Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Philosophy Professors Krista Thomason and Hans Oberdiek gave a presentation on the afternoon of Monday, April 6, concerning the moral arguments surrounding the divestment controversy. Most of the attendees were faculty, joined by about a dozen students.
Thomason started off the presentation by outlining the moral arguments on both sides of the debate. She presented four key arguments for the pro-divestment side: first, the idea that contributing to fossil fuels are wrong. If fossil fuels were contributing to morally wrong action, said Thomason, like harming the environment, then it would be wrong to support these companies through investment.
Second, Thomason introduced the integrity argument, saying that Swarthmore has to be consistent with its values: it “is about us as an institution.” Since this college is supposed to embody socially aware and progressive values, said Thomason, then it should pursue actions that are consistent with those values, such as divestment. Institutions like Syracuse University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund used the integrity argument when divesting, she said.
The third argument presented by Thomason was the delegitimizing argument. Thomason says that this argument proposes that Swarthmore become a “Beacon on the Hill” to stigmatize investing in fossil fuel companies. As more and more colleges divest, said Thomason, fossil fuel companies will look like an increasingly unattractive option for investment.
The final pro-divestment argument was one of consciousness-raising. Thomason said “If we do it, everyone will start asking questions,” and awareness of the negative impacts of climate change could increase.
Next, Thomason presented three anti-divestment arguments. The first argument is the “empty gesture” argument. The idea is that there are many other things that could be done that are more important, such as reducing the college’s carbon footprint. If alternative strategies have a bigger positive impact on the climate, then divestment does not have such a high moral ground. “The empty gesture may then allow people to shirk responsibility for what they have,” said Thomason.
Failure of meeting obligations is the second anti-divestment argument. Thomason says Swarthmore’s obligation as an educational institution may be at odds with divestment if divesting will reduce our endowment. “It may interfere with our ability as an educational institution to educate our students now and in the future,” she said.
Thomason also provided some rebuttals against the pro-divestment arguments. Against the ‘contribution’ argument, she highlighted that to be consistent, there needs to be compelling reasons to prioritize divesting from fossil fuels in particular than other pressing issues like divesting from companies that have poor human rights records. Further consideration has to be taken towards a possible backlash where other parties are more than willing to have a ‘buycott’ in response to the ‘boycott’ of fossil fuels stocks. Against the integrity argument, she questions whether “it [is] right to see Swarthmore as a policy-making institution.” She also pointed out how other colleges have smaller endowments and questioned if they had similar obligations than we do.
To introduce his section of the talk, Hans Oberdiek said that with age came the ability to reminisce. He recalled the controversy that erupted within the Swarthmore’s Board of Managers regarding the South African divestment talk. Then, many board members were also concerned about the fiduciary obligations of the school as an educational institution, while others were staunchly pro-divestment from the Apartheid regime. Oberdiek noted distinct differences with the South African case and the current one: divestment in the 1980s targeted companies doing business in South Africa, but did not target the actual content of what these companies were doing. By contrast, the current divestment movement opposes the actual core businesses of the fossil fuel companies, and wants to keep them from burning oil.
Secondly, the African National Congress, which eventually governed post-Apartheid South Africa and was led by Nelson Mandela, also promoted divestment, even at the risk of hurting the economy. No comparable figure can be found in today’s movement, Oberdiek noted. “My estimation of the board rose seriously,” Oberdiek said when he observed the tense, but highly thought-out discussions the board was having over the issue. He also recalled that the issue escalated when two African American members of the board announced their resignation because they staunchly supported divestment, which persuaded then President David Fraser to push for divestment.
“I think the moral arguments are very weak,” said Oberdiek of the fossil fuel divestment movement. He said that the possible effect of divestment is little. He proposed to accelerate the process of making Swarthmore College a carbon-neutral institution, because “you have to live by all the implications” for the integrity argument for divestment to work. Technologies such as geothermal energy, recycling human waste, and ensuring non-toxic construction are already available, but will be expensive to implement, but would increase student pride in the school.
