Is the Carbon-Divestment Movement Reaching a Tipping Point?

Is the Carbon-Divestment Movement Reaching a Tipping Point?

Is the Carbon-Divestment Movement Reaching a Tipping Point?

Interviews with Harvard professors Naomi Oreskes and James Anderson about universities’ moral imperative to join the fight against fossil fuel.


In the fall of 2012, when the global campaign to divest university endowments from fossil fuel holdings was just getting underway, the idea behind it, as Bill McKibben told me at the time, was “to a get a fight started, and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in.”

Two and a half years later, it’s fair to say that the fight McKibben wanted has been engaged, in earnest, and that those conversations about the industry’s role in our impending catastrophe are now happening in elite precincts—even, dare I say, going mainstream. Last spring, Stanford University, under pressure from students, alumni, and faculty, announced that it would begin to divest, starting with coal. It joins more than twenty US colleges and universities that have committed to divest, most recently Syracuse and The New School.

In September, the Rockefeller siblings, heirs to the Standard Oil/Exxon fortune, announced that they would divest their philanthropic fund—having tried and failed in their efforts at shareholder engagement. In a first among media companies, The Guardian announced last month that it would divest, and then joined with in a campaign to persuade the world’s two largest charitable funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US and the Wellcome Trust in the UK, that fossil fuel holdings are no longer morally and financially tenable. Just last week, the University of Edinburgh—alma mater of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith—announced a recommendation by senior managers to divest from coal and tar sands. It followed Glasgow University, which announced in October that it would divest. And so the honor roll grows.

Speaking at Harvard University last Friday, McKibben told a boisterous standing-room crowd, “When arguably the first family of fossil fuel has lost confidence in coal and gas and oil, and says this is not what John D. Rockefeller would be doing, then we’re at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. The question is how quickly we can make it end.”

Not everyone is getting the message. McKibben and I were back on the Harvard campus last week, along with a couple hundred other alums—including Cornel West and former Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado—because those who run the world’s richest university have refused to engage in an open debate on the issue, despite the relentless efforts of the student-led Divest Harvard campaign (in which I’ve been engaged since 2012). In fact, last year the Harvard Corporation increased seven fold its direct holdings in fossil-fuel companies. So we were there to join the students in a week of direct action (dubbed “Heat Week”), successfully shutting down Massachusetts Hall, where President Drew Faust has her office, and University Hall, the main administration building (even occupying the Harvard Alumni Association office for two straight nights). The students’ weeklong protest was part of a spring wave of escalation on campuses around the country, from Tulane to the University of Mary Washington to Swarthmore and Yale.

And yet, in the midst of all this action, it’s easy to overlook the quietly awakening giant in the divestment fight, on Harvard’s and other campuses. That is, the faculty. At Harvard, there are now more than 250 signatories to the open letter—released a year ago (as I reported here) by the core group of organizers behind Harvard Faculty for Divestment—arguing for divestment on scientific, moral, and financial grounds. And there appears to be a growing frustration with Faust and the Corporation’s unwillingness to engage openly on the issue—as well as strong support for the students and alumni engaging in civil disobedience. There’s even talk in the air of bringing confidence in Faust to a vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (the same kind of vote that led to Larry Summers’ departure).

So, last week, between blockades and sit-ins, I managed to interview two of the leading members of that core faculty group: the climate scientist James Anderson, Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, whose work in the 1970s and 80s on the ozone hole over Antarctica led to the Montreal Protocol (and who has since found a link between climate change and ozone depletion over North America); and historian of science Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the groundbreaking Merchants of Doubt, the indispensable account of the fossil-fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception on climate science (now a documentary), and most recently, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future.

On Monday, April 13, as the students were shutting down Mass Hall, Oreskes participated in a “Presidential Panel on Climate Change,” hosted by Faust and moderated by Charlie Rose (and clearly intended to counterprogram the students’ protests). Oreskes, the only divestment advocate on the panel, had to inject the topic into the conversation—to the vocal approval of the audience. The week before, Oreskes participated in a full-fledged debate on divestment down the street at MIT—a debate the Harvard Corporation is afraid to have.

Excerpts from my interviews follow here, beginning with Oreskes.

Harvard students blockading Massachusetts Hall listen as Talia Rothstein ’17 reads from Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence and civil disobedience. (Photo: Wen Stephenson)

* * *

Wen Stephenson: Tell me how you came to join the divestment campaign.

