Universities are wonderful places. They are centers of learning, thinking, and social experimentation, and at least some of them prize truth for its own sake. They are also one of society’s special tools for solving problems. Climate change is one such problem, and university researchers have advanced our understanding of climate greatly in the past few decades. But today, when the task at hand is not just to learn about climate change but to address it, are universities helping or hurting?
Let me ask that again: Are universities actively hurting efforts to combat climate change?
I’m not so sure. Why? Many university leaders are actively giving political cover to the fossil-fuel industry and the use of fossil fuels. And they are downplaying the gravity and social harm of climate change. In essence, many university leaders are leveraging the imprimatur of their institutions to impede critical change.
Consider the following. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, in order to meet climate goals, around $100 billion needs to be divested from the fossil-extraction business globally every year for the next two decades. This movement of investments is not a sideshow; it’s central to fixing climate change. Yet many high-profile universities, including Harvard, MIT, and the University of Toronto, have consistently rejected this path. Moreover, some universities are investing new capital in oil and gas exploration and production.
The disconnect between rhetoric and action suggests that something is not clicking in the minds of the current crop of university presidents. These administrators are eager to give speeches about climate change, but at the same time they refuse to draw down their investments in fossil fuels—even when this is exactly what’s been prescribed by experts. University presidents’ defense of the status quo is so pervasive that the website run by the Independent Petroleum Association of America to urge against divestment is plastered with quotes not from oil magnates but—you may have guessed it—university presidents.
Understandably, oil and gas companies don’t want the world to stop investing in them. But somewhat surprisingly—and much to the dismay of students and professors—these companies are finding allies among university presidents and trustees.
So universities are urging the world not to change in needed ways. But this isn’t all. Strangely, they are also giving political cover to the fossil-fuel industry. In 2013, for example, a Harvard trustee infamously told students that, rather than asking Harvard to draw down its investments in fossil fuels, they should instead “thank BP” for its renewable-energy work. The spoiler is that while there may have been renewable-energy work going on at BP 30 years ago, today there isn’t much.