Memo to the Board of Trustees: A Response to Divesting
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:02
As a climate change activist and an alum, I was encouraged to read Jonah Allon’s “Memo to the Board of Trustees: On Divesting” in the Jan. 31, 2013 edition of the Collegian. One might think Mr. Allon’s call for Kenyon to divest its endowment from companies involved in fossil fuel production is the product of youthful idealism or a lack of appreciation for economic or political reality. The scientific reality of climate change, however, supports Mr. Allon’s call for change. The challenges Kenyon may face from diminished investment returns pale in comparison to the challenges we all will face if action is not taken to address climate change now.
A leading climate scientist at NASA, Dr. James Hansen, has called climate change “the predominant moral issue of the 21st century.” He has written that our “fossil fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren, and most species on the planet.” Hansen has been sounding the alarm for over 30 years and cites the role of money in politics as the reason for inaction on climate change. In his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren, he describes the powerful sway the fossil fuel industry has over Washington and the lengths to which it has gone to distort the scientific evidence that humans are in fact changing the climate. Corporations such as Exxon and BP, Hansen argues, have never been forced to internalize the true costs of fossil fuel production and Earth’s climate and natural ecosystems are suffering as a result.
In his Rolling Stone piece “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” climate-change activist Bill McKibben describes the problem in numbers even a poet can understand. Global leaders, he writes, recently came to an agreement based on the scientific understanding that a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius would have dangerous consequences for the future of humanity. In order to raise global temperatures to this threshold, the world would have to release 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The problem, according to McKibben, is that fossil fuel companies currently have 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in their reserves and their business model depends on that carbon being extracted, processed and burned. At current rates of consumption, the world will surpass the 565-gigaton threshold in only 16 years. If President Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline and the Athabasca oil sands in Canada are tapped, that could add another 230 gigatons to the equation.
The World Bank’s 2012 report “Turn Down the Heat” describes the devastating impact of a 4-degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperatures, a circumstance almost certain to occur before the end of the century if carbon emissions continue at projected rates. In this warmer world, the level of the sea will rise by up to three feet, wiping some island nations off the map and flooding cities in Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. Drinking water will become even more scarce and crop yields will decline, exacerbating hunger and poverty. Intense heat waves will become the norm and cover broad sections of Earth’s surface. The combined effects of all these changes are hard to predict and scientists are uncertain whether humans and natural ecosystems will be able to adapt to such harsh conditions. While all nations will suffer the effects of a 4-degree-Celsius warmer world, the report concludes, it is the world’s poorest countries that will be hit hardest by rising seas, famine and drought. The humanitarian crises that will ensue are not difficult to imagine.
As Mr. Allon points out, climate change is already having significant impacts on this and other countries: 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States, glaciers are retreating at alarming rates, arctic sea ice is melting faster than projected and extreme heat waves and drought have hit the United States and Russia several times in the last decade. Superstorm Sandy can indeed be linked to climate change. The economic consequences of these extreme weather events include higher insurance premiums and the increasing expenditure of public funds on disaster relief and mitigation.
There is no shortage of evidence regarding the impacts of continued carbon dioxide pollution of Earth’s atmosphere. There is, however, a shortage of action. The United States and other countries need to pass legislation that puts a tax on carbon and invest the revenues in renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar. A binding international treaty imposing progressive reductions on carbon emissions must be signed. And individuals and private companies must find ways to reduce their daily energy consumption.
The political will to implement these large-scale changes — which will likely involve short-term economic sacrifices — will not come easily. It will only arise if individuals and institutions alike take bold action to raise awareness of our planet’s precarious position and demand policies that enable long-term sustainability. Divestment from fossil fuel interests alone will not solve the climate crisis, but it is a first and necessary step in the process. Kenyon should strive to be a moral leader in the community of higher education and take steps to ensure that its investment practices promote a sustainable future.