Naomi Oreskes: I got involved when a group of students asked me to. They had read Merchants of Doubt, and drew the logical conclusion that it made no sense for us to be investing in companies that were working to undermine the results of our own research. When smart students read your work, and draw sensible conclusions from it, it’s hard to ignore that.

Fossil-fuel divestment has been compared to divestment from Big Tobacco and from apartheid South Africa. How well do those historical comparisons fit? When I try to think of another industry or economic/political interest that has held the fate of so many people in its grip, I’m tempted to draw comparisons to the 19th-century Slave Power.

No historical analogy is ever perfect, but there are aspects of history that can be informative. Apartheid is relevant, because many institutions did divest in those cases, which belies the argument that divestment is inappropriate because it “politicizes” the university. Tobacco is relevant for the same reason—and Harvard divested from tobacco—and also because in many respects the fossil fuel industry has followed the tobacco industry playbook. Slavery is relevant because it addresses the “but we all use fossil fuels argument.” Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.

In a recent letter to The Boston Globe responding to an op-ed by Bill McKibben, Drew Faust wrote: “McKibben has led a movement premised on the notion that divesting endowments from the fossil fuel industry, and thereby seeking to ostracize an industry on which we all rely to live our daily lives, is the right way to address this problem. We disagree, for reasons the university has detailed at length elsewhere” (emphasis added). This is almost breathtaking in its failure to acknowledge any culpability on the part of the fossil-fuel industry for the situation we’re in. What is Faust leaving out of the picture?

I think this argument misses several key points. First, we rely on fossil fuels because we live in a world that is structured on them. So we have to find ways to change that structure. The divestment movement is based on trying to do that. Second, it’s missing the point that this industry is continuing to block the sensible public policies that we need to address the issue. Just this week there’s a piece in the Energy Guardian about a bill introduced in Congress to block the EPA Clean Power Rule—a rule that the Supreme Court has said they are legally obligated to develop—until after the “legal challenges” have run their course. These challenges could go on for decades. And who is behind them? The fossil fuel industry, of course.

Third, these industries have worked assiduously to undermine the research that our own colleagues have done. How does it make sense to invest in companies that act against our raison d’etre? These companies are pursuing a strategy very similar to what the tobacco industry did, and it is continuing even as we speak. We say we believe in the power of research and education, but we are ignoring the reality that these groups have the power to undermine that research and education—and do so. Maybe they should be ostracized.

Fourth, these companies are continuing to search actively for still more fossil fuels—fossil fuels that won’t actually be drilled or mined or used until decades from now. I don’t think most people quite understand this: the lead time for exploration and development is decades. (I used to work in exploration.) This means we are locking in fossil fuel infrastructure that virtually guarantees massive, disruptive, costly climate change. So while we say we understand the issue, we are acting as if we do not. You cannot stop climate change and at the same time continue to develop and use still more fossil fuels. The IEA says we need to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure in 2017. That’s basically tomorrow, from an industry standpoint. But if you look at the industry’s corporate reports, they plan to be developing new resources well out into mid-century.

These are not “good corporate citizens.” Rather, like the tobacco industry, they are following a business plan that virtually guarantees harm to very large numbers of people. This suggests that maybe they deserve to lose their social license.

To me, the key point is this: if not divestment, then what? In last night’s panel, various people rejected divestment, but what they offered instead was more of the same approaches that have failed for the past 20 years. Clearly we need to do something different to break the log jam. I support divestment because I see it as a potential means to break the log jam.

There is an incoherence in the anti-divestment side. Our colleagues all agree that climate change is a profound threat. But then they propose continuing to do what hasn’t worked for the past 20 years. Doing the same thing you’ve done before, and that hasn’t worked, might not be insanity—but it is a kind of denial.

* * *

Or maybe (I’m not constrained by collegiality as Oreskes is) that word “insanity” isn’t too far off the mark. When I sat down with Oreskes’s colleague Jim Anderson in his office last week, I asked him about the sheer urgency of the climate situation, and the catastrophic consequences of delaying action. He laid it on the line for me, pointing to the irreversibility of the changes we’ve set in motion. I asked him what a serious response to this situation, on the part of a university, might look like.

Wen Stephenson: In the summer of 2012, about 80 percent of Arctic sea ice, measured by volume, was gone—the lowest extent ever recorded—and far sooner than any models predicted. This is incredible.

James Anderson: That’s right. And in just thirty years. The second most shocking event in human history [after the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole] was the disappearance of the Arctic floating permanent ice. Nobody predicted it. Nobody forecast it. Nobody quantitatively understands it today, except we know it’s happening at a breathtaking rate.

