Harvard and Brown Fail on Climate
Sometime in the next century, sea levels will have risen six feet (judging by the present trajectory), and water will lap at the foot of Harvard’s buildings. In Providence, Rhode Island, home to Brown University, the city waterfront will be submerged, flooding the Rhode Island School of Design and the Brown University Continuing Education site. Then the sea level will keep on rising. The Center for Climate Systems Research estimates that climate change will expose 2.75 billion people worldwide to the effects of sea level rise and other coastal threats. The largest mass migration in history may develop as people flee the doomed seacoast and attempt to relocate to higher ground.
Under such conditions, people will have no choice but to focus on survival; education and culture will be luxuries few can afford. Think of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused Loyola and Tulane universities to close for months and damaged each of the city’s academic institutions. Imagine the fate of New Orleans and its institutions had Katrina rolled in on seas six feet higher.
Climate change imperils institutions of higher education in two particular ways. First, it threatens the very purpose of education. Academic institutions prepare students for the world and its professions as they are understood based on past experience. But climate change is already making past experience irrelevant. Colleges and universities are training this generation of students for a world that, given the present trajectory of climate change, will not survive. Many students have figured this out, and they are angry.
The second threat is to the purpose of a university endowment: to support an institution’s mission in perpetuity. Brown’s policy statement is typical: “The University’s goals are to provide stable support from the endowment each year to the budget and to preserve the long-term value of the endowment to provide support for future generations….” But if stock markets collapse—and it is hard to see how they would not in the face of a ceaseless set of global catastrophes—the value of university endowments will plummet. This makes it absurd to claim that students in the 2080s, say, will benefit from their institutions’ endowments to the same relative extent as today’s students. Climate change will make a mockery of intergenerational equity.
Presidents Faust and Paxson ultimately justify their decision by saying, in effect, that divestment from FFCs would do little or no good. Faust believes, for example, that there are “more effective ways to address climate change,” favoring “engagement over withdrawal.” The language echoes the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement”: trying through quiet conversation to persuade the white minority government of South Africa to change its ways. But in that case, constructive engagement failed. As an article in Foreign Affairs summed up, “Having been offered many carrots by the United States over a period of four-and-a-half years…the South African authorities had simply made a carrot stew and eaten it.” The analogy is not perfect, and constructive engagement may have worked in other instances. But as of now, FFCs have no reason to pay attention to universities, which are minor shareholders in their giant industry. Indeed, these companies have funded campaigns to discredit and ridicule the research of university scientists. Between 1988 and 2006, ExxonMobil provided more than half a million dollars to the Heartland Institute. Last year, the institute ran large billboards comparing those who accept climate science to Charles Manson, the Unabomber and Osama bin Laden.
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Acting alone, an individual academic institution will have little influence. But if, as happened with apartheid, scores of colleges and universities were to divest, Big Oil, Big Coal and the nation would have to pay attention.
Paxson says that “divestiture [from coal companies] would convey only a nebulous statement—that coal is harmful…. [A] symbolic statement of divestiture would not elucidate the complex scientific and policy issues surrounding coal and climate change and…would run counter to Brown’s mission of communicating knowledge.” But divestment could have far more than a symbolic effect, as it plainly did in helping to end apartheid. By divesting, Brown would endorse and transmit the scientific knowledge that fossil fuels are dangerous. What could be more important to communicate?
Brown’s own Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies told Paxson that coal companies “perpetrate grave, indeed egregious, social harm, and there is no possible way to square our profiting from such harm with the values and principles of the University.” Yet Paxson rejected divestment.
When Brown and Harvard divested from tobacco companies, neither was under the illusion that the action would affect smoking rates or Big Tobacco itself. Rather, the universities divested because they did not want “to be associated with companies whose products create a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to other human beings,” as Harvard’s then-president Bok explained. Brown said that it divested from tobacco because the action could have “significant symbolic value.” Brown and Harvard stood on principle then; why not now? Never has a threat been so grave, so potentially widespread and long-lasting, as climate change. If protecting civilization is not a principle worth standing up for, what is?
To be sure, divestment is not an issue that campus presidents may decide on their own. They must also speak for trustees, many of whom come from corporate America and are more likely to resist the idea that decisions about the endowment ought to be made for other than financial reasons. In campus debates over apartheid, students and faculty led, and trustees eventually followed. Had Faust and Paxson endorsed divestment, they would have had to weather criticism from some board members and alumni as well as the fossil fuel industry. But many others—including environmentalists, concerned citizens and, eventually, members of the establishment—would have admired their courage.
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