday evening at “Changing the Moral Climate on Climate Change,” a talk that focused on climate change denial. Mann is director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and part of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Susannah Barsom, with the university’s Center for Sustainability, moderated the event, which included a question and answer session.See images of the event here or our sister publication, Voices of Central Pennsylvania.
The five speakers walked the audience through the dilemmas climate change, climate change disinformation and various kinds of climate change denial create. In particular, they addressed why and how universities should do better to confront these issues.
Don Brown outlined the consensus position and the strategy and tactics the disinformation campaign uses to sew doubt in the public. Every major national and international scientific organization from the World Meteorological Organization to the American Geophysical Union recognizes that climate change is real and caused by human beings burning fossil fuels. There is less than 5% chance that it is some other cause. As Michael Mann pointed out later, without the CO2 put in the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning, the climate would have cooled because of natural variation.
Second, Brown outlined eight areas ranging from the creation of front groups, astroturf campaigns (fake grassroots), and manufacturing fake science to cyber-bullying scientists. You can read about them at Climate Ethics here, here, and here. At some fundamental level, these actions are morally problematic if not totally reprehensible because they are dishonest and harm people and the environment because they stall meaningful action. Brown served in the E.P.A. for the Clinton Administration, a job for which he served at the United Nations as well. He emphasized that the United States has hampered meaningful action on climate change more than any other nation. Universities, he said, should change this situation.
Peter Buckland discussed the way these campaigns counter the civic purposes of higher education and noted responses from higher education organizations. Looking over purposes of education found by the Carnegie Foundation, he showed specific examples of higher education's civic responsibilities. He showed the audience international, national, regional, and student coalitions responding to the sustainability crises in general and climate change in particular. Though Penn State has goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has formulated a Sustainability Strategic Plan (Buckland served on the metrics team) it lacks a climate action plan and an authoritative statement by the president on the reality of climate change and the necessity for meaningful action.
Janet Swim, who headed the American Psychological Association's task force on the psychology of climate change, talked about five kinds of denial and their relevance to climate change. Importantly she noted that few people - 22% - literally deny climate change. However, there are others like denial of responsibility. For example, people tend to discount the future in favor of the present and the distant from the near. She cited studies showing people believe climate change will affect other people somewhere else at some other time and will affect them worse than it will affect them where they are. Fascinating. And all of this without the influence of ideology.
Finally, Michael E. Mann showed the audience the reality of climate change, the kinds of attacks he has withstood, and then some of the solutions we need to take on. The science is simple physics and chemistry - CO2 is a greenhouse gas and we should expect the more goes into the atmosphere the warmer the climate. And we do. Since the industrial revolution started, CO2 concentration has gone from 250 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric concentration to just over 390 ppm last year. We don't need models to observe these trends but models help us explain and describe what's occurred and accurately predict the future, something they've been doing well since James Hansen's 1988 model. But it's Mann's "hockey stick" graph that made him into a lightning rod.
The "hockey stick"was front and center in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (pdf). It's a reconstruction of the last ~1000 years of climate data showing recent global warming is anomalous. Since its release, the climate disinformation campaign that Don Brown described has relentlessly attacked Mann. There are now more than a dozen versions of the hockey stick that show essentially the same thing, making the case for anthropogenic climate change more powerful.
Climategate" when his emails and thousands of others were stolen from East Anglia University. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) subpoenaed him, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli has tried to get all of his emails and data, and Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has harassed him and 16 other climate scientists. Based on what? An ideological agenda backed with invented science and allied with think tanks and front groups working for fossil fuel corporations and free market ideologues.
It's fascinating that in this case it is not industry fighting with environmental groups (though that is happening too). They are going after mainstream scientists. It's practically unprecedented.
Mann finished by advocating for meaningful action. He noted that the cost of inaction is and will be much worse than action now. Our energy choices need to change very fast to avoid tipping the climate systems into potentially catastrophic scenarios. These include heavy investments in renewable energy. During the Q & A, Mann, Schuhmann, and Buckland all reiterated the military's forward thinking on this because of the numerous dangerous impacts on human societies climate change will cause (for example, see the Pentagon's Quadrennial Review). Reinforcing something Swim said, he called on all of us to think about our future and our posterity. "I have friends who are Democrats and I have friends who are Republicans. They all love their children and grandchildren."
Before the Q & A, Don Brown presented Mann with a picture of Galileo as a sign of appreciation and support. Like Galileo (though maybe not as extremely), Mann has been put through the ringer by powers that be who hoped to censor him because his findings threaten their way of doing business and even fundamentally who they believe they are. But he has stood up and his colleagues wanted to thank him.
Each of the presenters responded to a question about how higher education should respond to climate change and climate change disinformation.  There was a consensus on the panel that education needed to work across the university to develop understanding among students to make critical judgments about information in general and climate change in particular. To that end, Janet Swim advocated for more shared teaching by people in different departments. Such a department - Science, Technology, and Society - existed but is in its last days as you read this.
The university could also formulate a climate action plan and make an authoritative statement on climate change. A mega-university like Penn State has a lot of influence and such a statement would further rebuke the climate change disinformation campaign. But as Schuhmann noted, it won't be uniform. There are faculty around campus who themselves teach the disinformation message by using the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal as a source of good information on climate change. This is problematic to say the least as this letter to the editor by 37 scientists including Mann makes clear in its rebuttal of bogus climate change claims made on the WSJ's editorial page:
Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused. It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses. In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.A message like that needs to be focused on in higher education.
Universities should follow the scientific consensus on climate change and teach students the tools for critical skepticism. Skepticism is different from ideological naysaying and controversy manufacturing. Colleges and universities need take the bull by the horns to preserve society and our environment's integrity by reducing our collective reliance on fossil fuels, clearly and articulately educate for a democratic society, and develop understandings of the consequences of inaction. Finally, we should envision and act for our community and national security, identity, and integrity in sustainable ways.
[1.] Video will be up soon, hosted at the Penn State Center for Sustainability's "Sustainable State" YouTube channel.
[2.] We are working on a follow-up to the questions and they will likely be posted here.