Editor’s Note: Physicist Luboš Motl’s take on the lefties divestment campaign at MIT/Cambridge and his views on catastrophic global warming, consensus science, and adaptation.
MIT faculty divestment petition. I don’t think that it’s a big deal if MIT eliminates the fossil fuel companies from its endowment. Most investors don’t have any fossil fuel companies, either, and whatever they have, they may switch from one sector to another.Together, Aaronson, Chomsky, and 79 other “luminaries” have signed under the
The campaign is clearly meant to be a theater analogous to the Night of Broken Glass. During the night of 9-10th of November 1938, the Third Reich saw omnipresent pogroms against the Jews and their property. Aaronson, Chomsky, and pals want to do the same thing to the companies providing us with the most abundant and cheapest source of energy as of today, the fossil fuel companies. These Luddites would like to delegitimize this sector of the economy, hurt it, and ultimately destroy it.
Those 81 people who signed are an extreme minority at the MIT, the insane far left wing fringe. You may be sure that if 81 MIT faculty gathered to support a right-wing cause, they would immediately come under fire. But extreme leftists are OK. They are not just OK: this insane gang controls a large portion of MIT and many other schools. Many other people are afraid of them.
In his blog post, Aaronson makes you sure that he belongs to the most unhinged wing of the alarmist movement. The sky is already falling and there’s no longer any chance to avoid the catastrophe, Aaronson claims. There are no true natural scientists among the signatories – the list is dominated by workers in the humanities and the environmentalist pseudoscience – but Aaronson is arguably the #1 person among the signatories who should have at least a clue about natural science. Because he should but he doesn’t, his signature is arguably the most embarrassing one.
There are lots of the usual big words in the petition. Let’s look at them:
Dear President Reif and the Executive Committee,
We, the undersigned faculty of MIT, write in support of divesting MIT’s endowment from fossil fuel companies. The unique position of the Institute provides us with both the means and the obligation to take bold action against the harmful effects of climate change.
Climate change which has taken place since the birth of Planet Earth 4.5 billion years ago has had harmful as well as beneficial effects for individual organisms, species, and ecosystems. Some organisms prefer this temperature or humidity or pattern, others prefer other values. Organisms generally adapt according to natural selection.
The very fact that the climate changes has been essential for the evolution of life. The change was bringing pressure that forced the organisms to try to adapt, to evolve, to test new survival strategies. Life on a planet without any climate change could easily end up in stagnation very quickly.
The regional temperatures and even the global mean temperature has been changing by many degrees Celsius, up to 10 degrees or so, and these changes have taken place at all conceivable timescales, long and short. In particular, during the recent tens of millions of years when the composition of animals and plants was already virtually indistinguishable from the composition we observe (except for, most notably, some evolution of the details of mammals that occurred in recent millions of years) but the temperatures still differed by up to 10 °C from the modern ones.
Clearly, all existing species may deal with such changes to one extent or another. At most, temperature changes may bring an advantage to a subset of organisms and a disadvantage to another subset. Warming generally makes the planet more hospitable for life of all forms, however.
When it comes to the temperature change at the centennial scale, we are only talking about changes comparable to 1 °C which are negligible relatively to the changes that have been proven to be “no problem” for the Earth’s species and ecosystems.
One of the clearest and most powerful ways to demonstrate our seriousness about tackling catastrophic climate change is to divest from fossil fuels, as part of a multi-faceted climate action plan.
Fortunately, divestment campaigns belong among the most ludicrous and inconsequential theaters or, using Aaronson’s own words, among “meaningless sanctimonies”.
If someone is serious about “tackling catastrophic climate change”, he is seriously mentally retarded because no easily detectable climate change is taking place at the decadal or centennial timescale, let alone a catastrophic one. In the recent 20 years or so, people couldn’t detect any (trend-like) climate change even if they evaluated the results from the best available measurement apparatuses covering the continents, oceans, layers of the atmosphere, and Earth’s orbits using the most comprehensive statistical techniques. In other words, most MIT students just couldn’t have seen any climate change during their life so far, not even with the best available tools. If there’s “climate change”, it’s so slow that it’s virtually undetectable at the decadal timescale. And a change that would be dangerous, let alone “catastrophic”, would obviously have to be much faster or larger than a change that is just barely detectable.
Also, a divestment campaign – even if it were as successful as it is in their destructive dreams – cannot be considered a part of any “climate action plan”. It is just a hostile move designed to hurt someone – like the Night of Broken Glass – but it doesn’t invent, offer, or realize any alternatives that could replace the destroyed entities.
