Outside the 'Consensus'—Notes of a Climate Change 'Denier'

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on April 20, 2014.

As a child I relished picking through rocks to find fossils of the lush tropical swamp that once covered my corner of southwest Pennsylvania. On trips to Ohio I collected specimens of the briny brachiopods that littered the floor of an inland ocean. Climate changes. I knew that by age seven. Whether it is changing now in the manner of a tea kettle on slow boil is another matter. And whether such changes as can be observed, large or small, have much to do with human carbon dioxide emissions is still another.

Gradually I have found myself more impressed with the arguments of the climate change skeptics—the reviled "deniers"—than with the Michael Mann school of hockey stickology or the IPCC striptease in which it discards its pretences to "settled science" a glove at a time without ever getting down to bare truth. 

Unheard of Diversity

But these are my personal opinions and I preside over an organization that takes no official position on climate change. The National Association of Scholars isn't a body that can weigh the substantive merits of competing scientific models. We are referees, concerned that all sides play by the rules, not goalkeepers, much less goalmakers. And we have members who have diverse opinions about whether, how much, and where from climate change happens.

That diversity, of course, is nearly unheard of in the academy itself, where a hardened orthodoxy is enforced with increasing determination. The enforcement itself tells a story. No one has to enforce an orthodoxy on plate tectonics, quantum theory, or Andrew Wile's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. All of these were once controversial. Wile's original proof was shown to be defective. He fixed it. The theories advanced by the accumulation of hard evidence and the rigor of the analysis.

In my own field, anthropology, I have lived through the replacement of "consensus" on the idea that the makers of the so-called Clovis spear points, which go back 13,500 years, were the first Native Americans. The "Clovis First" theory always had doubters but it dominated from the 1930s until 1999, when archaeologists in large numbers accepted the evidence of older populations. Likewise, there was a long-established consensus that Neanderthal and modern Homo Sapiens did not successfully interbreed—though here too there were always some dissenters. We now know for a certainty (based on the successful sequencing of the Neanderthal genome) that our species did indeed mix, and modern Europeans carry a percent or two of Neanderthal genes.

The Wall of Artificial 'Consensus'

In time, scientific controversies get resolved, often by the emergence of new kinds of evidence that no one originally imagined. Views that are maintained, to some degree, by a wall of artificial "consensus" die hard. That, of course, was one of the lessons of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which inaugurated the long vogue for the word "paradigm" to describe a broadly accepted theory. Kuhn's work has often served as a warrant for those who see science as a social project amenable to political manipulation rather than an intellectual endeavor with strict standards of evidence and built-in mechanisms for correcting mistakes.

Thus when the "anthropogenic global warming" (AGW) folks insist that they command a "consensus" of climate scientists, they fully understand that they are engaged in a political act. They intend to summon the social and political dynamics that will create a "consensus," by defining the skeptics as a disreputable minority that need not even be counted. It is a big gamble since a substantial number of the skeptics are themselves well-established and highly respected scientists, such as MIT's Richard Lindzen, Princeton's Will Happer, and Institute of Advanced Studies' Freeman Dyson. But conjuring a new "paradigm" out of highly ambiguous data run through simulation computer models is tricky business and isn't likely to produce a "consensus" all on its own.

What's needed is the stamp of authority. And if that doesn't work, just keep stamping. Or stomping.

Drew Faust Is On Board

The latest example of the just-keep-stomping approach to establishing scientific consensus was an announcement this month, "Confronting Climate Change," from Harvard president Drew Faust. She lets the reader know from the first sentence that she is fully on board with the orthodoxy:

Worldwide scientific consensus has clearly established that climate change poses a serious threat to our future—and increasingly to our present. 

I don't need to belabor that. She explains that Harvard has a big role to play; Harvard is accountable to the future, & etc. The university, she owns, already has a breathtakingly large investment in promoting this doctrine, including 200 faculty members working on environmental issues, "some 250 courses across the University focusing on aspects of environmental sustainability," and $120 million raised in funds earmarked for "energy and environment" research.

The hard news in her announcement comes in the tenth paragraph:

Today I am pleased to report that we have decided to become a signatory to two organizations internationally recognized as leaders in developing best-practice guidelines for investors and in driving corporate disclosure to inform and promote sustainable investment.

The two organizations are the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project's (CDP) climate change program. The rest of president Faust's statement is best understood as scaffolding for these points. Background: last October President Faust took heat from Harvard students for refusing to accede to a popular demand that Harvard divest its holdings in carbon-based energy companies. She said at the time that the cost to Harvard from the lost value of these investments would be too great. By now joining the PRI and the CDP, President Faust attempts to buy herself and Harvard some breathing room from the continuing pressure of students who support Bill McKibben's pro-divestment movement, 350.org.

Sustainability Pressure Groups

PRI, as she puts it, makes Harvard part of "a network of international investors" who aim to integrate "environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and ownership." CDP "works with investors to request that portfolio companies account for and disclose information on greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and carbon risks associated with their business activities."  

These are, in other words, sustainability pressure groups—where "sustainability" is understood as embracing social and economic factors as well as environmental ones. Maybe they will give Harvard the cover to hold onto to its prospering carbon energy stocks. After all, many of the carbon energy companies position themselves as ardent public supporters of sustainability that just happen to be in hydrocarbon extraction business.

President Faust's effort to buy peace with sustainability extremists is almost certain to fail. A few days after her announcement, for example, the "Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition" rallied on the steps of Widener Library to protest Harvard-owned timber plantations in Argentina. There will be no end to this sort of thing because, as the French social theorist Pascal Bruckner has put it, sustainability is a secular salvation cult with a "seductive attraction to disaster." It cannot give up on its apocalyptic narrative no matter how many battles it wins along the way. President Faust's appeasement has so far resulted only in an open letter signed by "nearly 100" Harvard faculty members demanding the university sell off its fossil fuel investments. Desmond Tutu lent his voice as well by calling for "an anti-apartheid-style boycott and divestment campaign against the industry for its role in driving climate change."

President Faust may have failed to soothe the hard-core divestment activists, but that doesn't mean her actions have no significance. For one thing, Harvard told the Boston Globe that it is the first U.S. university to sign the United Nations' PRI, which gives PRI instant cachet in American higher education. We should expect many colleges and universities to follow suit.

Perhaps even more to the point, the signing of both agreements means that the largest university endowment in the world will now be managed more or less in accord with the "consensus" on climate change. Harvard, of course, is free to do what it wants with its money.  Who am I, an anthropologist, to disagree with the judgment of President Faust, a historian of the Civil War, on how many parts per million carbon dioxide are right for the Earth's atmosphere? These decisions come from some place, but not, pace President Faust, from "worldwide scientific consensus."

Perhaps eons hence someone picking through the rocks in what once was Cambridge will find fossils of delicate imprint showing that once intelligent life once lived until it was lost in a mass extinction brought on by "consensus."

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