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Climate Deniers Insert Themselves Into Boston University’s Divestment Debate

CREDIT: ANDREW BREINER/SHUTTERSTOCK/BOSTON UNIVERSITY
CREDIT: ANDREW BREINER/SHUTTERSTOCK/BOSTON UNIVERSITY

Probably the last thing you’d expect to find when browsing the website of Boston University’s Trustees is a comment section where top university scientists debate right-wing policy advocates about the reality of human-caused climate change.

But if you look hard enough, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

At a bottom of a recently-released document discussing fossil fuel divestment at BU, at least four men affiliated with the conservative Heartland Institute are arguing about climate change with three professors — evolutionary ecologist Les Kaufman, molecular biologist Edward Loechler, and Department of Earth & Environment associate professor Ian Sue Wing.

We didn’t expect the reality of climate change to be an issue in the university.

The arguments all surround a document called a “Fossil Fuel Issue Analysis” — an overview of the debate surrounding fossil fuels and climate change, conducted by the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI). The ACSRI is currently considering a request to purge all fossil fuel investments from the university’s $1.6 billion endowment, thereby taking a symbolic stance against the primary cause of global warming.

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For Kaufman, a professor who advocates for fossil fuel divestment at the university, the document’s release was long overdue.

“We were excited when they put it right up there on the website and agreed to address the issue,” he told ThinkProgress. “But we were appalled by the first posting.”

Kaufman called the document “shocking.” In it, the viewpoints of scientific organizations like the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Research Council of the National Academies are juxtaposed with those of the right-wing think tank The Heartland Institute, and the blog of former weatherman John Coleman. While the document acknowledges that “a majority of scientists argue that human activity plays a significant role in climate change,” it also cites Heartland’s Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which argues that climate models are based on “gross and imperfect measurements” and that global warming won’t be bad for humankind.

For Kaufman, this was despicable. “We had hoped to have an open discussion [of divestment] that was based solely on hard data and how the data are interpreted,” Kaufman said. “We didn’t expect the reality of climate change to be an issue in the university.”

So, he took to the comment section to voice his outrage. His colleagues did as well.

Two weeks later, Kaufman got a response from Russell Cook, a blogger who says he receives “strings-free grants” from Heartland. Cook’s also the editor of the Gelbspan Files, a site dedicated to proving that climate denying scientists are not corrupted by the fossil fuel industry. Cook confirmed to ThinkProgress that he wrote the comments, which disparage Kaufman for engaging in “anti-science efforts to push out one entire side of the issue for consideration.”

[T]here is little if any evidence CO2 is the primary cause of global warming.

Shortly after that, others affiliated with Heartland piled on. James H. Rust, a Heartland policy adviser, commented that global warming is a “fraud … [a] scare [that] has been kept alive by false predictions of catastrophic events for more than 20 years.” Donn Dears, an energy expert for Heartland, wrote that “there is little if any evidence CO2 is the primary cause of global warming.”

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Neither Rust nor Dears returned ThinkProgress’ request for confirmation that they wrote the comments, though well-known climate denier Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley — a one-time adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and current policy adviser at Heartland — confirmed his own participation in the debate. Monckton’s remarks toed the line that global warming would not be severe or dangerous.

It’s clear why Kaufman and his colleagues were engaged with the Fossil Fuel Issue Analysis at Boston University, as both are involved in the university’s divestment movement. But it’s unclear how Heartland got involved. To get to the document itself, you have to go through five separate links. The document’s release was not advertised anywhere on the website. There have been no press releases or news articles discussing the document.

Of the four men affiliated with Heartland, Monckton and Cook responded to ThinkProgress’ inquiry on how they were alerted to the document. Via email, Monckton said he could not remember. Cook said he was directed there by Heartland.

Among some at the university, the think tank’s participation has brought a suspicion that political interests are making their way into BU’s decision on whether or not to divest. One professor, who asked not to be identified, voiced concern about a recent $50 million gift to the university from former J.C. Penney CEO Allen Questrom, who regularly donates thousands of dollars to Republican politicians.

This committee has to do this. It’s proper. It’s logical.

Not everyone at BU thinks that way, though. Biology professor Edward Loechler — who is the faculty representative for Divest BU — says he doesn’t think politics are perverting the divestment discussion. In fact, he said he welcomes the inclusion of the climate denier’s perspective in the Fossil Fuel Issue Analysis.

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“This committee has to do this. It’s proper. It’s logical,” he said. “We live in an academic committee. As long as they adjudicate in the end, and say look, we look at both sides and we looked at the arguments from the deniers — as long as they do that, I think this is fine.”

Loechler noted that the ultimate decision on whether to divest will be made by the Boston University Trustees, a committee made up of CEOs, attorneys, religious leaders — people who might not necessarily be well-versed in the issue of climate science. If the ACSRI came to the committee without proving that it considered climate deniers, it may look biased — even though, in the scientific world, it isn’t.

“[The Trustees] want to know that this isn’t a whitewash,” Loechler said. “They want to know that the people who walked into this room to give them the best explanation of what’s going on here really grappled with this and really did their homework.”

Still, Loechler said the fact that the ACSRI did include climate denial in their assessment of fossil fuels is proof of the success of that movement relative to their credibility in the scientific world. In terms of the scientific reality, 97 percent of scientists actively publishing climate research conclude that humans cause global warming. It’s the relative success of groups like Heartland that demand the other 3 percent’s inclusion in documents like this one.

“People at the Heartland Institute are trolling the internet, looking for places to put this garbage up,” he said, “to muddle things.”

People at the Heartland Institute are trolling the internet, looking for places to put this garbage up.

So, despite the inclusion of climate denial in BU’s Fossil Fuel Investment Analysis, Kaufman is optimistic about the ultimate outcome — that eventually, the Boston University Trustees will decide to divest from fossil fuels, based on the weight on the scientific evidence. “It’s my impression, and I believe it’s very likely, that eventually this will be adjudicated,” he said.

Claire Richer, who leads BU’s student divestment movement and is one of three student representatives of ACSRI, agreed. She noted that BU Student Government recently passed a referendum showing that 75 percent of students who voted believe the university should divest from fossil fuels. Richer said the next step is to hold forums on divestment in the fall semester to engage the community on the issue. A decision, she said, could possibly be made next year.

Richer said there may even be some changes made to the Fossil Fuel Investment Analysis document, just to clarify its intent. Indeed, she said the intent of the document was not to represent the be-all and end-all position of the university, but to “stimulate discussion … and make sure people are talking about [divestment].”

If the comment section is any indication, it’s certainly working out as planned.

Update:

This post has been updated to clarify the description of Russell Cook’s blog. It now says “corrupted,” not “funded.”