By Naomi Oreskes and Clara Belitz in Cambridge, Massachusetts
There are many compelling reasons for universities to divest themselves of investment in the fossil fuel industry – including and especially the physical and potentially irreversible effects of climate change to which university endowments essentially contribute.
But for our colleagues now asking for an end to these investments, there's an almost equally compelling argument: universities exist to foster knowledge, learning and understanding, and the fossil-fuel industry has worked systematically over the past 20 years to undermine that work. It has worked and continues to work in direct opposition to our mission as scientists and educators through the political process and PR campaigns.
While giving money to support research, fossil-fuel companies also spend money to undermine its results, both directly through misleading advertising and indirectly by supporting think-tanks, trade organizations and other "third party allies" who are continuing to promote disinformation and doubt.
It is in the following context that diverse individuals and institutions are increasingly calling for divestment from fossil-fuel corporations:
In 1992, it seemed as if the world had finally gotten the message, as the US, UK and scores of other countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous climate change.
Twenty-two years later, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report details how changes in the climate system are endangering human safety and prosperity, cultural heritage and global biodiversity. Not only is dangerous anthropogenic climate change underway, but the greenhouse gases that drive it continue to increase. In 1750, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations sat below 280 parts per million (ppm). In 1992, when the framework convention was signed, the figure was 356. This year, it approaches 400. What's worse, the rate of increase is increasing: in the early 1960s, the rate of increase per decade was 3ppm; in the 1980s, it was 14, and today it is over 20. Things are not just getting worse – they are getting worse at a faster rate.
Despite those frightening facts, some academic leaders and university trustees, including here at Harvard, maintain that there is no reason to stop investing in these industries. They argue that divesting won't make a difference, that it's not our job to "punish" bad actors, and even that the current political and social pressure will be enough to effect change.
History does not support these claims.
Divestment did make a difference in the history of apartheid and tobacco control; it is our job, both collectively and individually, to prevent preventable harms; and the uninterrupted rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases demonstrates that our collective actions to date have been insufficient.
The fossil-fuel industry is continuing not just to mine and drill for coal, oil and gas, but to aggressively develop new fossil-fuel resources. And the industry continues to lobby against the political actions and instruments that could enable a transition to zero or low carbon fuels. Worse yet, the fossil-fuel corporations have participated in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine the scientific information that demonstrates the severity of the problem we face, including ugly and unprincipled personal attacks on climate scientists.
There is no sign that, without external pressure, any of this will change.
Divestment relies on a traditional social remedy: the remedy of public denouncement and shaming. If thousands of pages of scientific documentation have not persuaded the fossil-fuel industry to change their business model, perhaps divestment will. If it doesn't, at least our institutions will not be complicit in the industry's actions.
Do we know for sure that divestment will make a difference? Of course not. But we do know that the various forms of action that have been taken to date have failed. If business as usual has given us dangerous climate change, then we need to change the way we do business. Divestment can be one step in that direction.