In the Saturday, September 20 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Steven E. Koonin, the Undersecretary for Science at the Department of Energy during President Obama’s first term, published an essay under the provocative title “Climate Science is Not Settled.”
Okay, so maybe the title isn’t really that provocative in a normal sense. But seeing it, I had the reaction I have been conditioned to produce: I assumed the Journal was pandering to the conservative portion of its readership with a tabloid-style exposé from a disgruntled former member of the administration throwing mud at the intellectual foundations of one of that administration’s key priorities, namely, battling human-influenced climate change. The title was provocative because I’ve been trained by my friends and colleagues — those who care more about this issue than I do, who study it more (some of whom do so academically for a living), and who are generally better equipped to answer scientific questions — to see the issue as settled; only right-wing hacks think otherwise.
Initially only intending to skim the essay, I found something quite different. Koonin insists that (1) the climate is changing, and that (2) humans are influencing the climate. Later on, he adds: “There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures.” With Koonin at least attempting to avoid grouping himself with “climate-deniers,” I read on.
According to Koonin (now writing from NYU), the pressing — and largely unknown — question is: “How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?” He paints a compelling picture of how that question is being avoided for the sake of climate change orthodoxy and how discussion of it is “confined to hushed sidebar conversations at academic conferences.”
But this isn’t a blog post about climate change. I have no idea about the science on that issue. My training in biology and the environment stopped over 15 years ago in high school.
Rather, consider this short post a plea for the academy to revisit how it polices its own commitments. There have become far too many no-go areas for serious thinkers these days — not just climate change, but serious academic questions remain unvisited around privacy, free speech, the human body, reproductive science, human flourishing, economics, religion, and countless other issues. Pressing questions have become off limits to the very minds we need working on them in order to help move us toward solutions. We all know there are challenges, we all know that we’ve messed these answers up terribly in the past, but running toward easy solutions to cut off debate doesn’t do anyone any service in the long term.
I don’t work day to day in an academic setting; I’m a parish priest. But that means I count on those who engage in crucial research on humanity’s most pressing challenges to do so with an intellectual seriousness and honesty that leaves no question out of bounds, leaves no stone unturned, and isn’t afraid to create an environment of serious open discussion. College campuses and academic conferences ought not to be places of rigid conformity to an orthodoxy determined by those in control. Rather, these communities ought to be the loci of discussions where such myopic vision is whole-heartedly rejected and where sincere debate — even with those we find most offensive — can occur.
Another example: I have a number of folks in the parish I serve deeply concerned about economic development in far away places. They feel compelled by their relationship with Jesus to do something. But what to do? How does one help without doing more harm? What’s sustainable development look like when stimulated by outside influences?
Those are incredibly difficult questions, and, in fact, they may not even be the right ones. But we need an academic culture that engages with all the possibilities, rather than one obsessed with either the orthodoxy of cultural diversity and preservation or with the absolute goods of capitalism and democracy. We need everyone who is interested and able to work on those issues to do so within a free academic discourse rather than one pursuing already settled commitments.
Koonin may be a well-credentialed idiot, a turncoat on the environment, or a wolf who has finally ditched his sheep’s clothing — much has been made in the fallout from this article about his previous work in renewable energy for BP, and many have characterized his article as being riddled with errors or subtly commending “inaction” — but, from the outside of this discussion looking in, I doubt it. Take his discussion of “feedbacks,” a set of phenomena that “can dramatically amplify or mute the climate’s response to human and natural influences.” It turns out detailed observations of these critical amplifying or muting factors are relatively new and uncertain. Rather than some form of right-wing hack, Koonin seems like a serious intellect saying “Hey, the climate — something that is affected by literally everything in existence — is a bit more complicated than we’re acknowledging.”
Academic discourse ought to be the last place where anything is ever considered settled. Much of life is more complicated than the current orthodoxy pervading the academy will allow. Please — from one of the human beings who’s counting on you folks in the ivory tower to figure out some of these things — drop the certainty and open the discussion.
The image above is “Tornado Warning” (2008) by Rachel Gardner. It is licensed under Creative Commons.