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End Note

Time for Higher Education to Take a Stand on Climate

The high-stakes battle for climate change and what institutional leaders must do
University Business, May 2013
Stephen Mulkey

We are running out of time. While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing. The way forward is clear, yet for many confrontation-averse academics, the path seems impassable. It requires action that’s unnatural to the scientifically initiated: fight to regain territory occupied by climate change deniers.

Every day that we avoid taking action represents additional emissions and infrastructure dependent on our fossil fuel-based economy. In our zeal to be collegial, we engage with those paid by vested interests to argue that our Earth is not in crisis. When these individuals demonize public investment in alternative energy, we fail to point out how the oil industry benefited from significant taxpayer support in its infancy and continues to receive government subsidies today. We sidestep the thorny issue of how oil and coal, in particular, fund large-scale, organized opposition efforts to deny legitimate science and sway public opinion with slogans, junk science, and money.

There is uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns. But this is clear: Our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond 5oC average global warming by 2100. That planet won’t be consistent with our civilization, and the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium. I don’t know how the stakes could be higher.

Educate and Confront

Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers. We have that obligation. We must produce leading-edge professionals able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource trade-offs among possible solutions. Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror 20 years from now. Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe? For me, the alternative is unacceptable.

Higher ed leaders must do something we have largely avoided: confront policymakers who refuse to accept scientific reality. Like the colleges and universities of the 1980s that disinvested from apartheid South African interests—successfully pressuring the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system—we must exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios. We must divest. U.S. institutions have billions invested in fossil fuels. Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical.

The “Do the Math” themed tour of the campaign is based on realistic, reviewed science. Moreover, in our country, it is clear that economic pressure gets results where other means fail. If we are to honor our commitment to the future, divestment is not optional. This is especially true for Unity College (Maine), where Sustainability Science, as developed by the U.S. National Academy of Science, guides our academic mission. I’m proud to be a part of the program of divestment, and I’m especially proud of our board of trustees for the willingness to make this affiliation. Our trustees have been on the divestment path for more than five years. They have looked at our finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to take a stand. I can think of no stronger statement about the mission of Unity College.

Our college community will confront policy makers who continue to deny the existence of climate change. We will encourage those who work in higher ed to bravely step out from behind manicured, taxpayer-funded hedges. We will not equivocate, and we will meet those who have been misled by climate change denial in their communities.

The time is long overdue for investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in employing a destructive business model. Because of its infrastructure and enormous economic clout, fossil fuel corporations could pump trillions into the development of alternative energy. Government subsidies and stockholder shares could be used to move these corporations to behave responsibly.

Higher education is the crown jewel of the U.S. education system, and it remains the envy of the world. It has always been dedicated to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. If our colleges and universities will not take a stand now, who will?

Stephen Mulkey is president of Unity College (Maine).