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Not merely symbolic: aligning deeds with values

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“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. . . . It means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away.’’ – Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything.

I believe that the most profound existential crisis the human species has ever faced — global warming and climate change —- is sufficient grounds for the change of course suggested by Mr. Weitz and the Board of Trustees.

Here are a few salient facts:

1. C02 levels in the atmosphere are now at 400 parts per million, the highest levels found on earth in millions of years.

2. In order to prevent a global temperature rise of 2-degrees Celsius, the target endorsed by virtually every government in the world to stop irreversible and cataclysmic crisis, greenhouse gas emissions need to immediately drop in the wealthiest countries by something like 8-10% a year.

3. Virtually all experts agree that fossil fuels need to be phased out over the next few decades.

It is both the magnitude and the timing of the crisis that cries out for new and bold action.

Millions of people are frustrated that our leaders are not listening. The social, economic, and political policies so desperately needed — an effective carbon tax, tough regulation, shifts to sustainable transportation and agriculture, helping the most vulnerable communities build resilient structures — are either not being implemented or, worse, being actively fought against by those in the seats of power.

Why the political paralysis? Why can’t we get traction in collectively moving forward to meet the greatest challenge of our time?

A big part of the answer is the relentless campaign by the fossil fuel industry to deny global warming, to discredit and intimidate leading climate scientists, to confuse the public, to sabotage renewable energy solutions, to lobby at national, state, and local levels for fossil fuels.

It seems bizarre, insane, suicidal, yet the FF industry is promoting policies that are threatening the life of the planet at the altar of short-term profit. How else explain the following:

-The FF industry’s proven reserves — the oil in the earth that will be the source of future profits — are three to five times greater than the amount of carbon which can be burned to stay below the 2 degree limit.

-The FF industry spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year searching the planet for new sources of oil and gas extraction.

-On Shell Oil’s “Future of Energy” website we read that “The Arctic holds 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its oil. Developing [sic!] the Arctic could be essential to securing energy supplies for the future.”

-Chevron, one of the worst human rights offenders from Ecuador to Nigeria, is spending over $50 billion on gas development off the coast of Australia, which will release so much natural gas

-ExxonMobile’s most recent annual energy outlook projects a 35% increase in global energy demand, by 2040, with oil being the dominant fuel.

-Beyond the Keystone XL pipeline, Big Oil is planning to triple the extraction of tar sands oil in Canada and send up to 6 million barrels a day through the U.S. Increasingly the land is being criss-crossed with a vast network of pipelines and oil and gas convoys and trains, transporting an ever-more dangerous product through local communities and pristine lands, as oil spills, train derailments and pipeline leaks become near daily occurrences.

The business model of the FF industry is at war with the life of the planet.

Students, alums, faculty and staff are saying: Surely the College does not support this. How can we profit off this?

Divestment is an opportunity to align our deeds with our values.

Some say that shareholder engagement is a better tactic for changing corporate behavior.

But such engagement has been tried for decades on this issue –– with no significant effect. A coal company is not going to vote yes to stop mining coal.

Some dismiss divestment as merely “symbolic,’’ without practical impact or significance. Yet symbols can have a profound impact in inspiring people, showing them our intent and encouraging change.

What is the real purpose of divestment? It is not aimed at the financial position, or share price, of the FF industry. The purpose of divestment is to challenge the social license of the FF industry, to change the political climate and discussion. Its purpose is to allow room so that the industry can be challenged and made to pay for their pollution, and broad-based public policy can be instituted to turn us around to move in the right direction.

It is useful to recount the experience with Big Tobacco. Since 1998, the tobacco industry has had to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to fund health programs and anti-smoking campaigns. This would have been unheard of decades earlier, when the industry was considered a solid and respected corporate citizen. It was the result of a profound shift, of widespread public recognition that the tobacco companies were peddling a poisonous product and lying to the people about its dangers. When the role of the tobacco industry as a rogue corporation was understood in the public mind, that’s when the change occurred.

The FF divestment movement is the fastest growing divestment movement in U.S. history. Just last week Syracuse University in New York joined the list of schools that have divested, and announced that it is removing its $1.18 billion endowment from direct investments in FF companies. The announcement followed a two-year student-led campaign, which included an 18-day sit-in in November.

Carleton College has a well-deserved reputation for its progressive work on sustainability and carbon reduction. But how, at the same time, can we be betting (and that’s what investing is) on the very industry that is gutting and torpedoing these efforts? We have a duty to our students, to future generations, to those we try to inspire with our mission to get on the right side of history.

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