The Most Significant Crisis

November 2023

”Universities have moved away from inquiry and disputation and toward celebrating identities and venerating certain social goals and movements.” Mark Mercer

On 2 March 2023 I gave a talk, titled ”Coal, the Climate, and a Crisis”, to a group of professors and graduate students in our department of biological sciences at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. I thought a pragmatic talk might be educational, given that conversations (in my classes) and information (coming from my university, and from society in general) around the intersection of energy, climate and a crisis in prospecting for metals seemed to me to be growing steadily more bizarre. Yet recognizing that what I wanted to say ran counter, ostensibly, to a perceived consensus, I knew it was essential I approach these topics cautiously. Notwithstanding this cautiousness – and although I expected some push back – I was genuinely surprised by the magnitude of the paranoia that my presentation generated.

It had been the conversations and the comments arising in my space exploration class that laid a seed for my “Coal, climate, crisis’ talk. In that class, for many years now, I have been ending the term by asking students to answer a question: why should people leave the earth and venture into space? Of course, many reasons are given but a particular one has been common and, by my analysis, excessively bleak:

“The effort to move people into space is largely seeking to flee the effects of climate change..”

“..climate change is likely to put the planet in a tailspin that will end with the inability of earth to support life..”

“ In the not too distant future, humanity could be in extreme danger of extinction either due to issues such as climate change….”

I feigned a small amount of ignorance and in my talk briefly explored why I thought a student might hold such an extreme view about the fate of the Earth. No surprise here; the crisis is coming largely, they almost certainly believe, because the world’s industrial activity is putting too much deadly carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This story of doom is coming at students from many directions. From American President Joseph Biden (“Climate change, climate warming, global warming is an existential threat to humanity”), Greta Thunberg (“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing”), Climate Scientist Michael Mann (“The warming of the planet caused by our profligate burning of fossil fuels poses perhaps the greatest challenge that human civilization has yet faced”), and from my own university (“Gain the Skills needed to succeed in a world define by climate change”, “This is especially important since climate change is affecting all coastal systems “).

Using a tentative and measured approach, I endeavored to show that such conclusions could, as a minimum, be challenged by evidence, that the abandoning of the earth was most likely – almost certainly – unnecessary, and that negative impacts of fossil fuel use on society must be weighed against benefits.

My talk began with the following.

  1. Fossil fuels have contributed significantly to making our naturally unlivable planet unnaturally safe for billions of people.

  2. For still billions of other people, energy poverty has been a lifelong barrier to prosperity.

  3. Prominent alternative sources of energy – solar and wind – are wholly unsuitable replacements to fossil fuels for powering a modern civilization.

  4. C02 emissions from fossil fuels have contributed to, and will continue to contribute, a slow rise in average global atmospheric temperature. Climatic impacts of this temperature rise will not metastasize into a crisis.

In support of these claims, I offered what I thought to be several anodyne observations. Energy is important to society; still today 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels; different forms of energy have different energy densities, and this is important; compared to earlier years, carbon dioxide emissions continue to be significant. And the science of climate change is replete with uncertainty about the degree that atmospheric carbon dioxide is impacting climate and weather.

In response to my talk, our department chair received a letter drafted and signed by 21 graduate students (about 1/3 of those in the department) - not all who attended my presentation. The letter was eventually disseminated to all faculty and graduate students. In their words, here is a portion of what they had to say.

“This letter was written in response to the talk entitled ‘Coal, the Climate, and a Crisis’ given in BIOL6000 on March 2, 2023. We, the individuals who have signed this letter, feel that this talk was inappropriate for a scientific seminar series and that the content of this talk undermines critical action needed to combat climate change,…..”

“Up until this point, BIOL6000 has been advertised as a scientific seminar series intended to give students the opportunity to listen to presentations and engage in discussions that involve science-based reasoning. Accordingly, the talk given on March 2nd conflicted with these objectives, as it ignored the vast majority of scientific research and expertise in the field while highlighting previously debunked conjecture.”

“…..this talk included multiple inaccurate claims regarding climate change, and given that climate change is one of the most significant crises facing our generation, we believe it is essential to equip the Department (including students, faculty, and staff) with the knowledge and skills to combat climate misinformation. Since the body of literature on climate change is so expansive and the mechanisms are quite complex,….”

“We believe that providing a platform for climate misinformation, especially in an academic setting, is harmful in multiple ways.”

That these students challenged any of my comments on the climate change science is fine and welcomed; this is what should be happening at a university. I do object, however, to their tacit claim that anything less than perfect understanding renders my talk ‘inappropriate for a scientific seminar’’ (if that is where the bar is set, no science talk would ever be given because all claims to knowledge are provisional!), that they confidently judge my ‘information’ as misinformation as measured – I am assuming – against their registry of the correct ‘information’, and that I have undermined the ambiguous ‘critical action needed to combat climate change.’

A further interesting observation is the heavy focus the student letter gave to climate change. I mostly spoke about energy, the different types, and how it is useful, commenting only briefly on climate change and in doing so willingly conceded that change is happening with our climatic system.

The students’ letter confirms to me that any level of support for fossil fuels is anathema to these individuals, and that eschewing energy of that type is less about objective reasoning and more about supporting a popular social movement.

As previously mentioned, I have taught students who, purportedly, think the earth will soon be unlivable. But before we abandon the earth – a difficult and serious action – or conclude we are in a crisis, it seems reasonable that the impacts of climate change should be rigorously assessed, in part, by giving many people an opportunity to speak on the topic. Only then will we have best judged a path forward.

I have not been asked to give a talk this year in BIOL6000.