The audience peppered the speakers with questions afterwards. One asked “If it be that there are more US colleges that started to divest, does that change our moral stance?” In response, Oberdiek noted that the effectiveness of the movement was important to consider. He also mentioned that the South African divestment movement was running for at least 15 years before Swarthmore decided to divest, whereas very few institutions currently have divested.
Audience members found the talk informative and engaging. Mickey Li ‘18 said “the talk was generally very stimulating and effectively offers the arguments that most accurately characterizes the two sides. […] My stance on divestment has been more well-informed.”
Professor of Philosophy Richard Eldridge also praised his colleagues, saying “I think my colleagues do an effective job presenting a range of distinctively moral arguments both for and against divestment from fossil fuel production.” He also commented on the nature of the talk, saying “I think that they exemplified the kind of discussion many of us should be having with each other.”
Professor Thomason was one of the best professors I’ve ever had. I highly recommend that anyone interested in moral philosophy (or just thinking better) take classes with her.
I am very disappointed that my former professor, Hans Oberdiek, says in the article above that the moral argument for divestment from fossil fuels is “very weak.” In fact, I believe that the moral argument is much stronger than any other argument in favor of divestment.
Divesting does not exclude making the College more environmentally sustainable. That is important, too, but it does not have the effect of stimulating a world-wide movement to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is not an empty gesture. If enough institutions with reputations like Swarthmore’s divest, it will call into question the value of fossil fuel stocks and force those companies to change their practices and their business models. An added benefit is to raise awareness of the global climate crisis and make it more palatable for governments to take steps to curb emissions.
Another point that was not mentioned in the article is the ways in which the worsening climate will affect those least able to protect themselves, and who have done the least to cause the problem. Is it fair for those of us who live privileged lives to sit around discussing whether it is moral to take this or that action when so many people in less privileged communities are already suffering? Shouldn’t a philosopher who talks about morality pay attention to this inequality? That is why we call this the climate justice movement and it is important to put that front and center.
Professor Oberdiek and I will not be around to see the worst effects of global warming, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to know what is coming. For the sake of every living thing on the planet, we need to pull out all the stops and do everything, and I mean everything, to keep the climate from tipping over into a point of no return. Swarthmore College is not an exception to this imperative. Rather, it should be in the forefront, not dragging its feet while other institutions step up and divest.
Why wouldn’t a strong, distinctive commitment by Swarthmore to pursue sustainability in its own practices and its buildings “have the effect of stimulating a world-wide movement to divest from fossil fuels”?
Isn’t that what your own personal climate activism has largely consisted of, as you detailed in the College Bulletin? You clearly think (with some justification, I believe) that your personal example and the example of your community could be symbolically important outside of Weybridge. http://bulletin.swarthmore.edu/bulletin-issue-archive/index.html%3Fp=1202.html
I think, like Hans does, that in fact this kind of action is far more powerful potentially as both having a real impact on fossil fuel consumption AND in exerting leadership across a wider spectrum of our society towards this end. One might argue that Swarthmore can do both, but attention is a precious resource in the wider culture, as is effort.
It’s interesting that you bring up my work in Weybridge, Vermont, weatherizing homes. Although that year-long activity did have some resonance outside of my town of 800 people, I cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim to have made a serious dent in the problem we are facing with our climate.
Since that article was written, I have broadened my scope considerably, including working for divestment both at Swarthmore and at Middlebury College, my near neighbor. I believe in working both locally and globally, and there is no reason why I, or an institution like Swarthmore, should not do both.
Middlebury College is a good example of a college that is much farther down the road toward net zero than most colleges. Although it would be a good thing, I do not believe that MIddlebury’s actions on their own campus have started a world-wide movement towards sustainability.
I applaud Middlelbury, and Swarthmore, as they take serious steps towards sustainability, but that does not have to be the only way to be effective. Using their influence, colleges and other institutions could be doing much more to call out the the fossil fuel companies that are intent on extracting every last bit of oil, gas, and coal, no matter what the consequences.
This is a crisis like none we have ever faced and it calls for extraordinary actions. We must all of us, individuals and institutions alike, do whatever we can do and not confine ourselves to changing our own carbon footprints. I would be so happy to know that my alma mater has answered the call to divest.
