Last week saw two major events shake up the global struggle against climate change. Harvard President Drew Faust announced that she would move to divest portions of her school’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry, highlighting the contradiction inherent in paying for the education of young leaders by profiting off the destruction of the planet they will inherit. More ominously, on the same day that the United Nations released a report highlighting the immense humanitarian consequences of global warming – from continent-wide famine to the inundation of entire cities – ExxonMobil Corporation reiterated its commitment to burning every last drop of oil remaining in its worldwide reserves. That’s enough carbon to cause catastrophic climate change twice over.
Williams needs to follow Harvard’s lead before it’s too late. The College has made incredible progress toward reducing our environmental footprint here in the Purple Valley, between energy-efficiency initiatives, recycling campaigns and the rest. But detached from any broader social movement, such efforts fight global warming too slowly. And as we get better and better at turning off the lights, the fossil fuel industry uses our endowment’s money
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to fight progress by tightening its grip on our elected officials and every aspect of our modern lifestyles.
The one way to stop climate change at this late stage would be to enact laws limiting carbon emissions to safe levels – through a carbon tax, say, or a system of “cap and trade.” But as long as politicians keep taking money from oil barons and their ilk, no such law will ever reach the president’s desk. While states such as my home of California have made valiant efforts individually, broader action is needed. To achieve that, we need to somehow reveal that fossil fuel money for what it is: tainted with the blood of the world’s most vulnerable populations and unacceptable for anyone, politicians or otherwise, to take willingly.
Enter divestment (the opposite of investment; that is, selling rather than buying securities). The “Fossil Free” campaign of recent years, led by 350.org, pushes organizations – religious and civil rights groups, local governments, educational institutions – to sell any holdings in oil, coal and natural gas companies. As divestment campaign founder Bill McKibben writes in his recent book Oil and Honey, “I’m old enough to remember when working for Philip Morris was a perfectly honorable job, back before we knew that cigarettes were killing folks. But once we did know, that changed, and Philip Morris became Altria, in a vain attempt to shed its repugnant image. We’ve got to do that again.” Statements like the one ExxonMobil released last week can no longer remain socially acceptable if we are to move forward.
Can the campaign for fossil fuel divestment replicate the success of previous divestment movements, against atrocities such as apartheid and the marketing of tobacco to children? By sheer number of institutions, this has already become the fastest-growing divestment movement in history. Cities from Santa Fe to San Francisco, religious groups from evangelical congregations to the Colorado Ratnashri Sangha, have joined the chorus against fossil fuels’ monopoly on our energy production, and, by extension, basic livelihoods. A few institutions like Unity College and the Foothill-De Anza Community College Foundation have come onboard, but higher education has largely resisted, citing the supposed high costs and logistical impossibility of divesting. Independent research had suggested that neither of those issues would actually come to
bear (especially after organizations as large as Seattle’s multibillion dollar pension fund divested without a hitch), but because of elite universities’ secretive endowments no one could really be sure. Now, Harvard provides as good a test case as any to show that divestment remains well within our own community’s reach.
While Harvard’s “divestment” remains incomplete (it actually consists of signing on to the Carbon Disclosure Project and United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment’s guidelines for investing, which allow for some continued investment in fossil fuels), it should serve as an important reminder that colleges and universities are more than just consumers of energy, that institutions like Williams have a responsibility to shape societal discourse and set an example as well. (For the record, Williams has historically embraced divestment as a tactic in other social justice campaigns.) In a way it’s funny for me to write this, as a financial aid student from the West Coast whose jet fuel-burning trips to and from campus are paid for by the endowment’s partly oil- and coal-derived money. But that’s exactly the point: while we all must work to lead more sustainable lives, ultimately no one individual can stand up to fossil fuels’ and their promoters’ grip on our lives and lifestyles. Only a society-wide movement stands a chance, and just as Williams has given many of us so much, we now can help give it the chance to lead rather than follow.
Over the several hours I took to write this op-ed, Pitzer moved to fully divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Already the dominoes are starting to fall, and soon Williams will have to make a choice. For the sake of our planet, our own futures, our unborn children, their unborn children, every species on Earth and for that matter people just like us from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, let’s hope our community chooses wisely.
Miles Horton ’15 is a political economy major from San Francisco, Calif. He lives in Morgan.