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Coming to Grips with Climate Change

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

By: Jeremy Teitelbaum

Earlier this semester, I met Gene Likens for lunch at Rein’s Deli in Vernon. Likens is a visiting Distinguished Professor in the College’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is perhaps best known for the work he and his colleagues did in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that established the existence of acid rain, its man-made origin, and its impact on forests in the northeast.

At our lunch, Likens reminded me that universities are responsible for insisting that our students get the basic scientific literacy and the fundamental critical skills to come to grips with the systemic environmental challenges that the world is now facing. And he also pointed out – gently, but firmly – that leaders in the academic community need to speak out in support of the legitimacy of scientific inquiry in the face of politically, economically, and religiously motivated attempts to undermine that legitimacy.

Likens’ concerns seem even more urgent as the new majority takes control of the House of Representatives, and a significant number of major committee chairmanships will be held by individuals who reject the established scientific consensus on global climate change and its human origin.

We academics must prepare students to come to grips with global climate change and other challenges of the future. It is our responsibility to insist that our students get a basic grounding in science and mathematics, and that they are equipped to absorb the data and appreciate the basic processes driving global climate change: burn a lot of oil and gas, release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trap heat – and the earth warms up.

I wish I could be confident that a grounding in science would be enough for most people to come to accept the environmental dangers we face, but I fear that it is only part of what’s needed. Despite the current scientific consensus, individuals seeking to manipulate the issue of climate change for political ends, or who have an economic interest to protect, or who want to sell media content – and even some with legitimate scientific reservations – are actively generating a cloud of confusion that can create doubt even in people with good scientific literacy.

These sowers of doubt are helped by the fact that, however much we may wish to separate the scientific consensus on the fact of global warming from the intensely political question of what to do about it, there is an undeniable human tendency to deny the existence of a problem rather than make sacrifices to deal with it. Consider the fact that there was good evidence as early as the 1930’s that cigarettes cause cancer, that the surgeon general published a definitive report on the subject in the early 1960’s – and yet people are still smoking.

So, while scientific literacy has to be a key element of an effective education, it isn’t enough. We need to undermine the complacency that allows people to discount uncomfortable news, to set aside facts that go beyond their immediate, mundane experiences, and to assume that “everything will be all right in the end.” An education that confronts the unfamiliar and difficult is one way to shake people up and equip them to respond to difficulties in real life.

The unfamiliar and difficult could be in science, where quantum mechanics and relativity tell you quickly that the world is nothing like it appears to be; where a look into the mechanisms of cell biology gives you a glimpse of the startling complexity of life; and where non-Euclidean geometries show you that one can conceive of completely different universes nothing like our own.

When it comes to shaking up preconceptions about the world, though, we must not forget about the unfamiliar and difficult in humanity, as revealed by the complexities of human history, the variety of human experiences in literature and the arts, and the strange twists and turns of human behavior explored by the social sciences.

I’ve always been a fan of adventure stories like John Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. For Krakauer’s Everest climbers, experience and technical knowledge are not the only qualities that separate those who survive from those who do not. They are indeed crucial; but just as crucial is good judgment. Faced with changing conditions, some climbers discount the dangers, or focus on inessentials, or dither. They die. Some recognize the threat, gather their resources, focus on essentials, and survive.

Climate science has put our society on Mount Everest and given us warning of dangers ahead. Complacency is a recipe for disaster. Our survival depends on our understanding of the basic scientific issues, and we must teach and learn those fundamentals. It depends, too, on our collective ability to acknowledge the possibility of a difficult and potentially unpleasant future. I am not sure if we can teach that quality, but we have to try.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.


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