The world’s track record of taking “extraordinary action” is quite dreadful. We have enough trouble mobilizing action for local, tangible issues, schools, crime, homelessness, and even more for foreign, albeit visceral, issues of genocide, abject poverty, slavery, etc. On what possible basis do you believe that humanity, much less the interested states, will raise the issue of climate change to appropriate concern? To say nothing of divestment, which is like spitting some of your, limited, freshwater into the ocean.
Perhaps when millions of people become displaced due to rising sea levels. Perhaps when we all get lung cancer. Perhaps when the only rain the sky spits out is acid. Perhaps when the seas are just oil.
Climate change is real. It is imperative that you understand that. Thus, then, how will you act?
The heart of the matter is what carries weight in changing the wider culture, and in particular, what will get people who presently do not regard the subsidization of fossil fuel production as an issue to see it as an issue. Not what will please people who already are highly mobilized about that issue: by the argument of the divestment movement itself, people who already mobilized already believe there is a “stigma” attached to fossil fuels. If divestment makes you or I happy, it’s accomplished literally nothing of worth, whether or not it ends up costing a dime, because you and I are not at issue, not even in the reckoning of divestment activists. The people that are at issue are the people who do not at present feel that fossil fuel production has any meaningful weight on their political or social lives.
I remain puzzled by dogmatic statements that one type of action will be effective in accomplishing this goal and another kind of action will be wholly ineffective. If the calculus of cultural change were that straightforward, the world would long since have been a place where people feel and think very differently than they presently do. If the calculus of cultural change were that straightforward, progressive voters in the United States would not be as relatively marginalized as they are in all but a small scattering of communities and regions.
I can see having an intuition that one action might be more effective than another. I cannot see scorning people who think otherwise.
I also think there are ways to debate how cultures change, what shifts hearts and minds, that look to specific kinds of evidence–evidence of analogies, evidence of processes, evidence of the political impact that changing sentiments or ideas has. For the most part, I don’t think that’s a discussion that has happened. Instead, there’s a lot of things that are simply asserted as if they are QED.
It is always good to hear from former students — even when they disagree with me as vehemently as does Fran Putnam!
The threat of global climate change (GCC) is enormous and I believe it is THE challenge of the century. I also agree that GCC will hit the poor around the world hardest. Not enough attention has been paid to issues of justice across nations in addressing GCC, as disputes about what a “fair share” of the burden of curtailing GBC undermine efforts to come to workable agreements. We too often ask those already poor to bear the burden of curbing climate change, and that is unjust.
The serious damage, perhaps of catastrophic proportions, caused by accelerated GCC is a profound moral issue. On the national level we know at least some essential steps that must be taken: stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, start subsidizing the renewal energy industry, place a large carbon tax on fossil fuels, and stringently regulate the fossil fuel industry. Internationally we must reach agreements to curb fossil fuels at the same time not crippling developing countries because of our past and present contributions to GCC..
So if the major premiss of the divestment campaign is “The US and the world face a profound moral challenge in mitigating, stopping, and/or reversing global climate change” I couldn’t agree more. It is the moral basis of the minor premiss I find wanting (with one caveat I’ll mention shortly). Namely, “That a substantial first step in meeting the moral challenge of GCC is by having many funds, especially charitable funds, divest themselves of stock in the fossil fuel industry.” John Dewey said that if you claim to desire some outcome, then you must choose effective means, otherwise what you have is not a desire, but a wish. I think the kind of economic causal link proponents of divestment claim fails in this regard.
When I think about the reasons given for divesting they seem to me to be either paltry or vague. “Stigmatizing” and “Deligitimizing”, for example, seem paltry; “act consistently with core values” seems vague. Shell Oil’s campaign to give sizeable sums to charities and to advertize (misleadingly) how much they are exploring alternative sources of energy, for example, is more than enough to blunt if not overwhelm efforts to stigmatize or delegitimate the industry. (If Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spill couldn’t stigmatize, what will?) And so with other reasons of a similar sort, which I won’t mention here. Do those in the divestment movement really believe, for example, that those whose livelihood depends on the fossil fuel industry will be so ashamed of what they do that they will…well, what? Or that highly self-interested wealthy individuals or sovereign funds will be too ashamed to own fossil fuel stock?
