Two Wednesdays ago, the sun came out at last. It radiated across campus, drying a perpetually-damp College Walk from the residue of a month’s worth of cold rain. The campus came alive again, and for a day, the toils of college life became inconsequential in the face of a glistening Columbia. Students flocked to Low, dressing the marble steps with a rainbow of clothing, winter jackets long forgotten. On that very same morning, we received a winter weather advisory. All good things must come to an end, and a fleeting winter sun is no exception.
And then, that night, it snowed. It began as a mocking snow, coarsely reminding us that this was still a New York winter. But it wasn’t quite cruel—it was Christmas-in-a-Disney-movie snow and transformed us weary college students into carefree 10-year-olds for a day. Brimming with students soaking up sun one day, Low Steps was now carpeted in snow, a hill for sledding.
“Climate change,” I heard sighed in more than a few conversations, “that’s what’s to blame.”
Paul Olsen, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the Earth Institute and the Frontiers of Science lecturer on climate change, disagrees. “It’s really quite impossible to attribute one particular set of weather events to any long-term trend,” he tells me over FaceTime after returning from shoveling snow, his hair still ruffled. “The long-term trend is an aggregation of all the events.”
This isn’t to say this weather is not an outcome of this long-term trend—Olsen does, in fact, assert that it very well could be consistent with it. It’s just that, while scientific consensus is that climate change is real, it highlights the way the term has become so appropriated into casual conversations that it seems everyone is allowed to have an “opinion” on it. This appropriation of the term and its dissociation from pure science means that many out there feel they have a claim to make about denying climate change’s existence.
Today in the United States, skepticism is pervasive, and climate change denialism ever-present. With climate change and more assertions that it is anthropogenic (i.e. caused by humans), science has entered the political sphere. Its validity is not solely debated among scientists, but hotly contested among politicians.
Climate change denial is not new: Indeed, it has existed since the first use of “global warming” by Columbia professor Wallace Broecker in 1975, the term’s politicization, and the Reagan administration’s opposition to environmental reforms. Still, it has, in recent years, become of heightened concern to those who hoped to see deep legislative efforts against it. Most recently, President Donald Trump’s election has further legitimized climate change denial in the political sphere. In less than two weeks after the inauguration, Trump’s administration announced its goal of cutting two-thirds of EPA employees and to cut the agency’s budget in half.
Consequently, scientists and professors must dedicate significant time to justifying climate change’s very existence before they can even begin delving into the nitty gritty details of the phenomenon. It’s a grueling task for science professors, to say the least. It’s as if scientific fact is allowed to be open to a myriad of opinions, as if fact becomes fiction if enough snowstorms come our way.
And, for Olsen, this means making sure when he teaches climate change, he does so with the the intention of making sure every fact about it is clear and understood.
For believers and deniers alike, the classroom serves as a fundamental asset for the promotion of their credence, but simultaneously education on the topic has been relentlessly disputed. At the elementary and secondary level, climate change experts have questioned whether teachers hold sufficient knowledge on the subject. At Columbia, that’s not a concern.
“Columbia has the top ranking earth science department in the nation,” Peter deMenocal, founding director of Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life, says. He attributes this ranking to the earth and environmental science departments being partnered with the Lamont-Doherty Observatory, a research hub just 15 miles north of Manhattan. “They’re one and the same.”
In earth science and environmental science programs, professors are taxed with teaching a subject in which people may already hold non-scientific, political predispositions, unlike those in fields of, say, chemistry, or physics. At Columbia, earth and environmental science professors must tow the line between stating the facts and engaging with the politics behind them. Sometimes even the very definition of what constitutes fact is contested.
For some professors, like deMenocal, this political debate stays out of his classroom. “There's no need to waste time on [Trump’s] opinion on this because it's not relevant to reality,” he explains. “So it makes it very easy to talk about it because it's not real.”
Still, not wasting time on the president’s opinion on climate change is far from apolitical: Disengaging is not apathetic, but rather taking a vocal stand against the infiltration of denialism in his classroom.
Olsen’s philosophy is different. He is careful not to give the impression of pushing dogma or implying that every aspect of climate change is a hard fact, by “singling out things that are still strongly debated scientifically.” He does emphasize, though, that his intention is to make the consensus on climate change explicit.
“I want to make absolutely clear,” Olsen explains, “certain things [are] pretty basic, well-understood science.”
For him, this means making sure students know the data before making assumptions. “Theories are not opinions,” Olsen asserts with frank conviction. “I've become more forceful in my presentation of the things that are really very well established.”
On the other hand, for law professors, like Michael Gerrard, politics cannot help but make its way into the classroom. Gerrard is a member of the Columbia College class of 1972 and teaches classes on climate law, environmental law, and energy law. He also founded and directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and is the chair of faculty at the Earth Institute. All of this is to say that Gerrard cares about the environment—and he is worried about what’s next.
While he emphasizes that he welcomes all viewpoints into his classroom—though admitting he has faced little resistance as a result of the self-selecting nature of classes—Gerrard feels environmental law and its political ramifications are inherently tied.
Following the election of Trump, Gerrard sent an email to the environmental law community at the Law School, expressing his concern and detailing steps the program would be taking to address the new administration and its effects on environmental policy. Most notably, he promised to devote most of the advanced seminar in climate change law this spring “to collective consideration of the role of the law in dealing with climate change in the Trump era.”
Students of environmental science and sustainable development explain that for them, the politics of the field is most concretely felt in their science classrooms when professors integrate time to disprove opposing theories into their lectures.