We support divestment – as one of the Institute’s actions – for reasons including the following:
Divestment recognizes the scientific necessity of drastically and rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid global warming beyond the 2 degree Celsius limit agreed to by virtually every country on Earth. At least two-thirds of all existing global fossil fuel reserves must never be burned, yet every year the fossil fuel industry spends hundreds of billions of dollars looking for more.
There is absolutely no need to reduce existing greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from that, the 2 °C limit is an ill-defined, arbitrary, and superstitious piece of quasi-religious nonsense. We can’t even decide whether such a limit has been surpassed – unless we specify the benchmark moment at the beginning, and the detailed methodology to define or measure the global mean temperature (and even when we do, the uncertainty of the temperature change and the controversies about this temperature change are bound to be huge). And it doesn’t matter that we can’t quantify the temperature increase because nothing special happens at any nearby value of the global mean temperature. Every remotely sane person – including alarmist authors who recently discussed this issue in Nature – knows that.
Moreover, even if the claim about the “limit” were well-defined, no similar claim could be “agreed to by virtually every country on Earth”. This claim is supposed to be a piece of science. Governments can’t vote about the validity of scientific propositions and even if they could, the result of the vote would be worthless. Also, it is totally false that almost all governments have endorsed this meme. My country is not a complete exception but I assure everyone that only the most hardcore members of a few marginal extremist organizations such as Greenpeace endorse things like the “2 °C limit” here – and most of the Czech Greenpeace officials who do so only do so because they get very high salaries for that.
Our government hasn’t ever supported any claim about “2 °C limits” and I think that it would never have the arrogance to do so. President Zeman considers the climate alarmists to be deluded although he doesn’t spend as much time with this topic as his predecessor Klaus.
So what is this attempted intimidation supposed to achieve? Chomsky, Aaronson, and similar people may scream that they have the power of all the world’s governments but at the end, they are just a tiny subset of the most unhinged far left-wing loons at MIT. Please, comrades, try to reduce your messianism and narcissism, at least by several orders of magnitude!
Our integrity is at stake. Many fossil fuel companies have a proven record, past and present of actively working to obscure the scientific consensus around climate change. By continuing to invest in these companies, we knowingly endorse efforts to undermine MIT’s commitment to scientific analysis and practical action for the betterment of humankind.
Your integrity isn’t at stake because you have already depleted all of it. If some group distorts the scientific facts about these matters truly persistently, it’s the extremist loons such as the signatories of this very petition.
Such folks have also found lots of allies at influential government positions (not to mention the media and other sectors). These officials helped to intimidate all the scientists who realize that there is no need to panic about the climate change and they have also distributed tens of billions of dollars for the promotion of climate alarmism. If it makes sense to talk about the fossil fuel companies’ funding related to this topic at all, these companies’ funding has been about 1,000 times smaller than the funding provided to the alarmist cause by the alarmists in the governments. This “advantage” by three orders of magnitude hasn’t helped because the truth is more expensive still. One simply can’t “buy” the truth in this way.
Unlike the champions of the panic in the government, the fossil fuel companies know that which is another reason why they don’t spend billions of dollars on this otherwise unimportant scientific discipline.
Scientific conclusions are not being decided by consensus – that is not how science works or can work – and even if they were, there is no consensus about the nontrivial technical questions that could be relevant for policy making. There is consensus that the climate has always been changing, keeps on changing, and is doing so because of numerous drivers, including the greenhouse gases. There is no consensus about the absolute or relative strength of individual drivers and no consensus about the question whether a change of the temperature by several degrees, if it happened to occur (for whatever reason), would be dangerous and how. There is probably a consensus among sane scientists that the climate change can’t be catastrophic in the following 100 years or so – and probably not even dangerous.
Dishonest activists such as the signatories of the petition deliberately obscure the key question “what the consensus is actually about” because they want to abuse science and its prestige as tools to support their entirely ideologically driven, unscientific superstitions. When they are asked to show that there is consensus, they talk about the consensus on the obvious claims and tautologies. But then they pretend that the consensus is about something completely different in order to use “this consensus” as a justification of their political campaigns.
All their claims about the “facts concerning climate change” are wrong. But even if some of them were right, the following statement about “undermining” would be false, anyway. One simply doesn’t undermine the scientific analyses by making investments. Investments are being made in order to make profit; scientific analyses are performed in order to find the truth about Nature. These two things are (or should be) completely independent and it is pernicious to try to link them.
It is Aaronson, Chomsky, and their accomplices who is working hard to contaminate science by political considerations. They want to claim that they are defending science against politically and commercially driven pressures but they’re clearly the main ones who actually work hard to turn science into a hostage. This whole petition by these 81 extremist loons is an attempt to intimidate the remaining 950 members of the academic staff at the MIT. The very purpose of the petition is to make the people afraid of pointing out that the climate alarmists form a small, dishonest, extremist fringe that tries to achieve ideological goals and conquer the scholarly world in a similarly comprehensive way as the Aryan Physik in the Third Reich or Lysenkoism in the USSR.
