/ 16 April 2021

Wits in a climate hot spot

Hot air: COP26 is believed to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A scientist in climate change and health at the University of the Witwatersrand says he is disturbed and ashamed that a climate denialist was given a platform to speak at the university, effectively legitimising his views.

On 5 March, the university’s clean coal technology research group co-hosted a lecture and webinar presentation by Lars Schernikau, who was cited in the invitation as a highly qualified, globally recognised expert in energy economics and coal. The Minerals Council South Africa co-convened the lecture.

Schernikau is a member of the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit climate change denial advocacy organisation established in 2015 in the United States, whose motto is “carbon dioxide is essential for life” as it is the “essential food for land-based plants”.

The Wits clean coal research group, which is part of the school of chemical and metallurgical engineering, had invited the media to the lecture, which was titled Energy policy and coal in South Africa, a global macroeconomic perspective: What is the role of coal in South Africa’s future energy mix?

In recent weeks Professor Matthew Chersich, who works on climate change and health research at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, has sent several emails to the department, asking if it had received any funding through its association with Schernikau; what money from fossil fuels it receives and if it would give a similar opportunity to a non-denialist.

Chersich says the coal industry globally targets mining departments and climate scientists, and funds them in return for being given legitimacy. “For example, the same dissident who spoke at Wits [Schernikau] … is also seemingly held in high regard by those who co-convened the event in question.” 

Mining Weekly reported that at the outset of the Wits talk, Shernikau claimed not to be a climate change denier, but “nonetheless disputed the severity of the impact of burning coal and its contribution to climate change.  

“He also downplayed the severity of rising sea levels, melting polar ice and increasingly extreme weather events, suggesting blame could, for the most part, not be shouldered by the fossil fuels industry,” according to the publication.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel says the clean coal research group and the school of chemical and metallurgical engineering had not received funding from Schernikau. The research group co-hosted the webinar with the Minerals Council South Africa to “better understand what the future of energy is globally”, she says.

Charmane Russell, the spokesperson for the Minerals Council South Africa, says it is fully aware of the threat of climate change and the urgent need to address this. 

“The Minerals Council chief executive officer, Roger Baxter, has repeatedly indicated that it supports a just transition towards more renewable and cleaner sources of power, including wind and solar power and, where cost is not prohibitive, nuclear power.” 

She says it is working closely with the government, to enable mining companies to generate their own power from renewable sources. “When the Minerals Council refers to a just transition, we mean that there are technical, social and economic grounds for a gradual, rather than an immediate move away from coal.”

Russell says coal remains a necessity for some years to come, even with the expansion of renewables. “A further key factor is the communities and employees whose livelihoods depend on coal mining. At the same time, the Minerals Council acknowledges that cleaner coal power generation is possible and some headway has already been made as a result of newer power plants coming on stream, and the impending closure of older plants associated with historically large emissions. This must be expedited, and further technological developments should be encouraged.”

Chersich says that Wits needs to be transparent about “any dirty money that has soiled our corridors. “We can apply our unique strengths to secure a green future. But, first we must clean our house of fossil fuel money in our research portfolios, endowments and pensions. And, coal salesmen and climate change denialists, as with anti-vaxxers and Aids denialists, have no place in an institution that values science. By welcoming and giving them a platform, we lend them credibility and condone the very real harms they cause.”

Chersich says the need for the university to examine its position on accepting coal industry money, investing its endowments in fossil fuels and compelling staff to hold pensions invested in fossil fuel companies is long overdue.

“Our great university is not for sale, but we and other universities worldwide are incredibly vulnerable to these lobby groups. We need to stand firm.” 

Shernikau told the Mail & Guardian: “I made clear early on in my presentation that I am ‘biased’ because I come from the conventional energy and mining industry, and that I expect the audience to check everything I say and not just blindly trust.”

At the lecture, he says he clarified that he is not “a denier neither of climate change nor of human caused global warming, quite the contrary”.

Fossil fuels make up 60% of global power and 80% of primary energy worldwide with coal in South Africa accounting for over 80% of energy, he says. 