The trouble with the “core values” argument is that there isn’t just one core value that Swarthmore pursues, but several. I would argue that at the heart of its core values has always been to concentrate on providing generations of Swarthmore students with an excellent liberal arts education in and out of the classroom, an education that encourages social activism based on a thorough understanding of what is the case as well as what needs to be done. As Courtney Smith wrote decades ago, Swarthmore should be a crucible for social change, but it isn’t part of core values to be an active agent in the change we might all seek. Institutions of higher education are pretty fragile reeds on which to foment the change we might all want. Of course, we have other core values, too: keeping the campus safe, having good relations with surrounding communities, and the like, so some Endowment money is rightly spent on such matters. But this is a far cry from trying to influence national social policy.
Yet even if one thinks that such reasons for divesting are more persuasive than I do, I think that these considerations pale when measured against the Board of Manager’s fiduciary responsibility to preserve and enhance the Endowment so that future generations of students will not pay a greater percentage of their education than past generations and that they can have the same excellent liberal arts education as previous generations. It is one thing for individuals to divest from companies they find odious; it is another for those in a fiduciary position to do so. Money is given to the College, not to the Board. The Board’s fundamental financial responsibility is to invest it well for present and future students, not to engage in social causes. Now I don’t think this is an absolute principle — I myself urged the Board to divest from South Africa because Apartheid is intrinsically evil — but it sets a very high bar, a bar that I don’t believe comes close to being met in this case. Again, this is not because global climate change doesn’t present an enormous moral problem, but because the divestment response seems utterly inadequate to the task, even as “an important first step.” Keep in mind, too, that if the College were to divest, even if the financial hit were significant, no member of the College community would suffer the slightest inconvenience. Only some 18 year old perhaps born 20 years from now might find financial aid less generous and a faculty less impressive. So that, too, is a moral argument to keep in mind.
I said that there is one powerful moral reason in favor of divestment. It is this. Because fossil fuel companies are ruining the world, Swarthmore College should not benefit from investments in them. This is indeed a powerful argument, but one must accept its implications. Yes, the Endowment benefits from investments in fossil fuels, but all of us benefit both from these investments (e.g., financial aid, salaries) and, even more importantly, from fossil fuels themselves every day in every way. Only those prepared to live “off the grid” could claim clean hands. Fran will remember Walt Kelly’s Pogo, who said “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” Even if legislators weren’t in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, even if those industries didn’t try to block the development of alternative energies, etc. we would still be up to our necks in the need for gas, coal, and oil for some considerable time to come. So I think when this powerful moral argument is made, those who make it should also urge that we live by its implications “all the way down.” I doubt many would be prepared to do so: students like to fly home for the holidays, faculty like to fly to conferences, and we all need heat and electricity.
What I find so troubling about the divestment movement is its attempt to somehow curb supply of fossil fuels, when what we need to do is curb our nearly insatiable demand for the stuff. This strategy didn’t work on the so-called “war on drugs” and I don’t believe it can work here. The best way to “keep it in the ground” is to curb demand.
I also find troubling how cavalier the movement is about claiming that we and other charitable institutions can divest without any financial risk — indeed by divesting, many argue, charitable institutions would likely do even better financially! During the “divest from South Africa” movement, I never once heard this argument made. It was assumed that the College (and others) might well lose money and that their Endowments or pension funds would suffer, but the moral case for crippling the intrinsically evil Apartheid regime shoved that consideration to the sideline. I think that too many proponents feature the financial beneficial consequences of divesting in almost every article indicates the weakness of the substantive moral arguments for it.
