The Open Letter to American Universities

June 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Eminent individuals are urging US educators to encourage a genuine campus debate about fossil fuels.

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An open letter, signed by 80 eminent individuals, has been published today. Addressed to American universities, its central message is that places of higher learning should be educating students about fossil fuels – rather than removing investment funds from oil companies in response to pressure from divestment activists.

The signatories of this letter are stepping forward and being counted. Here’s some of the text:

The fossil fuel industry produces 87 percent of the energy people around the world use to feed, clothe, shelter, heal, comfort, and educate themselves. It has fueled the unprecedented increase in industrial development, life expectancy, and quality of life we have seen over the last 30 years.

…We the undersigned are proud to stand in favor of fossil fuels. Based on our honest attempt to reach a balanced, big-picture perspective on coal, oil, and gas, we passionately believe that the economic and environmental benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the hazards…

…Today’s students do not learn even basic facts about the energy sources that make our civilization possible. But they are encouraged to take strong policy positions on the basis of extremely speculative predictions…

Unlike the divestment campaigners, these people don’t expect universities to agree with their position regarding fossil fuels. But they believe that this position deserves to be heard on campuses where divestment is being proposed.

They say they are willing to take part in a debate about fossil fuels “anytime, anywhere.” Should campus divestment activists decline to debate them, they say, university officials should remind students that they are attending

an institution of education – not indoctrination.

Read the entire letter here (backed up here).

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This brings to mind a section in Gregg Easterbrook’s 1995 book, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. I haven’t managed to finish that 700-page tome yet, but the end of chapter four (which is titled Is Humanity a Special Threat?) mentions a 1992 appeal written by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists. According to that organization, it was signed by “some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences.”

Easterbrook reports that this document:

declared that “human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment.” Absent rapid, drastic changes in man’s behavior, the Union said, “the living world [may] become unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

He points out, however, that a rival statement was issued by another large group of scientists that same year:

Signed by some 2,600 credentialed researchers, including 72 Nobel winners, among them Peace Prize laureates Linus Pauling and Elie Wiesel, it draws approximately the opposite conclusion from the Union statement. “We are worried,” the Heidelberg statement says, “[about] the emergence of an irrational ideology opposed to scientific and industrial progress….We contend that a Natural State, idealized by movements with a tendency to look toward the past, does not exist and probably has not existed since man’s first appearance in the biosphere….The greatest evils that stalk our Earth are ignorance and oppression, not technology and industry.” [bold added, p. 63 of the paperback edition]

Easterbrook continues:

The World Scientists’ Warming to Humanity, being pessimistic, received extensive recognition in the American press. Ever heard of the Heidelberg Appeal? I didn’t think so.

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