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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Why We Need More Public Scholars
December 22, 2011 - 9:31am

Recently, I noted that the Canadian public seems better informed on climate change than their counterparts here in the USA.  I brought the contrast up only to debunk the "it's human nature to disbelieve global warming" argument, and my timing was particularly unfortunate in that Canada was announcing its withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty just as I was writing my post.

I think the original point still stands, but the Canadian about-face highlights another important point: not only are the citizens of the two countries equally human, the governments thereof are equally manipulative of public opinion.  And equally unconcerned with the long term in which most of those humans hope to exist.

Since its Kyoto withdrawal, Canada has felt the force of public opinion, particularly from Europe.  To deflect some of this, government ministers have been describing tar sands oil as a sustainable resource with an ever-decreasing environmental footprint.  Of course, they have no credible evidence to support the latter half of that claim, and the idea that any finite resource can be exploited sustainably is absurd on its face.  But the government's intent is not to exhibit rational credibility, but rather to "provide assurance that oil sands production is environmentally responsible in order to secure the industry's social license to operate."  (The fact that official communications participate in the rebranding of tar sands as "oil sands" is, in itself, indicative.)

Apparently, though, it's not just the Canadian government that's pushing this propaganda.  The US Department of State (under its current leadership, btw) appears to be encouraging -- even helping -- them to do it.  One of the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks expresses concern with improving "oil sands messaging", including "increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories."  Sounds like Foggy Bottom is at least equally concerned with "the industry's social license to operate" and viability -- certainly more concerned than they are with the viability of alternative energy provision.

So what does all this have to do with a need for more public scholarship?  Well, the oil industry's (particularly, the tar sands oil industry's) social license to operate is protected, in large part, by the American public's disinformed stance on climate change.  That stance is rooted, of course, in the discourse that takes place largely in the media.  And that discourse is, at best, terribly one-sided.  Check out this compilation of insinuations, implications, and outright misstatements of fact:



Note the arrogance of assumed authority, the seeming assurance that no one will call "Balderdash", the snide savage air of superiority.

But that assurance seems largely justified.  Go looking for network broadcasts of the truth that increased snowfall is a predictable -- indeed, a repeatedly predicted -- consequence of global warming.  They're hard to find.  I know, I've looked.  Oh, there are a couple of videos to be found (such as this and that), but not many and not as forceful.

If the purpose of universities in modern society is -- even in part -- to advance a respect for knowledge, to promote informed and rational decision-making, to enhance the level of public discourse on major issues, then the current content and tone of the public discussion on climate change is evidence of how badly we're performing.  We need to do better.  We, as an economic sector or a social institution or whatever we wish to call ourselves, need to have a public face on this matter.  It doesn't need to be a face that's 100% uniform, but it needs to be a face that demonstrates rational discourse based in empirical evidence.  Who better than scholars to be that voice, and who better than universities to be that face?



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