We need as a world, nation, and College to curb demand for fossil fuels. To that end, I would argue that the Board should not divest (as long as they deem such investments financially sound), but add a second spending rule of some small but significant percentage over and above our present spending rule to be used to make the College as green as we can in a reasonable time frame. And I don’t mean by purchasing carbon offsets, which might well be a good thing for individuals to do, but not the focus of what Swarthmore should do. I mean making the College green by installing solar panels, providing geothermal heating, lights sensitive to movement, green roofs, and so on. Yes, this would take funds from the Endowment, but it would to build a college campus that would be a model for others to strive to match. By building such a campus, we could reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible, thus with a high degree of certainty saving money in decades to come and we would create a campus that would teach students about what is possible and have them participate (as in the recent Charrette exercize) in making it happen. Here is where Swarthmore could take a significant leadership role.
For what I have in mind, I urge you to look at http://www.bullittcenter.org as a model. I’ve visited this building and it is truly impressive. Of course, it is only a 6-story office building with a relatively small footprint and doesn’t house laboratories, which use a lot of energy, so while I believe that it can be “scaled up”, that needs to be tested. I think the College’s decision to put upwards of $12 million more in the new biology, engineering, and psychology building to make it at least match if not exceed LEED Platinum certification is an indication of what can be done. We need to do more of it.
Why not do both divest and spend to decrease our demand? Supposing that there is a non-trivial risk to the Endowment by divesting (otherwise, of course, it isn’t much of a problem to divest anyway!), I think we would greatly diminish the possibility of a sure thing — reducing demand on campus — for a financially risky effort that I regard as largely symbolic.
Would it be wrong for the Board to take some funds from its Endowment and invest them in a fund free of fossil fuels? No, not at all. They might think it is worth a trial. And if it turns out that those investments do better over a significant time period — one that covers the ups and downs of the market–, then that would indicate that more funds could (and financially, should) be shifted away from fossil fuels. (I find it hard to believe that those who invest College funds are wedded to fossil fuels for any reason other than that they add more to the Endowment than other alternatives.)
Perhaps the demand for fossil fuels in the USA will continue to decline: let us hope this is true! But we also have to bear in mind that the USA isn’t the world. From 2005-2009, for example, China added the equivalent of the entire US coal fleet; China burns 4 billion tons of coal per year compared to the USA’s 1 billion tons. (See http://www.climatecentral.org/blogs/chinas-growing-coal-use-is-worlds-growing-problem-16999) And that extraction and use of coal continues unabated. India, too, is exploring extracting very ‘dirty’ coal, which will exacerbate global climate change. Would it be wrong for them to import cleaner coal from Australia (no coal is ‘clean’)? If Swarthmore can educate its students to think imaginatively about ways for the USA and the world to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and to take seriously matters of international justice relating to fossil fuel consumption, the College will doing its job.
Finally, I want to say that I agree with what Fran Putnam wrote in a subsequent post to the one where she took me to task: the protest movement of 1969 was different from the present divestment movement, and I would add so was the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1980’s different from both that movement and the present divestment movement: each movement needs its own rationale and each has its own possibilities and challenges. I also agree with her that when Bill McKibben said “white hot”, he meant hotter even then red hot: no comma between the words was intended or implied.
I want to comment on the “fair share” argument for developing countries.
As an example, take China and India and Brazil, which are currently going through the same exact environmental mistakes made by the industrial revolution of developed countries. It is imperative that we take advantage of the environememtally friendlier technologies and science that are available to us. There is no economic law that all countries must go through a polluted industrial revolution.
Developed countries should focus on helping developing countries take advantage of these technologies from the get-go of their economic development. With the proper investments, real change can happen. If only we could convince Bill Gates to invest in climate change efforts.
I appreciate the time and effort you took to respond to these comments, Hans. I am not going to try to answer you point for point because I have already spoken up a lot on this forum.
I want to draw your attention to the news that Hunter Lovins, one of the panelists at the Sustainability Charette, has just called on Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels. He gives plenty of evidence that divestment is not an empty gesture.
Please check this out: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/apr/13/divestment-colleges-universities-finance-fossil-fuels-investments
In regards to your Walt Kelly reference, I am acutely aware that the enemy is us. Personally, I have worked very hard to reduce my carbon footprint by living in a net zero house, eating local food, biking and walking when I can, and divesting my own assets from fossil fuels. I know I do not have “clean hands,” but I am trying hard to get there.
