This summer, Georgetown joined Stanford in its promise to stop investing in coal companies, under pressure from student groups seeking widespread college divestment from the fossil fuel industry. But many, including environmentalists, have called these efforts useless, as divestment hardly seems to make a financial dent in the industry and it does not directly address the capping of greenhouse gas emissions.
Is divestment a useful strategy for mitigating climate change, or is it effective in other ways?
Universities Must Divest from the Fossil Fuel Industry
By Naomi Oreskes
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, is the co-author of "The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future" and "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming." She is on Twitter.
Updated August 10, 2015, 10:51 AM
Academic life is dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, so academics should be particularly offended by organized efforts to undermine knowledge. Yet this is exactly what the fossil fuel industry has done for more than two decades.
Scientists reached consensus in the late 1970s that burning fossil fuels would likely lead to anthropogenic climate change, and since the early 1990s their predictions have been coming true. Yet virtually as soon as scientists began to say so publicly, the fossil fuel industry began to work to challenge it. Following a strategy honed by the tobacco industry, they insisted that the science was too unsettled and uncertain to justify policy action, and have launched highly personal — arguably defamatory — attacks on individual scientists.
Some of the leading fossil fuel companies claim that they no longer promote disinformation, but nearly all of them are members of trade organizations that do. Why should universities invest in an industry that has deliberately sought to undermine the knowledge that we have produced?
What's more, it is well established consensus that even the use of existing reserves of oil, gas, and coal will push the global climate well past the 2-degree target that would protect us from the most serious harm, but the fossil fuel industry has expressed no willingness to consider an alternative business model.
On the contrary, the major oil and gas companies are continuing to explore aggressively for still more fossil fuel resources, including tar sands, shale gas, shale oil, and conventional oil in hard-to-reach places. All of these resources have carbon footprints worse than conventional oil and gas, and given the time it takes to explore, develop, and exploit an oil or gas field, these activities promise to lock in another half century of fossil fuel dependence.
University leaders around the country have repeatedly stated that they understand the threat of climate change, and take it seriously. Many universities have expanded their commitment to climate change research. But what is the logic of working diligently — and spending billions of dollars of taxpayer and philanthropic money — to understand the threat of disruptive climate change, only to invest in an industry whose activities virtually guarantee it?
Pitching Divestment as a “Moral” Crusade is Misguided
By Robert Stavins
Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and was a lead author on the third, fourth and fifth assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Updated August 10, 2015, 10:52 AM
Students are right to be concerned about climate change, but the focus of the divestment movement is fundamentally misguided. Students, faculty and staff can be effective by acting in ways that will make a real difference, but the symbolic action of divestment — and the fight to convince universities to do so — has opportunity costs: It diverts us from focusing on what really matters.
Divestment doesn't affect the ability of fossil fuel companies to raise capital: For each institution that divests, there are other investors that take its place. As long as the world still continues to rely on fossil fuels, and consumes them at current rates, the companies that supply them will have a ready market for their products.
What really matters for addressing climate change is enlightened public policy at the international, national and sub-national levels. In particular, it will take serious, economy-wide, carbon-pricing regimes – either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems – to bring about meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
At Harvard, where I teach, the student leaders of the divestment movement themselves acknowledge that divestment would not have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies. For them, divestment is a “moral strategy.” This, to me, presents another problem.
Pitching divestment as a moral crusade will play into and exacerbate the ideological divide and political polarization that has paralyzed Washington on climate change (and other issues), diminishing even further the prospects for effective climate policy in the United States. Whatever moral statement divestment might make is not worth risking further disintegration of the climate-policy process.
The real contributions of Harvard and other great research universities to climate change policies will be through our products: our research, teaching and outreach to policy makers. That is how great universities have made a difference on other societal challenges for decades and centuries, and it is how we will make a real difference on this one.