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Posts Tagged ‘geology’

At one of Canada’s top comprehensive universities, a well-known climate change denier was recently discovered “educating” a class of undergraduate students about global warming.

The Instructor

Tom Harris spent much of his career acting as a PR consultant for fossil fuel companies. Today he directs the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), an advocacy group closely tied to the Heartland Institute. In fact, Harris is listed as a Global Warming Expert on Heartland’s website, and spoke at their 2008 conference. However, with a background in mechanical engineering, Tom Harris is hardly qualified to comment on climate science.

The ICSC’s position on climate change is, unsurprisingly, similar to Heartland’s. Their list of Core Principles includes the following gems:

  • Science is rapidly evolving away from the view that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ are a cause of dangerous climate change.
  • Climate models used by the IPCC fail to reproduce known past climates without manipulation and therefore lack the scientific integrity needed for use in climate prediction and related policy decision-making.
  • Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant – it is a necessary reactant in plant photosynthesis and so is essential for life on Earth.
  • Since science and observation have failed to substantiate the human-caused climate change hypothesis, it is premature to damage national economies with ‘carbon’ taxes, emissions trading or other schemes to control ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions.

More recently, Harris began teaching at Carleton University, an Ottawa institution that Maclean’s magazine ranks as the 7th best comprehensive university in Canada. Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective looks innocuous enough, claiming to teach “the history of earth climates, geological causes of climate change and impact that rapid climate change has had on the biosphere”. As we’ll see, the real content of the course was not so benign.

The Watchdog

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) is a Canadian society dedicated to scrutinizing scientific claims made in advertisements, classrooms, and the media. As part of the skeptic movement, they mainly address paranormal phenomena and alternative medicine, but have recently broadened their interests to include climate change denial.

Four members of CASS living in the Ottawa area became aware of Tom Harris’ teaching activities at Carleton, and requested access to videotapes made of his lectures. Earlier today, they published their findings in a disturbing report.

As Heard in University Lectures…

“We can’t even forecast how these clouds are going to move in the next week,” Harris remarked in the first lecture. “Our understanding of the physics is so bad that we can’t even do that. So to think that we could do a whole planet for 50 years in the future…” This kind of misconception, conflating weather and climate predictions, is understandable among laypeople whose only experience with atmospheric modelling is the 5-day forecast presented on the news each night. For a university instructor teaching a course dedicated to climate change, however, such an error is simply unacceptable.

But the next lecture, it got worse. At the time, sunspots were the lowest on record, and some scientists speculated that the Sun might return to Maunder Minimum conditions. However, this slight negative forcing would cancel out less than ten percent of global warming from greenhouse gases, were it to even occur. The numbers, though, didn’t stop Harris, who claimed that “we’re in for some real cooling come around 2030 because we’re going back to the conditions that existed at the time of Napoleon. So cold weather is coming.” Forget about global warming, his message was – global cooling is the real threat.

The misconceptions, oversimplifications, half-truths, and flat-out nonsense continued throughout every single lecture, leading to a whopping 142 “incorrect or equivocal claims” as tallied by the CASS report, which quoted and rebutted every single one. It’s as if Tom Harris was actively trying to hit every argument on the Skeptical Science list.

In the last lecture, the students were presented with “take-away slogans”:

  • The only constant about climate is change.
  • Carbon dioxide is plant food.
  • There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.
  • Prepare for global cooling.
  • Climate science is changing quickly.

This clear exercise in creating young climate change deniers seems to have influenced some, as shown by the RateMyProfessors reviews of the course. “Interesting course,” wrote one student. “Nice to have some fresh perspectives on global warming rather than the dramatized fear mongering versions. Harris really loves to indulge in the facts and presents some pretty compelling evidence.”

Crossing the Line

There is a line between ensuring academic freedom and providing unqualified individuals with a platform for disseminating nonsense. It is clear to me that Carleton University crossed this line long ago. I am astounded that such material is being taught at a respectable Canadian university. If the Heartland Institute’s proposed curriculum comes through, similar material might be taught in select K-12 classrooms all over the world. As an undergraduate student, the same age as many of the students in the course, I am particularly disturbed.

I have encountered climate change misinformation in my university lectures, both times in the form of false balance, a strategy that I feel many professors fall back to when an area of science is debated in the media and they want to be seen to respect all viewpoints. In both cases, I printed out some articles from Science, Nature, PNAS, and the IPCC, and went to see the prof in their office hours. We had a great conversation and we both learned something from the experience. However, it took an incredible amount of courage for me to talk to my professors like this, not only because teenage girls are naturally insecure creatures, but also because a student telling their science teacher that they’ve got the science wrong just isn’t usually done.

Even by the time they reach university, most students seem to unconditionally trust what a science teacher tells them, and will not stop to question the concepts they are being taught. Although many of my professors have encouraged us to do research outside of class and read primary literature on the topic, nearly all of my peers are content to simply copy down every word of the lecture notes and memorize it all for the final exam.

By allowing Tom Harris to teach the anti-science messages of climate change denial, Carleton University is doing a great disservice to its students. They paid for a qualified instructor to teach them accurate scientific knowledge, and instead they were taken advantage of by a powerful industry seeking to indoctrinate citizens with misinformation. This should not be permitted to continue.

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

What is the most important policy issue facing today’s young people? Climate change might not seem like an obvious contender, as it feels so distant. Indeed, the majority of impacts from global warming have yet to come. But the magnitude and extent of those impacts are being determined right now. Only today’s young people will still be around to witness the effects of today’s actions.