Nonetheless, I know it is not enough, even if I convince more people to reduce their carbon footprint. I just don’t have the broad reach that a college has. I believe that because this problem is so daunting, we have to try everything.
Who knows if any of this will make a difference, but not trying as hard as we can at all levels may mean we have missed an important opportunity to reduce the effects of climate change. I don’t want to take that chance. “All of the above” is my mantra on actions we can take, and none of these efforts have been proven to be more effective than any other since this is a problem of a different scale than any humans have ever faced.
So let’s not create a dichotomy between sustainability and divestment–let’s go all out and do them both, along with a whole lot of other things such as bringing about change at the political level, working with religious groups, using the arts, coming up with new technologies, and so on. Once we figure out which approach(es) is working best, maybe we can concentrate on that one.
Watch that video and ask yourself if we do not need to keep these oil companies accountable for their horrific actions. Are the people behind these oil companies even human? It’s disgusting.
This entire exchange started with a summary of the arguments for and against divestment by Professor Thomason. Her summary of the arguments favoring divestment left out the rationale that I consider the most important.
Fossil fuel companies continue to play a major role in the politics of climate change response by funding deniers of the science, supporting analyses that greatly exaggerate the costs of conversion to alternative fuels and lobbying for laws and regulations that impede renewable energy development while holding on to their $4 Billion in annual direct Federal subsidies.
Their power and influence derive significantly from their wealth. But their ability to affect the discourse over climate change depends in some measure on their legitimacy as participants in the political debates about how to respond.
Divestment is never going to affect the financial strength of the “carbon club,” it is not going to directly convert those opposing taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into advocates for such efforts, and, given the dominance of an amoral posture in investment decision-making, is not likely to influence capital market behaviors with its moral claims.
But divestment CAN undermine the credibility and social/cultural standing of the target companies. In so doing, it can help to weaken their ability to convince the world to fiddle as Rome burns.
For an example of how a respected source can distort data, let me offer none other than some members of the Board of Managers. They clearly have gotten Professor Oberdiek into a near panic over loss of endowment earnings. The reality is that whatever small relative advantage in investment returns that fossil fuel companies can offer has been eroding for several years, Peabody Coal, the nation’s largest firm in that sector, has seen its stock value drop by over 80%, the Bank of England has warned of risk of catastrophic stock price drops for fossil fuels, and several studies have recently shown that fossil fuel portfolios have outperformed those continuing to hold stock in fossil fuel firms.
I’m an economist, not a philosopher, so I avoid entry into the discussion of moral positions. But I have to conclude that the endowment, which is supposed to be managed for the good of the College community, has to act. First, because of the risks to its investments which divestment poses, under the ‘prudent man rule’ (not my term, but that of financial regulators) that says fiduciaries have to act as a prudent person would, And, second, because the endowment would be bailing in its mission if, by inaction on divestment, it helped delay action on a threat to humankind that could obliterate all that the college exists to support.
Thank you, Hans Oberdiek, for filling in so many of the blanks in the dialog around divestment. It is in fact not a problem with the extraction industry. They are simply doing what generates them the most income at the least cost by providing an insatiable world with all the fuel they can burn. Pogo was indeed correct. Not only are we (the world) the primary motivators of the industry we compound the problem by electing complaisant governments that place few controls on an industry that treats the air, rivers, oceans and land like a free garbage dump.
In all the storm and stress around divestment there have been few hands volunteering to do without heat, the latest electronic gadget or return to a agrarian life, rising and sleeping on the sun cycle. According to the latest available US Energy Information Administration statistics the US, with 5% of the world population, consumed 18% of the total energy in 2012. That is actually positive news. A decade previous it was 25% but it is still a per capita ratio that won’t work going forward. It’s also a distortion as much manufacturing of products for US markets has been shipped beyond our borders thus placing the carbon burden on them, not us. When we look at the much maligned China, with it’s enormous energy consumption, on a per capita basis its just 78 mmBtu per capita and much of that energy goes into producing goods for first world nations. By comparison the USA’s 312.7 mmBtu per capita looks like serious bloat and we are far from the worst. Until we come to terms with the fact that consumer nations are the problem, not the energy industry, there will be no solution. The college has in fact turned a corner in its approach to efficiency investments looking to do a lot more with energy efficiency in its buildings. We are late in the game but looking to catch up fast. There is far more that individuals can and should be doing, not just here on campus but with their individual choices.
