Climate denial is alive and kicking at the University of Auckland

At least 97% of climate scientists who are actively publishing climate research in peer-reviewed journals believe that human greenhouse gas emissions are a significant contributing factor to climate change. Only 1% of climate scientists believe that humans are playing no role in climate change, or that climate change is not occurring at all (Anderegg, et al., 2010; Doran and Zimmerman, 2009). Associate Professor Chris de Freitas, climate lecturer at The University of Auckland, is part of that 1%.

The University of Auckland regularly boasts about being “worldclass” and “New Zealand’s Leading University”. However, it appears there are no guarantees about the quality or integrity of the course content in our science degrees at UoA. As a student paying thousands of dollars for a “world-class” education, I would expect in a stage one science course to be taught only the scientific consensus, i.e., theories that are accepted by the majority of actively publishing scientists in the field. In higher level courses it is appropriate for lecturers to teach more controversial theories, but even then I would expect each side of the argument to be presented in an un-biased manner. Thankfully, I didn’t study Geography, because my expectations would have been dismally disappointed.

In the stage one paper Geography of the Natural Environment (Geography 101), the climate section is taught by Chris de Freitas, who maintains that greenhouse gas emissions by humans are not contributing to climate change, and that any observed changes in the climate are solely due to natural processes. The climate science blog Hot Topic explains that de Freitas’ overview of climate science uses information that is out of date, incomplete and misleading. Fundamentally, de Freitas failed to tell his students that climate change is likely to be at least partly due to anthropogenic carbon emissions, despite the fact that 97% of climatologists believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor in causing climate change. In other words, de Freitas did not teach his students the scientific consensus. This is comparable to teaching creationism in a course on evolution – creationists hold strong beliefs, but there is little credible scientific evidence to back them up.

The right of academic freedom of speech, including the freedom to teach students in the manner they see fit, is enshrined in section 161 of the Education Act 1989. Unfortunately, students appear to have no corresponding legal rights in this area and, short of packing up and leaving for another University, there is little that students can do when unhappy with what they’re being taught. Of course, they do have the opportunity to give feedback to lecturers at the end of semester, but there is no requirement for staff to actually take heed of this feedback.

I understand that lecturers do have the right to say what they want. However, I believe that if there is a debate in the field then both sides of the argument should be presented to students. More importantly, in a stage one science course students should be taught the most basic, well-supported scientific consensus. To do otherwise reflects badly on The University of Auckland, and calls into question whether they deserve to promote themselves as a world-leading academic institution to prospective science students.

There is a scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real. Why does one lecturer have the right to tell his students otherwise?

References:

Anderegg, W. R., J. W. Prall, J. Harold and S. H. Schneider (2010), Expert credibility in climate change, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 107(27), 12107-9, doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107.

Doran, P. T. and M. K. Zimmerman (2009), Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(3), 22, doi:10.1029/2009EO030002.

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