Many people see climate change as just another environmental issue that will only impact the polar bears and coral reefs. In fact, it’s far more wide-reaching than that. An increase of only a few degrees in average global temperature will affect human systems of all kinds: agriculture, public health, economics, and infrastructure, just to name a few.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top scientists studying global warming, says that significant changes in global temperature can be expected within the lifetimes of young people alive today – “somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.” It might sound like a small change, until you look back at the history of the Earth’s climate and realize that the last ice age was only around 5 degrees Celsius cooler than today. Additionally, the rate of warming (which is the more important metric for the ability of species, including people, to adapt) is higher today than it has been at any time for at the least the past 55 million years. Human technology has far surpassed the natural forces in the climate system, to the point where significant future warming is inevitable. In fact, says Schmidt, the climate system “hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate.”

However, the future is still quite malleable. Two degrees of warming is bad, but five degrees is far worse, and the difference between the two ends of the spectrum will depend on what we decide to do about the problem. Since our emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are causing global warming, the solution is self-evident: cut our emissions, as quickly as we can reasonably do so. Implementing this solution is not so simple, as fossil fuels are currently highly integrated into the global economy. Luckily, free-market mechanisms exist which alter the price signals of fossil fuels to better reflect the damage they cause. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is offset by reductions in income taxes or paid back evenly to the public as a dividend, is one solution; a cap-and-trade program, which treats carbon emissions like a currency, is another. While virtually nothing has been done in North America to cut emissions, the rest of the developed world has made a pretty good start.

Here in North America, the outlook for action is somewhat bleak. In the United States, says Schmidt, many people “perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests…they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists.” The Republican Party has adopted this strategy of denial, to the point where top presidential candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry truly believe that climate change is a hoax scientists cooked up to get grant money. The Democrats largely accept the science, but after nearly a full term in office, President Barack Obama hasn’t made any progress on the cap-and-trade program he promised upon his election. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he will follow whatever actions the United States takes, or does not take, on climate change policy.

It seems that action necessary to mitigate global warming won’t be taken unless citizens demand it. Otherwise, emissions will likely continue unabated until the problem is too severe to ignore any longer – and even then, the situation will get worse for decades while the climate system catches up. “No action,” says Schmidt, “is a decision in and of itself.”

What decision, then, will we make? Will we get our act together in time to keep the warming at a tolerable level? Or will we choose to let it spiral out of control? Will future societies look back on us with resentment, or with admiration? Remember, you and I are part of those future societies. But we are also part of today’s.

Thousands of years from now, it won’t matter what the US deficit was in 2011, or which nations went to war with each other, or how much we invested in higher education. These issues matter a great deal to people today, but they are very transient, like many aspects of human systems. Climate change, though, will alter the earth on a geological timescale. It will take the planet around one hundred thousand years to undo what we are doing. We are leaving behind a very unfortunate legacy to the entirety of future human civilization, and all life on Earth – a legacy that is being shaped as you read this; a legacy that we could largely avoid if we chose to.

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Several months ago, I wrote a generally favourable review of geophysicist Dr. Henry Pollack’s newest book, A World Without Ice. So when I came across his earlier book, which was about the nature of the scientific process  – something that fascinates me – I couldn’t wait to read it.

Uncertain Science, Uncertain World is about uncertainty in science, as you may have guessed from the title, and it is absolutely fantastic. If you’re pressed for time, just read the first three chapters – they’re the best. They discuss how the public’s tendency to “equate science with certainty, rather than uncertainty” has been fed by the American school system and the mass media, and what the consequences are.

He talks about how everyone is born a scientist, how children observe the world around them with a fierce curiosity, instinctively exploring and experimenting. Then they go to school, and decide that science is boring. In elementary school, and to some extent in high school, science is presented as a memorization of facts and theories, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of and barriers to our knowledge, which is what scientists actually study. “Science is presented as answers rather than questions,” Pollack writes.

I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t always the self-professed science addict that I am now. Until I reached high school, I thought that science was dry and boring, and until I started researching climate change, I didn’t see the creativity and problem-solving in it. In science class you memorize facts and do calculations, so it’s very hard for students to realize how cool it is to discover facts and derive calculations, rather than just repeating what someone else did before you. Intelligence is defined as how many facts you can stuff into your head, not how good you are at figuring things out for yourself.

The media doesn’t help, either. Pollack explores the well-known ails of science journalism, and the stigma against public communication in the scientific community. He shares a great example of how the media turned an amateur earthquake prediction, with no support from geologists, into a national frenzy that led to evacuations and the closure of schools. Mainstream journalists, in general, are not good at assessing credibility for scientific issues, but their influence on the public is so great that frequent mistakes by journalists lead to worldwide misconceptions.

This public illusion of certainty, in a field that actually thrives on uncertainty, can be easily exploited by vested interests. “When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon,” writes Pollack, “the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject,” and, for issues such as climate change, there are many people actively encouraging this jump in logic.

After the stellar beginning, the rest of the book is somewhat more mediocre, albeit still enjoyable. Pollack uses a series of examples and metaphors to explain irreducible measurement error, confidence expressed as statistical probability, conceptual and numerical models, experimentation, and forecasting vs hindcasting. As Pollack is currently studying how rocks retain heat and provide a record of past temperatures that can be used as proxy paleo data, facets of climate science are used as examples in nearly every chapter, and the last chapter of the book is devoted to climate change. However, he also uses examples from economics, plate tectonics, election polling, and the legal system. It is truly a multidisciplinary approach that will appeal to scientists and science enthusiasts from every field. Highly recommended to all.

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