DEBATE: Should U.S. Universities Dump Fossil-Fuel Stocks to Support Action Against Climate Change?

Prospective Students Are Looking for Schools With a Moral as Well as an Intellectual Base

By Elizabeth Tallent

(Tribune News Service/TNS) – Like other schools pursuing the best and brightest incoming class, Stanford hosts an annual weekend of events to woo students who have been accepted but have not yet signed on the dotted line.

Such students are often trying to choose among several excellent schools. In a Q&A session with Stanford President John Hennessy last year, a prospective freshman asked: “Has Stanford divested from fossil fuels, and if not, why not?”

As students increasingly vote with their enrollment decisions for schools whose investment policies align with their educational mission, university presidents can expect that question more and more often.

It’s pretty reasonable for a student on the brink of committing to four years’ immersion in the life of a university to want to know whether that university is as alive morally as it is intellectually.

In 1861, a responsible 18-year-old might have asked if his prospective alma mater profited from slave labor. In 2015, it’s unchecked climate change that promises to devastate millions of lives, and the relevant question is whether a university profits from fossil-fuel extraction.

The warnings of our colleagues involved in climate-change research are loud and clear. Widespread famine and drought, the spread of infectious diseases, inundation of coasts, wildfires, armed conflict over vanishing resources, forced migration of imperiled peoples: unless climate change slows, that young question-asker will live to witness these catastrophes.

Her future will be saner and more secure only if the vast majority of fossil-fuel companies’ proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas stay in the ground.

For companies to exploit these reserves — as they must, to make a profit — would mean raising atmospheric carbon dioxide past the 2 degree Celsius safety limit agreed to by all the world’s nations.

Any university invested in such companies must want them to turn a profit, and the companies can only do so by pushing climate change closer to the brink.

Started by students and furthered by faculty, staff and alumni at hundreds of universities worldwide, the global fossil-fuel divestment campaign is the fastest-growing such campaign in history.

It voices two arguments for divestment: moral, the one I’ve been making, and financial. Many students and faculty point out that since future constraints on extracting proven reserves are inevitable — either that, or the climate crashes — fossil-fuel companies are shaky investments.

In 2014, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, framed divestment as fiscal wisdom. “Be the first mover. Use smart due diligence. Rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world.”

My concern is the gaping hole these investments tear in the university’s commitment to students.

For example, last spring, in a decision widely celebrated, Stanford acknowledged the danger of climate change by divesting from coal. The clarity of this action was smeared when Stanford subsequently enlarged its holdings in oil and gas. Because every dollar a university commits to fossil-fuel companies works toward an uninhabitable planet, the paradox is clear: If a university seeks to educate youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for the university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?

Recently, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which makes significant grants in the field of sustainable development, determined to divest from fossil fuels after recognizing “the schizophrenic notion that we had investments that were undermining our grants.”

Universities invested in fossil-fuel companies evince a parallel schizophrenia, undermining students’ future.

What exactly is a university that can’t recognize and take action regarding the most serious threat its students will face? Only divestment from fossil-fuels endows a university with a clear, coherent and responsible relation to the world its students will live to see.

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Elizabeth Tallent is an author and English professor at Stanford University.

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Protesters Cynically Oppose Energies That Make Life Cleaner and Better for All

By Frank Clemente

(Tribune News Service/TNS) – As a university professor for over 30 years, I can state unequivocally that campus rhetoric never produced one single kilowatt hour of electricity, never cooked one meal and never fueled one automobile.

The coal, natural gas and oil that do all these things provide 82 percent of our energy. Yet, organizers of “Global Divestment Day” held protests in February to demand that universities eliminate these life-giving fossil fuels from their financial holdings.

Okay, let’s just say the protesters tried to hold rallies. Many “global warming” gatherings fizzled because it was too cold. Yale students canceled their event due to freezing New England temperatures, and the 30 Harvard protesters who did show up quickly went inside the Administration Building to keep warm.

Such fair-weather protesters are mostly rich by world standards, mostly elite and mostly wrong. Fossil fuels, especially coal, are the solution, not the problem.

Coal, for example, provides 40 percent of our electricity and is the lifeblood of modern society. Ironically, coal is also the only way we can meet the environmental goals trumpeted by those opposed to its use.

Why coal? Well, coal is the world’s fastest-growing energy source for a reason — it is abundant, widely distributed, affordable, versatile and increasingly obvious as the only scalable answer to improving not merely the human condition but also the physical environment.

Clean coal technologies work and will continue to take the environmental lead in the 21st century. New pulverized coal combustion systems, utilizing super-critical technology, achieve higher efficiencies than conventional plants.

Globally, these advanced plants emit up to 40 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than the average currently installed coal plant. Importantly, these super-critical plants are precursors to the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage, which itself is recognized as absolutely necessary to meet the 80 percent standard of reduced CO2 emissions the marchers hold so dear.

There is no substitute for coal. To replace the world’s coal power plants would require about 5,000 Hoover Dams or constructing a new nuclear power plant every four days for the next 25 years or adding over five million wind turbines — enough to stretch one million miles to the moon and back twice.

The anti-fossil-fuel crowd likes to claim the moral high ground by comparing itself to the 1980’s divestment movement against racial apartheid in South Africa. But this time, they are on the wrong side.

We are in the midst of what World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has called “Energy Apartheid” — a situation where almost half of the global population lacks adequate access to electricity and 1.3 billion have none at all. These billions live a bleak and grim life, drink dirty water, suffer debilitating diseases and die well before their time.

The plight of this vast multitude of the energy impoverished should echo across campuses far louder than the hyperbole of the privileged protesters who drive, fly or send email anywhere they wish using power from fossil fuels.

Consider India, where at least 300 million people have no electricity and more than 700 million lack basic services like lighting and refrigeration.

Or take sub-Saharan Africa, a region with 900 million, but only enough energy to power one light bulb per person for just three hours a day.

Almost three billion people worldwide use primitive stoves to burn biomass — wood, charcoal and animal dung — releasing dense black soot into their homes and the environment. Annual deaths from this household air pollution exceed four million per year — one every eight seconds.

The gathering and burning of wood and other biomass leads to deforestation, erosion, land degradation and contaminated water supplies, all leading to a devastating impact on the same environment the protesters claim they will save by forbidding the foundation of contemporary human development — fossil fuels.

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Frank Clemente is Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Pennsylvania State University and former director of the University’s Environmental Policy Center.