Keeping Canadian students in the dark on climate

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
January 30, 2010

Climate change is natural. Spending time and money on the issue is largely a waste,” posited Steve Paikin, host of TV Ontario’s The Agenda, to his live studio audience at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies Thursday evening. Paikin’s statement to the students came in the middle of an hour-long debate on climate change in which I participated, along with four other panelists.

The statement, the first of three that Paikin posed to the university students, came from an earlier Leger public opinion poll, but unlike the results that Leger found (16% agreed with the statement), not a single student among the 80 in attendance raised a hand in agreement. Are these students so accepting of the prevailing orthodoxy that none believes that climate change is natural, I thought, scanning their faces from my perch on the stage. Or are these students too intimidated by their peers or by the presence of the Munk Centre’s director — Janice Stein, also on the stage with me — to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy on climate change?

I found the students’ silence disquieting. The majority of the public in the English speaking world no longer gives credence to the view that humans are responsible for climate change. In the U.S. where the abandonment is most pronounced, only 36% blame humans, according a recent Pew poll. In the U.K., the figure is 41%. The abandonment is across the board, involving members of all major political parties, and all age groups, youths included. In the U.S., 45% of those under 30 blame humans, in the UK, 42%.

So why would no student in the room — either out of youthful brashness or defiance of authority or conviction based on knowledge — utter a peep?

If any of them had done their homework on this issue, they would have found that the Arctic ice is expanding, not shrinking; that the Antarctic, too, is gaining ice, not melting; that polar bear populations are not in decline, that global temperatures have been dropping over the last decade, not warming as the computer models had predicted; and that, in any event, none of the computer models on which claims of climate change rest — not one — has been made to work.

The answer to the students’ reticence to speak up is surely a consequence of Canada’s educational system. At our high schools, climate change is taught as dogma, with Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, a staple (in the U.K., after a high-profile case before the High Court found that An Inconvenient Truth is an error-filled work of propaganda, Gore’s film can no longer be presented as scientifically valid). At our universities, no school dares encourage debate on global warming among its faculty, for fear of repercussions in research funding. By the time students have gone through high school and experienced a year or two of Canadian university, as would have been the case with many in the Munk audience, they almost surely would never have been exposed to the scientific controversy over climate change by their schools, except dismissively. One recent graduate of an Ontario university whom I know, who only discovered the controversy over climate change after receiving her master’s in environmental engineering, feels outrage at being kept in the dark by her school in the area she chose for her career.

To my knowledge, no Canadian university has ever sponsored a formal debate on climate change involving a skeptic. Last March, to my delight, the Queen’s University Business School asked me to participate in its annual Commerce Engineering Environmental Conference. When an opportunity arose to participate in a global warming debate with Elizabeth May, the head of the Green Party, I leapt at it. When Elizabeth withdrew from the debate, I readily accepted the alternative debater that the organizers proposed. Then after a period of apparent hemming and hawing, the school disinvited me without explanation, other than saying it was “no longer an option” for me to appear in a global warming debate.

Until a few months ago, I was expecting to participate in a debate at this year’s conference at Queen’s. Following my disinvite last year, I wrote a column describing my disinvitation, which led members of Queen’s alumni to contact the school, demanding an explanation. The Dean of Queen’s School of Business then became involved, leading the conference co-chair to invite me to the 2010 conference, with assurances that every effort would be made to stage the debate. As a sign of goodwill, the university even agreed to approach a list of at least six prominent global warming experts to take me on. Alas, a few months later, Queen’s decided to rescind the commitment.

On Thursday, the Munk Centre did host a debate of sorts on climate change, and for that it deserves kudos. I was pleased to participate, even though I was the only one of five panelists who disagreed with the global warming orthodoxy, even though the other four preferred to ignore rather than confront my arguments, and even though the spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, one of the four, attacked me personally after I told the students in the audience that they could see how the Arctic ice has been changing by visiting the website of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — their satellites track continuously the ice expansions and contractions, and compare them to previous years.

But as novel as Munk was to allow me to participate, it could serve its students better still by exposing them to varying viewpoints, and encouraging them to think for themselves. If Janice Stein and the Munk faculty are confident that man is precipitating dangerous climate change, and if they trust their students to discern good science and good policy from bad, they should debate the other side rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

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