When you look at the slope of that ice volume—and the crucial thing is the volume of the ice, not the area, because it’s the volume of the ice that measures what’s left—only 20-25 percent of it is left. But it’s not only disappearing, the rate at which it disappears is increasing, because of the feedbacks intrinsic to the system. So that clearly spells the end to any permanent floating ice in the Arctic by 2025. And all of a sudden, the carbon contained in the surface soils of Siberia and northern Alaska is now vulnerable. Half a percent of the reservoir, of just the upper couple meters of Siberia and northern Alaska, a half percent release rate per year equals all carbon added to the atmosphere by fossil-fuel burning worldwide. This is a CO2 and methane reservoir that is truly a lethal feedback in the climate structure.

When we lose that floating ice, the temperature differential starts to drop between the polar regions and the tropics, and as soon as that starts to occur, the entire climate structure starts to shift. And we know where it will shift, because we have fossil data from the Eocene that says that tropical plants occupied the Arctic ocean.

All of this goes to say, it’s the irreversibility of the system—because there’s no way in hell you’re going to reform that ice, that’s just not possible—and when we have an irreversible situation driven by fossil fuel emissions, that engages a number of aspects related to the university. The first one, of course, is there’s a moral imperative connected to that scientific imperative.

Can you elaborate on that “moral imperative”? Is that what compelled you to become a charter member of Harvard Faculty for Divestment?

It was obvious to me from the beginning that this divestment campaign is very, very important.

The moral imperative links back into the basic scientific statement of the irreversibility of the climate structure. This inherent irreversibility bequeaths to our students and children an unknown, unstable, unpredictable global-scale circumstance over which they have no control. And this just really violated my sense of propriety and sense of responsibility to them. The fact that we’ve bequeathed this to the younger generation—that strikes me as deeply immoral.

I don’t go around moralizing. That’s never been something I’ve engaged in. But this just strikes to the heart of what moral obligation is all about. And of course this carries a huge additional element of the educational imperative, the leadership imperative, and the societal imperative. That’s really why I immediately became drawn into this.

We don’t often hear scientists speak in terms of moral imperatives. Is it difficult to engage in that kind of conversation at Harvard—unless you’re at the Divinity School?

You’re dead right. That is not something that comes spewing from the mouths of scientists, typically. Of course it did in the nuclear era. A lot of the pioneers of the atomic bomb turned hard over on nuclear disarmament. And this has a distinct parallel to that.

Your colleague Naomi Oreskes wrote the book on the culpability of the fossil-fuel industry. Is that aspect, the industry’s culpability, central to your support for divestment?

Yes, it’s central. In fact, I read Naomi Oreskes’ book, Merchants of Doubt, right as it came out. I didn’t know her at the time. I picked it up, because I was in the ozone wars, and I was attacked by the right when I was working on the ozone problem, so I saw this first hand. But I had no idea how beautifully disciplined that book would be. It could’ve been just an indictment of people who were simply in it for the money. But in fact it revealed a far more fundamental issue, which was the emergence out of the Cold War that anything that fetters capitalism is anti-American.

I’ve heard you endorse civil disobedience by the students. [In fact, at the faculty forum on divestment last fall, when asked what students should be doing, Anderson replied, “Civil disobedience, civil disobedience, civil disobedience.”] Is that part of what a serious response now looks like?

I’ve come to believe that civil disobedience is an intrinsic part of democracy. If it’s not involved, if it doesn’t rear its head in a very significant way on the important issues, we’ve failed the democratic process. Because we know what takes over with business as usual. Money. I mean, money buys political influence, and God, we’ve never seen it more evident than in the axis of energy and climate.

I’m profoundly proud of the students who are demonstrating. I was in at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and I was demonstrating then, and you see what that did. I mean, Johnson didn’t run in ’68 because the entire tide was turning against him. But I have to say, in the intervening years I’ve been shocked at how quiet the students are about things that are so important to their future.

Are you and your colleagues ready to bring greater pressure on Faust and the Corporation?

The most effective thing for Drew Faust to do would be to come out with an op-ed in The New York Times saying, “I was wrong, this is absolutely the crucial thing. This is what universities are for, this is their purpose. They’re for leadership. They’re the only entity with real power in this country that cannot be destroyed by the fossil-fuel industry, and I’m sorry that I didn’t see the importance of the climate connection to the moral imperative to the university’s responsibility. But today I do, and we are divesting.”

We’re not going to get riled up about this. We’re just going to win.


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