“Depending on the professor, they'll talk a lot more in depth about, ‘Here’s why people don’t believe in it, and here’s exactly what scientists say,’” Sadi Mosko, a Columbia College senior and sustainable development major, tells me. Outside the window, the morning’s snowstorm is subsiding, the white sidewalk dissolving into a dull gray slush.
She saw this most clearly in a class she took last semester, Earth Resources and Sustainable Development. Mosko explains that the professor, Peter Kelemen, spent a significant amount of time disproving denialism theories—such as by teaching “Climategate.”
To tell a long story quickly, in 1999, Michael Mann and colleagues’ “hockey stick graph” came out, starkly marking the impending sharp increase of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. 12 years later, he had been called a “fucking terrorist,” “killer, and “one-world-government socialist.” Many argued the graph overlooked certain uncertainties in climate readings to make it seem more dramatic and leviedad hominem attacks against Mann’s work. They based some of these attacks on a series of emails they claimed undermined the graph, though they didn’t at all.
When scientists were first making the hockey stick graphs, they controversially did not include data indicating that there was a really warm period during the medieval era, Mosko explains. “Not because it’s not important, but because they knew it would confuse people as to ‘Why is it so hot now if it was hot then?’—then though those are two totally unrelated things.’”
As for Mosko, she agreed that it is necessary for professors to prove the facts by disproving the fiction. “He was at least helping us to be able to appeal to [climate change deniers] in the future if we ever came into contact with them.” Still, she is often surprised at the outcome. “If anything, I've seen my professors give more credit to the deniers than I would ever expect,” she says.
Instances like this raise a fundamental question that implicates climate change education: How are professors supposed to grapple with teaching a subject in which concessions can be misinterpreted at detriment to the field writ large?
Emmalina Glinskis, a Columbia College senior and environmental science major, feels that while her climate science classes avoid talking politics, it’s in her sustainable development policy courses where the politics is prominent and present the classroom.
“It is very interesting to see in climate science classes, or more of the strictly traditional natural science classes, this weird wall that arises,” she explains to me over phone (our interview was snowed out). “Professors just don't want to get into the politics of it.” But the existence of this wall she mentions depends on just how political one sees climate change in the first place. Glinskis says some of the professors are more interested in engaging in it, but that more often than not, it’s the law and policy classes she takes where politics play an integral role in discussion.
One of these classes is Gerrard’s Climate Change Law class, which Glinskis is currently taking. In the class, she says, they discuss the history of climate change denial, where the phenomena appears, and why the issue is so inherently divided in our society.
Gerrard admits that his class must engage with the politics or it loses context. “The political realities are a central fact,” he says, “and the reason we do and don’t have the laws we have.”
“It’s impossible to analyze the legal system without trying to understand the political context,” he emphasizes.
Sugal Sutter, also a Columbia College senior and sustainable development major, agrees. Sutter has taken two climate science classes, and in both, students have tried to prompt the professors to share their own personal opinions on the subject. He says in each instance, the professor has remained firm in their commitment to presenting the material in an objective fashion, which to them, means not stating more than the science.
“In both courses,” Sutter comments, “the professor says, ‘Well, okay, my advice is I’m not going to talk about policy. This is a science course, science aims for analyzing in an objective way. So, here’s the evidence, you make your own conclusions.’”
However, while his science professors steer clear from opinions (though, with such a subjective definition of the “political,” this claim is itself perspective based) he feels, as expected, that politics permeate his environmental policy classrooms. “In policy classes really, you talk about politics.”
All of the students I spoke to emphasized that they are thankful for the way Columbia science professors have chosen to address the subject. Professors emphasize the data, according to the students, and make sure students have the tools to make informed decisions and engage with a skeptical world.
Olsen embraces this responsibility. To him, it is a part of his job. “I think that’s my role,” he insists, “that’s what I do as a professor.”
As for Gerrard, he views his role as an educator as one meant to prepare students with the necessary knowledge to enact change in the future. “I want to help students be able to analyze the legal structures that exist and those that might be,” he explains, “and to help equip them to work with and change those legal structures in the future.”
While students seem to appreciate their professors efforts in the classroom, faculty members themselves are also stepping out of the realm of academia and are starting to engage with the government and wider public.
“I have detected a healthy tendency within the recent months for more active engagement of professors in talking to the public,” Olsen says. He notes that this has been something he has been doing for decades and is pleased to see other professors choosing to do so as well.
Columbia professors, as Olsen mentions, have not shied away from entering public discourse to challenge this. In November 2015, a group of Columbia professors were a part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Later that academic year, in March, James Hansen, adjunct senior research scientist at Columbia’s Earth Institute, published a controversial paper in the European journal “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics” where he made a series of dramatic predictions regarding climate change.
While the new administration has already impacted the scientists of today, future scientists fear what’s next as well. Sutter is a senior and tells me that he worries about job uncertainty. “It’s definitely going to affect every single sustainable development major.”
Just like warm winter days are finite and snow melts away, public opinion is malleable, ever changing. In this political war, battles are not won with weapons, they are combatted with facts—facts that Columbia professors dedicate their lives to.
In these times of turmoil and great uncertainty, the professors I spoke to are ready to take on this challenge, inside of the classroom and out. Gerrard and Olsen continue to give lectures to the public across the country, which Olsen feels allows him to reach a wider audience than in the bubble of New York.
Looking forward, then, it is clear that Trump’s administration will not be able to push its climate denial unopposed. In fact, Gerrard notes that the election seems to have manifested an increased interest in his classes—especially environmental law.
The classroom is a scientist’s battleground. It’s where the knowledge they hold proliferates, where future thinkers and leaders begin their search for truth. And, it appears, Columbia professors are planning on keeping it that way.
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