Reason vs. Guns and Denial of Global Warming

Academics need to embrace the facts in their classrooms about important social issues, however risky it may be, writes Steve Wolverton.

October 12, 2015

It’s 2 a.m. on Friday, and I awaken and slowly consider the topic that I will teach in my class on earth science later today: global warming.

It is irrational to think there is a high probability that a licensed handgun owner will attend my class, have different perspectives than what I teach, become vitriolic, and pull out a gun and shoot me -- or worse, my students. Intellectually, I know that is unlikely. Reason, unfortunately, is not the same thing as emotion. Emotionally, I feel vulnerable standing in front of 120 students. I will be the focal point of their attention, and deep inside I am terrified.

I am frightened because I see a correlation between those who have decided there should be guns on campuses and those who deny anthropogenic global warming is occurring, despite clear scientific evidence that it is. The correlation is that, in both cases, many people are refusing to accept the facts. The fear is real because lives are being taken.

This week, I watched a video of a televised hearing on Capitol Hill in which Senator Ted Cruz questioned Aaron Mair, the president of the Sierra Club, about the veracity of warming trends. In that video, not only does the senator avoid referring to actual data sources, he frequently uses the terms “satellite data,” “facts” and “debate” to gain authority over the situation. Watching it, I suddenly realized that he had no need to cite sources and was not interested in a burden of proof. Rather, he was interested in winning because (like significant percent of the members of Congress) he is a lawyer. In the courtroom there are rules, and prosecuting attorneys do all that they can to win. At 2:20 a.m. on the morning of my class, I wonder how I should deal with any students who watched the interchange.

By 2:30 a.m., I have found a Washington Post article providing many of the particulars of what Senator Cruz omitted: direct NASA meteorological and sea surface temperature data that clearly show global warming over the same period that Cruz dismissed using (unsourced) “satellite data.”

At 3 a.m., I am integrating this new information into my lecture later that morning, but I am even more worried because I feel passionate (and that is risky). I want to argue my case, but I am afraid because just last week an angry student shot 18 students at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, nine of whom died. I arrive at work at 7:30 a.m., check my facts on NASA data online, and find from that there has been another campus shooting overnight at Northern Arizona University. And, a few hours later, I receive reports of yet another one in my own state, near Texas Southern University.

So, there it is. Today, I will be the focal point of an earth science class, talking about a controversial topic that correlates politically with the issue of guns in the classroom. Most of the students began the semester with little to no interest in becoming scientists. And being mainly from Texas, a high proportion of these students are likely to disagree with my perspectives on science, education, society, economics and politics. A panicked sleep-deprived concern is that any one of 120 could be angry, might disagree with me and might have a gun. Although this is an irrational fear, campus shootings are committed by irrational, disenfranchised individuals.

It may appear that I have only two choices as to how to handle my fear. One would be to deny it and to teach my perspective on global warming with frustration and passion. Yet this strategy is actually riskier than being shot; people might listen to it because of my passion rather than because of data, logic and reason. That is, I might “convince them” that I am right and climate deniers are wrong, but that would be a tragedy because I, too, would become like a prosecution attorney concerned solely with winning. Second, I could avoid presenting my perspective, which I hold to be scientifically valid. That, however, would shortchange the students who are taking an earth science class.

So instead, I settle on a third option. I will present them with data that provide evidence for anthropogenic global warming and review the greenhouse effect as an important mechanism driving the warming trend. That represents the 97 percent scientific consensus that climate deniers won’t acknowledge. Then, I will share with them the basic contents of this essay. That is, I will lay out the ways in which I am feeling compromised in the classroom as a scientist. I will become an untrained lawyer for the defense, and then I will let them decide for themselves.

I find that this is the only option because politics in the United States has become a series of prosecutions that never rest. The playing field is somewhat unfair for scientists because we do not believe that the environment represents a “special interest”; rather, we consider it a common good. In addition, the prosecution is not taking place in a courtroom with established procedures and rules. Climate deniers do not have to rest their case; there is no summation of their argument. Should their arguments be exposed as invalid, they are free to change course and attack from another angle. It’s relentless.

I cannot be overly passionate in classroom because that too is unfair to students. The only way through this is deliberate, careful logic and shared compassion for the world. Anything else is a compromise that empowers anthropogenic global warming denial. And, with that, I must rest my case.


Steve Wolverton is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Texas. He is the co-editor, with David Taylor, of Sushi in Cortez: Interdisciplinary Essays on Mesa Verde, published this year by the University of Utah Press.


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