I will also point out the wringing of hands over rising sea levels displacing communities in nations some time from now, ignores the much larger and immediate issue of the decreased availability of potable water as a result of shifts in climate and poor management of limited water resources. Drought and the lack of water resources is already having a huge and immediate impact on many nations, poor and rich alike, and will come to roost in our own sooner than we would like to believe. Our super productive desert farmland in California drains rivers and aquifers, leaving some remote communities with a few months of water supply until they run dry. The mid west high plains are not much better off draining the Ogallala aquifer to water cropland at a much faster rate that it can be replenished. Industry needs water, energy production (think cooling towers and hydro dams, not just fracking) needs water. We should spend as much time and concern reflecting on the impact of climate change relative to water resources, as we do to warming surface temperatures and acidified oceans.
I want to thank Peter Meyer for his comments. I would like to point out that I did mention that argument. It’s labeled as the “delegitimizing argument” in the presentation, though it’s possible I went over it too quickly. Let me just clarify some of the complexities of that argument.
It’s not clear precisely how divestment campaigns will undermine the credibility or social standing of fossil fuel companies. That conclusion rests on the assumption that if colleges, universities, and other institutions divest, it will lead to a change in public opinion about fossil fuel companies. This is one possible result of divestment, but surely not the only one nor obviously the most likely one. It seems to me equally possible that, given the established political capital and wealth that fossil fuel companies have, it would be easy for them run a counter campaign to discredit the divestment movement. If they have managed to discredit scientists already, there’s no clear reason to think they wouldn’t do the same in the case of colleges and universities. If that happens, divestment won’t delegitimize fossil fuel companies, but it might marginalize the voices of colleges and universities in public discourse on climate change.
Even if divestment does delegitimize the companies, it’s not obvious to me how much that will alleviate the problem of climate change. If the wealth of fossil fuel companies gives them political power and if divestment doesn’t diminish that wealth, it’s not clear to me whether a lower social standing will prevent them from sufficiently influencing policies in their favor.
So, although the delegitimizing argument is plausible, I think it’s an open question whether divestment really would delegitimize fossil fuel companies or whether delegitimizing the companies would make a serious impact on climate change.
I am distressed to see evidence of distortion and misinformation in discussion of divestment at the college. Two examples from Mr. Thayer’s comment stood out for me:
“… the USA’s 312.7 mmBtu per capita looks like serious bloat and we are far from the worst.”
True, but the only industrialized nations worse than the US according to the EIA have more severe weather conditions and/or more spread-out populations (Canada). The really serious “bloat” comes in nations that host vast numbers of tourists, many from the US (and, of course, in some of the oil-rich autocratic states).
“I will also point out the wringing of hands over rising sea levels displacing communities in nations some time from now, ignores the much larger and immediate issue of the decreased availability of potable water …”
People are dying NOW due to rising sea levels. Witness the recent disaster in Kiribati as only the most recent example. Suva, Fiji was already hosting a displaced community whose atoll had gone under the sea back in 1993, so the phrase “some time from now” is a pretty severe distortion. Lack of potable water has been killing people in the third world forever, so the real change of concern that we may face is either lack of ANY water (but desertification is not new) or the decline in the availability of potable water in industrialized world. As recent episodes of contamination of local water supplies in the US have shown, and some California plans for desalination and the like suggest, potable water can be provided. Rising seas, however, cannot be stopped.
I will also point out that rising sea levels (and sinking land) are disrupting communities in the US as I write, not in some distant future. The NOAA reports highlight recent flood events and forecast future flooding. However, the future is already here at the world’s largest naval base:
The issues are serious, and dealing with them difficult, Let’s try to make sure we address the choices we face as objectively and in the most informed manner as possible.
Missing link from my comment above to the article on Norfolk, VA, the world’s largest naval base: