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University should take advantage of Fossil Free UCT campaign to create ‘teachable moments’

Tom Harris. Tom Harris.

Opinion piece by Tom Harris, Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.

A teachable moment is a critical time during which learning about a particular issue becomes easiest.  In his 1998 book, Sequential Problem Solving: A Student handbook, American author Fredric B. Lozo defined a teachable moment as “that moment when a unique, high interest situation arises that lends itself to discussion of a particular topic.”

The Fossil Free divestment campaign at the University of Cape Town (UCT) provides superb teachable moments to help students improve their research and critical thinking skills.  In this article I discuss how UCT leaders can take advantage of the strong personal engagement student activists feel towards climate change and energy to transform confrontational meetings into teachable moments.

In 2012, the American climate activist group 350.org began the Fossil Free divestment campaign. It encourages university and college students to pressure their schools into divesting their endowments of companies that 350.org considers the main threat to the climate due to their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Instead of quickly yielding to student pressure, or immediately rejecting their demands, UCT staff must motivate young people to learn more about the issues at hand, think critically, and come to their own conclusions based on the evidence they find. Students should be encouraged to free themselves from politically correct ‘group think’ and put aside the simplistic, and often wrong, talking points provided by professional activists. Progressive universities and colleges want students to be fearless intellectual explorers, not mere followers of contemporary fashion. Later in their lives, many will work for organizations that demand unthinking conformity, so now is the time to learn to think for themselves.

The contentious and complex climate change issue is ideal for such exploration. As the 1,500 Carleton University students who took my courses in climate science here in Ottawa, Canada know, I like to challenge young people with questions, including, and some would say especially, politically incorrect ones…questions they may have never thought of before but which may entirely change their perspectives…questions that groups from both extremes in the climate debate would rather no one asked, but which we must if we are to come to rational conclusions.

Here is a sample of the sort of questions UCT officials should ask student activists when the fossil fuel divestment issue arises (questions and student answers should be widely reported within the university community so that UCT students and staff will come to better understand what they are being asked to support):

1. Have there been previous times when the sort of climate change we are experiencing now occurred? Students should be asked to show evidence of pastArctic and Antarctic ice melt, sea level rise, temperatures, extreme storms, etc.

Of course, climate always changes, at times very quickly. So the follow-up question would naturally be, what caused those past changes?

Most activist students will not be able to answer these questions aside from repeating talking points provided by their leaders. That is not good enough. They personally must know the answers or their activism will be revealed as shallow.

2. Are the changes we are seeing today dangerous to human society or the environment? What happened in the past when these sorts of changes occurred? Did civilizations collapse? If so, why did they collapse? What can we do better to prepare for inevitable changes—warming, cooling, drought and flood, and everything else in a dynamic and variable climate?

3. Are the issues that concern students primarily due to atmospheric warming? Or is it due to changes in winds, cloudiness, precipitation, particulate pollution levels, ocean currents, or ocean temperature? How do these phenomena relate to atmospheric temperature?

4. If the issues that concern activists are unusual, dangerous, and due to atmospheric warming, is the warming primarily due to increases in CO2, or are other factors such as changes in the brightness of the Sun playing more important roles?

5. If the problems students foresee are unusual, dangerous, and due to atmospheric warming caused by COincrease, is the major part of that CO2 rise due to human activity?

Students should be reminded that the main source of CO2 emissions are the oceans. It takes only a small rise in ocean temperature, however caused, for massive quantities of the gas to be released. Oceans have always warmed and cooled for natural reasons so CO2 levels have also always changed naturally.

6. Can students show the results of reliable, unbiased worldwide polls of scientists that demonstrate the degree to which they support the hypothesis that humanity’s CO2 emissions are causing dangerous climate change?

The experts polled must be scientists who focus on the causes of climate change, not just its impacts or possible solutions (e.g., adaptation.) Also, it must bedangerous climate change that the experts are asked about. While the causes of climate change is an interesting science topic, it is only if such changes are dangerous that the issue becomes a public policy concern.

7. If the phenomena that activists are trying to stop are indeed unusual, dangerous, and due to atmospheric warming caused by human CO2 emissions, is it more effective to reduce CO2 emissions or to adapt to these changes?

No student will know the answer to this question since even specialists in the field do not. Many argue that it is more cost effective to simply prepare for whatever happens next. They point out that we can’t reliably forecast economic and technological advances or even whether warming or cooling lie ahead. Regardless, students should be expected to have done enough research about this crucially important question so that they are able to present a thoughtful answer.

8. If society did follow Fossil Free’s lead and stopped using hydrocarbon fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas, what energy sources would we use? Student activists should be expected to explain the capacity and the cost of alternatives in comparison with conventional power sources. 

Few activists will be able to properly respond to any of the above questions off the cuff. However, academic leaders should not chastise students for this since, as the students will discover when they research the issues, many of the most important questions in the climate debate do not yet have reliable answers. That will not be a comfortable thought for students who believe that the science is “settled.” But an important part of the learning process is coming to appreciate what we still do not know in this, arguably the most complicated science ever tackled.

And, finally, a social justice question should be asked of the students:

9. Currently, of the $1bn US Dollars being spent everyday around the world on climate finance, only 6% of it is dedicated to helping people adapt to climate change today, however caused. The rest goes to trying to stop what might happen decades in the future. This distribution of funds is effectively assigning more value to the lives of people yet to be born than those suffering today. Is this ethical? If not, what should the balance be?

For many of the students, joining the Fossil Free campaign would have been an emotional leap in faith to “save the planet,” a laudable objective to be sure. However, instead of uncritically believing ‘what everyone says’, students need to be taught to think for themselves about the key questions in the climate and energy controversy. Some of them may then conclude that their crusade is backwards and that we need more, not less, fossil fuels to adapt to future climate change. This is not an unreasonable position. If fears about deadly climate change come true, Africans will need massive quantities of inexpensive, high quality, reliable power to handle greater demands for air conditioning and heating. More power will be required to irrigate lands, build dikes, strengthen public infrastructure, and relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from extreme weather.

Whether student activists come to this conclusion or not, whether academics use these suggested questions or not, university leaders must have the courage and presence of mind to use the fossil fuel divestment controversy as a teaching moment. To do otherwise is a betrayal of the sacred trust we bestow on our institutions of higher learning to help mold our future leaders by teaching them how to think.


Also read: Archbishop Tutu asks UCT to withdraw investments in fossil fuels

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