Sustainable Science

by Joe Indvik '10 | 12/1/09 11:00pm

Jasper Hicks' critique of the "Cult of Sustainability" (Dec. 1) shows that he understands neither sustainability nor climate science. He uses the term "pseudo-religion" five times in an ever-evolving theological metaphor that completely ignores the true rationale behind sustainable practices. He cites Dartmouth's waste-reduction campaigns and sustainability staff as evidence of "zealotry." But to a reasonable observer, these efforts are simply evidence of our commitment to using resources efficiently a commitment The Dartmouth eschewed in using valuable newspaper space to print Hicks' rant.

All of us are familiar with the moral environmentalism that bothers Hicks. We are often reminded that environmental protection is the right thing to do. Whether you believe that or not, it is certainly the rational, self-interested and economically sound thing to do.

To-go containers are an excellent example. In lamenting his to-go container guilt, Hicks ignores how much the College gains by limiting their use. Unnecessary purchasing costs, recycling fees and landfill space can all be saved with minimal reduction in convenience. Dartmouth Dining Services' recent decision to make these containers slightly less accessible at Food Court has led to a 40-percent reduction in their use. Clearly, they are not as integral to a pleasurable dining experience as some suggest. Furthermore, when the College spends $80,000 each year on trashcan liners, it is obvious that more efficient material flows would benefit both the budget and the environment.

Hicks then sets his sights on climate change. He is mystified, and suspicious that nearly everyone around him recognizes the dangers of greenhouse emissions, but instead of stopping to consider the evidence, he lashes out with more accusations of fundamentalism and "a plot among academics to cover up the truth about climate change." This is not a Dan Brown novel, Mr. Hicks. If anything, it is the hard-liners who distort the overwhelming evidence on climate change who should be branded as "pseudo-religious."

I would like to pose a question to Hicks: How many peer-reviewed articles about climate science have you read? You seem caught up in the notion that "science can be wrong," but you fail to distinguish the nuances of the climate science debate from its black-and-white certainties.

A recent survey by researchers at the University of Illinois found that 97 percent of practicing climatologists believe that human activity contributes to climate change. There is healthy debate over the precise nature and magnitude of our interference with the climate system, but this should not be conflated with scientific ignorance. We have understood the greenhouse effect for 180 years: more atmospheric carbon leads to more trapped solar radiation and more warming. Not even Hicks' brand of colorful incredulity can subvert the laws of physics.

The University of Illinois study also polled scientists from other disciplines, some related to climatology, some less so. The pattern was this: the more you know about climate science, the more likely you are to acknowledge man-made climate change. It is abundantly clear on which side of that spectrum our intrepid columnist finds himself.

Hicks also jumps on board the latest hollow talking point of pundits everywhere: the stolen e-mails from the University of East Anglia. These e-mails do nothing to challenge the consensus on climate change, and it is ridiculous to claim that they speak to some shadowy conspiracy orchestrated by thousands of climatologists, governments and research agencies worldwide. At most, they show that climatologists are frustrated. Despite overflowing evidence to the contrary, the well-funded climate denial machine has had continued success in swaying a public more interested in the diatribes of Glenn Beck than the intricacies of precipitation models.

Sustainability and the prevention of climate change are not pseudo-religious imperatives. They are economic imperatives. A 2009 study by McKinsey & Company estimates that climate change could cost nations up to 19 percent of their GDP by 2030. At Dartmouth, using resources more efficiently, conserving energy and minimizing waste will save us money at a time when budget cuts threaten to undermine the Dartmouth experience.

Hicks would have us believe that sustainability is a hollow ideology, a fundamental zeal to which we blindly cling. It is as a pragmatic economist, not a "dogmatic environmentalist," that I use his own words: please, Mr. Hicks, don't be so ignorant.