To the Editor:
We appreciate the concern of David Gaines ’15 for how best to address climate change, but he, like many observers, fundamentally misunderstands divestment’s goals and its contribution to a broader movement for meaningful climate action.
Gaines is right that climate change demands rapid, significant action. Even conservative institutions like the World Bank recognize that we need monumental efforts to reduce fossil fuel use if we hope to avoid disastrous impacts on food and water security, livelihoods and economic development.
But we often underestimate what it means to take climate change seriously. One of us (Kaagan) participates in a MIT-led initiative to model various climate actions so policymakers and citizens can see what “meaningful climate action” entails. Even if we cut individual consumption, stabilize population growth, dramatically decrease fossil fuel use, increase renewables, achieve greater energy efficiencies, curb destructive land uses and tax carbon, it will still be a challenge to limit warming to two degrees.
A carbon tax, as Gaines suggests, is a great tool for transforming the energy sector. If set appropriately, it would internalize social and environmental externalities and change consumer demand for fossil fuels. But our disagreements with Gaines beyond this are substantial. A carbon tax is unlikely absent significant changes in U.S. political culture and is insufficient on its own.
This is why divestment is important for the climate movement and why a strong stance from Williams matters. Contrary to the claims of Gaines and others, divestment does not aim to single-handedly and directly alter global carbon economies. That goal would be naïve because universities own a small fraction of fossil fuel equities, and stocks we sell would be purchased by other investors. Rather, like all previous divestment movements, the goal is to create the conditions for large-scale political and economic change, changes like a carbon tax and the other goals noted above.
How can we generate meaningful climate policies, including but not limited to a carbon tax? Gaines suggests writing our elected representatives. But because corporations massively influence climate politics, politicians are afraid to propose meaningful change and public pressure has been too limited to give them the necessary courage. Polite letter-writing will not create enough pressure to change these dynamics. Divestment helps shift the cultural politics surrounding climate policy so that other strategies, including citizen input, can have more traction.
Can divestment really achieve this? An Oxford study shows that the fossil fuel divestment movement is spreading faster than any previous divestment campaign and is likely to generate significant pressure for new climate policy. Divestment works when leaders speak in unison to grab the attention of politicians, business leaders and citizens. Williams can be such a leader if the Board of Trustees decide to embrace that role. When leading institutions speak together, their words are not “merely” symbolic; they are a critical form of action with real, material effects.
Right now, we need action that changes public norms and political culture, even more than carbon-offsetting or belt-tightening. Better yet, we’ll take all three.
Brian Burke ’02
Steve Kaagan ’65
Daniel Shearer ’04