“If you have a problem, you need to invest in the problem to make it less severe. You don’t solve a problem by taking money away from it. I mean, investing in cleaning up the production and combustion of fossil fuels,” Shernikau says.

“Solar PV or wind or battery technology is unfortunately not the solution to our energy or environmental problems, quite the contrary, at large grid-scale, they will be detrimental to our environment because of the low energy-return-on-energy-invested, low energy density, intermittency, and all the problems that come with it (including recycling and material output)”, he claims.

He expects that universities “hold up to the ethics of science and free speech, especially when it comes from a good heart and in the interest of our future on such an important topic such as energy and the environment. 

“I am happy to be challenged and corrected in things I said. I am not free of error.”

Schernikau, in another presentation in December last year, says that carbon dioxide, as emitted by coal-fired power plants, is a key building block for life,  is not pollution and “does contribute to slight warming”.

Patel says the university checked with the head of the school of chemical and metallurgical engineering, associate Professor Josias van der Merwe. “He has confirmed that the clean coal technology research group and the school has not received any funding from Dr Lars Schernikau or his companies/foundations.”

She says the university values the diversity of ideas and academic freedom and provides a platform for multiple voices to be heard on any issue. 

“We understand that academics may have differences of opinion, and we urge them to engage and debate with their fellow academics. Where academics feel aggrieved or feel that it is not possible to engage directly with their counterparts, or are not satisfied with the responses that they receive, they are welcome to lay a formal complaint with the dean of the faculty, or escalate the matter as per the university’s escalation policy, to ensure that the matter can be fully investigated,” says Patel.

Patel adds that its clean coal technology group researches coal and carbon as a material and the technologies and practices that increase coal conversion efficiency and decrease the negative effect on the environment.

The group also researches carbon capture and storage in Southern Africa.

David Le Page, the coordinator of Fossil Free SA, the campaign for fossil fuel divestment, says: “I think it’s very dangerous for academic institutions still to be giving a platform to any form of denialists”.

Equally, the idea of clean coal is a “very misleading formulation”. “There may be some sort of role for carbon sequestration technology in terms of challenging climate change but existing technologies that have been formulated are not convincing,” Le Page says. 

“Any technology that demands actually burning more coal to manage the sequestration, which is the case with so-called clean coal technology, is a problem.”

The real problem for universities, which are centres of excellence in climate research, to be investing in the causes of climate change “is a bit like a doctor who is telling you not to smoke while smoking right in front of you”, says Le Page.

“The general public don’t have a detailed understanding of the causes of climate change, so when they see institutions that are supposedly trusted institutions on this issue who still behave as if climate change isn’t happening in terms of their day to day operations, that sends a very confusing message. You need to have consistency between the way you run your institution and the implications of the research that you’re generating.”

‘I’m no climate-change denier’

In May 2017, the CO2 Coalition, which lists Shernikau as a member, sent a letter to then-US president Donald Trump, thanking him for his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump announced in June that year.

Shernikau is a signatory to the “World Climate Declaration” signed by 900 “climate realists” under the Global Climate Intelligence Group, which says it is an international meeting place for scientists with “different views” on climate change and climate policy. 

Their declaration claims there is “no climate emergency” and no “cause for panic and alarm. 

“Scientists should openly address uncertainties and exaggerations in their predictions of global warming, while politicians should dispassionately count the real costs as well as the imagined benefits of their policy measures.” 

The signatories claim that natural as well as anthropogenic (human-caused) factors cause warming and that warming is far slower than predicted. 

“CO2 is plant food, the basis of all life on earth. CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to all life on earth.  More CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the earth: additional CO2 in the air has promoted growth in global plant biomass. It is also good for agriculture, increasing the yields of crops worldwide.”  

Global warming, they assert, has not increased natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. 

Their claims are disputed by most climate scientists.

In 2019, over 11 000 leading climate scientists warned of a climate emergency, writing how scientists have a “moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and ‘tell it like it is.’ 

“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected . It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity Especially worrisome are potential climate tipping points and nature‘s reinforcing feedbacks (atmospheric, marine, and terrestrial) that could lead to a catastrophic Hothouse Earth, well beyond the control of humans,” they warned.

“These climate chain-reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of earth uninhabitable.”