Divestment is the moral course of action, and also the financially prudent one. Any solution to climate change will require an unprecedented reduction in the demand for fossil fuels. Many of the world’s foremost investment experts are warning that fossil fuels are overvalued in light of their dangers, risking trillions of dollars of stranded assets.
This is a combination of malicious goals with crackpot economics. Fossil fuels are being used because they are the cheapest and most abundant source of energy. This is the true reason why they’re being used and why they will continue to be used at least in the decades (and possibly centuries) to come. A rational solution to anything requires a balanced cost-and-benefit analysis and the benefits of fossil fuels are so obvious – to a large extent, the fossil fuels are nearly necessary for the civilization as we know it – that it is very unlikely to find costs that could beat these benefits.
Even lots of other left-wing alarmists have managed to realize that the recommended replacement of fossil-fuel and nuclear energy are nowhere near of being realistic alternatives.
The price of fossil fuels is determined by the supply and demand (the shale revolution in the U.S. has been a top reason of the recent fall of the oil price), much like the price of pretty much everything else, not by “many of the world’s foremost investment experts”. Moreover, the selection of “many experts” is another example of dishonest cherry-picking. For every type of an investment, every sector of the economy, and every commodity X, there exist many experts who say that X is overvalued as well as many experts who say that X is underpriced. The traders have a similar distribution of opinions and the immediate price of X is really a price for which the “overpriced” and “undervalued” opinions are pretty much balanced.
There is absolutely no reason to single out fossil fuels. When someone does so, it only proves his dishonesty.
Divestment is not only right, it is powerful. Over the decades, divestment has proven effective at engendering the political will needed for bold leadership and legislation. MIT recognized this when it divested in 2007 in response to the human tragedy in Darfur. The impact of universities’ thought leadership on public perception is tremendous.
Divestment campaigns are often useful to show the dishonesty, ignorance, and stupidity of their signatories.
Darfur was a humanitarian emergency and most sensible and sensitive people agreed that it was terrible. On the other hand, most sensible and sensitive people don’t agree with the idea that we should demonize fossil fuels. If we should be comparing the two situations at all, we may also be comparing the signatories of this anti-fossil-fuel petition with the villains in Darfur and this comparison could turn out to be the more accurate one.
By divesting from fossil fuels, MIT can call out the contradictions between the fossil fuel industry’s business practices and the requirements for a safe and stable future. The social and political momentum created can help shift the efforts of both policymakers and industry toward development of sustainable resources. And as a component of a larger strategy, divestment inspires hope and galvanizes passion and action in both society and our students.
There are no contradictions between the fossil fuel companies’ business and a safe and stable future. On the contrary, a safe and stable future requires that the business-as-usual will continue and the changes of the most widespread technologies and rules will be at most gradual. In other words, a huge and fast enough suppression of one important sector of the industry – one that most other sectors depend upon – would almost certainly make the world unsafe and unstable.
The fossil fuels are sustainable at the centennial time scale. No resources are “quite” sustainable. Almost all the energy we get on the Earth ultimately comes from the Sun. The fossil fuels contain the energy from the trees that have absorbed some solar radiation a long time ago, before the trees were squeezed and stored between the rocks. The wind and hydro energy wouldn’t exist without the Sun, either. And the same comment obviously applies to photovoltaic plants, too. But the Sun will once cease to exist, too. In practice, all the energy we deal with is an accumulated solar energy, and this is true for the fossil fuels, too. Fossil fuels are a “battery” that was charged millions of years ago.
Not to use this “battery” would be as irrational as not to use any other (huge!) charged battery.
We do not call for divestment lightly, and the bounds of divestment must of course be carefully chosen. But in the end, we have a moral obligation to future generations – our children, our students, and beyond – to do everything we can to limit the most devastating consequences of human-driven climate change.
The future generation will look at you in the same way as most of the present generations look at the Inquisition, Aryan Physik, or Lysenkoism.
We stand alongside thousands of MIT students, staff, and alumni in urging you to divest the Institute’s endowment from fossil fuels as part of a comprehensive climate action plan.
When it comes to your persistent need to terrify others and pretend that you are a powerful majority controlling all universities and the world’s governments etc., you have already matched your Nazi counterparts. But you know, honest people aren’t afraid of you, bullies.
The undersigned faculty of MIT.
Given the hostile and dishonest text of the petition, one shouldn’t trust the word “sincerely”.