Earth Day speaker to show dangers of fossil fuel-dependent society

Michael Klare, prominent environmental writer and scholar, will educate the College on our rapidly changing environment. Photo courtesy of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Michael Klare, prominent environmental writer and scholar, will educate the College on our rapidly changing environment. Photo courtesy of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

As the Five Colleges’ professor of peace and world security studies and The Nation’s defense correspondent, Michael Klare devotes much of his time to thinking about the intensifying competition over scarce resources in our modern world. “While this form of civilization provides us with many benefits, at least for some, it is leading us on a path of civilizational collapse,” Klare said. On Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, Klare will speak at the College about the risks of being a fossil fuel-dependent society. The talk is open to the public and will take place in Paresky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

Based at Hampshire, Klare is a prolific writer on the emerging political conflicts of this unprecedented period of resource depletion. Now that our rapidly growing population has exhausted “easy-to-get” resources, we are turning to the planet’s most inaccessible regions for the natural resources we need for energy and industry. Technological advances have allowed access to previously untouchable reserves. “These technologies, like fracking, are very ingenious,” Klare said, “but present enormous environmental risks.”

Along with resource depletion and environmental changes already underway has come an upsurge in political strife, Klare says, threatening devastating consequences. Rapidly growing nations like China and India with shrinking stores of natural resources are now purchasing huge parcels of land in Africa, South America and South Asia for potential drilling sites or farmland to sustain their immense populations. An expert on the fundamental security concerns associated with resource depletion, Klare’s insights are often surprising. For example, in reality, “The disputes over islands in the East and South China Seas are about offshore oil and gas reserves,” he said.

Although his research focuses on high-stakes intersections of extreme technology, natural resources and political conflict, Klare strives to connect with audiences about what they care about most: their own communities.“It’s one thing to have grand theories – I’ve had plenty of my own,” he said. “But people want to hear about the things that matter to them in their own neighborhood and ecosystem.”

Global environmental conflict can feel overwhelming and far removed to a college student, but Klare’s own community of Hampshire College is known for its political engagement and has taken steps to become an environmental leader. The school’s Climate Action Plan includes the goal to become “climate neutral” by 2022, meaning in less than a decade Hampshire aims to completely eliminate or otherwise account for its greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. The plan includes building renovations and high-efficiency energy retrofits, dramatic waste reduction and the development of renewable energy resources on campus. In addition, it calls for comprehensive environmental education for all students and places special emphasis on student involvement at every step.

Klare believes similar work is needed everywhere and asserts that institutions of higher education bear a special responsibility to explore alternatives for the future. “As social organisms in their own right, colleges and universities must also model the communal responses needed to avert the worst consequences of climate change,” he said.

Hampshire developed its Climate Action Plan after signing on in 2008 to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, joining a national network of schools committed to addressing the serious risks of climate change. Nearly 700 colleges and universities have signed the commitment and developed their own plans for climate neutrality, including all but two of our College’s NESCAC peers. The College itself has not signed the commitment.

In 2011, Hampshire became the first college to completely exclude fossil fuel holdings from the investment of its endowment. Klare applauds the movement, saying it achieves multiple goals. “First and foremost, it signifies that the producers of carbon are contributing to a public health hazard,” he said, which makes fossil fuel companies less attractive to other potential investors. In addition, “it makes a statement that we are choosing to forgo the presumed reward of fossil fuel dividends” and profit from the global hazard that is climate change.

Fossil fuel divestment has also been a hot topic at the College. Last year, the student environmental organization, Thursday Night Grassroots (TNG), worked to eliminate direct investments of the College’s $2 billion endowment in coal companies, kicking off with an event in November 2012 featuring Darlingside and a special message from prominent environmentalist and Middlebury professor, Bill McKibben. After spending the year researching and collecting petition signatures, TNG presented the proposal to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) in the spring of 2013. The vote was split, and the ACSR did not pursue the matter further. This spring, TNG is calling for the College to increase its commitments to reducing its own climate impact. Meanwhile, a group of alumni has been reaching out to the wider College community to present the case for fossil fuel divestment to address climate change.

According to Klare, many kinds of changes are needed to avoid the dangers he will discuss on Earth Day. Colleges should be a leader on this front, he says, but emphasizes: “Every community on Earth will have to grapple with the impacts of climate change.”

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