We Must Divest

I am a geologist, whose training largely was supported by and geared toward benefiting fossil fuel industries. My Ph.D. stipend and tuition remission was substantially underwritten with oil company funds, for which I was and am grateful. But I now support the college fossil fuels divestment campaign. In fact, since late November I have divested myself personally of nearly $100,000 in oil stocks, accrued carefully over twenty years—to no apparent ill effect. I have become profoundly disgusted both with the slow, if not corrosive, drift of political and social change and the positions of multiple large corporate players on the question of climate change. The actions of these players all too often amount to a cynical or astonishingly ignorant denial of human culpability for what is taking place and what their companies are doing to the global environment. They have included deliberate obfuscation of climate science in public discourse—from Exxon Mobil channeling more than $8 million to 40 different organizations, including quasi-journalistic groups such as TechCentralStation, Fox News, and various churches [1] to the actions of the Koch Brothers, oil billionaires, who strongly bankrolled efforts to straitjacket California’s global warming law via the Proposition 23 resolution fight (92 percent funded by oil companies). [2] This is all about continuing to make money, the future be damned, and taking an awful gamble that things won’t turn out to be as serious as the vast balance of science suggests–a gamble you and I seem practically powerless to mitigate, one in which you and I are swallowed up in terms of our consumer habits. Welcome to the belly of the beast. In fundamental ways, this seems antithetical to the sort of citizenship we are trying to nurture in the liberal arts. No–no more Exxon Mobil, Shell, or Chevron for me.

I accept that I’ll never be able to tease out the fiscal linkages with Big Oil inherent within the remainder of my investments, or in what I must buy and consume ordinarily to stay alive in 2013. But simply washing my hands of the institutions fueling our hydrocarbon hyper-dependency is a morally appropriate start for me, and it does, like a ripple in a pond, send a message: “Urgency demands going beyond business as usual.” 

Why urgent? We are, as former NASA scientist James Hansen says, in a planetary emergency par excellence. It is a slow creep, an easy-to-put-off issue. It is not an immediate, in-your-face human problem, and therefore of little more than passing interest to most people until it plainly threatens livelihoods, home securities, or social equities. Few of us, even those who agitate for action, fully grasp it, even those who are nominally well-educated.

This dichotomy is underscored by Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis, quoted in The New York Times: “It’s hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worst feats dictated. It’s starting to give me chills, to tell the truth.” [3]

You may know the figures ad nauseam. Enough has been published about the threat of rapid climate change to paper a trail from here to the moon. Several facts bear repeating, however: The pace of summer sea ice melting in the Arctic is now faster than any of our computer models have so far predicted, to the point that as early as 2015, we may have an ice-free polar ocean each summer. [4] This has not happened in at least 115,000 years, when sea levels stood 20 feet higher than today, but more likely in millions of years. [5] Owing to drastic change in planetary albedo, Arctic ice disappearance will accelerate other positive feedbacks, most dangerously soil methanogenesis, increasing the pace of rising global temperature and the formation of a world quite unlike the one to which civilization is accustomed. At stake are the integrity of global agriculture, the basis of our modern economy and indeed of human carrying capacity itself. Since 1960, the United Nations Millennium Assessment (2005) estimates a loss of about a quarter of Earth’s species and a decline in all critical environmental indicators excepting the rate of habitat change in temperate forests. A 7.5-degree Fahrenheit increase in mean global temperatures will bump this loss up to over 40 percent, according to the reports of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [6] Loss of biodiversity means a loss of essential ecosystem services that will cost us, in the end, trillions of dollars. While London, Miami, New Orleans, and countless other coastal communities could have existed in essentially their same locations 2,000 years ago, rising sea levels in the coming few centuries will change that. Almost all scientific forecasts of climate change have proven overly conservative since we first became aware that we had a problem—so such prognostications must be taken seriously. How can one speak of rebuilding New Orleans now, thinking that it could well be submerged in a few human lifetimes?

Most extraordinarily, studies of solar insolation by David Archer, [7] Luke Skinner, [8] and other researchers suggest that the human impact on Earth’s climate will in effect cancel out the next ice age, which should naturally reach a deep point about 50,000 years from now. As incredible as it may sound, the future planetary climate for the next several hundred thousand years depends strongly on the carbon emissions we put into the air over the coming century. [9]Paleoecologist Curt Stager sums up the matter:

“Whichever path we choose to take into the Anthropocene [human-influenced climate] future, it’s now clear that we have already locked ourselves and our world into some uncomfortably large changes. If you’re a hard-core fatalist, you might use such points to argue for giving up and doing nothing. That, however, would be a mistake … [Our impact will be] much less extreme and long-lasting than what could happen if we don’t reduce our carbon consumption as much and as rapidly as possible.” [10]

Despite some (frankly daft) arguments I’ve heard around campus, science and politics are definitely not the same thing, although the two are intertwined in nuanced and sometimes surprising ways. The previous paragraph is science speaking to politics. But the money and the economy trump all. That is not good news.

I fear that free markets and consumerism as we know them will not provide the incentive that we need to develop the renewable energy portfolios and changes in consumption, thrift, and waste management we need—and these are enormous—because those markets are compromised by (1) ill-placed, well-entrenched government subsidies for the world’s most lucrative industry, fossil fuel production; (2) ill-placed tax breaks (proxy subsidies) for the same; (3) lack of capital investment at the scale needed to provide viable options for new technology and its implementation at public utility levels; (4) unaccounted-for critical environmental externalities, many of which cannot be monetized; (5) a socioeconomic system of employment that requires ever-increasing degrees of resource consumption at times of ever-increasing population; (6) a pace of market signaling that simply cannot (and never could) keep up with the pace and forces of nature; and (7) convenience, power-earning, or esteem-based value systems that generate a tremendous amount of transferred environmental damage out of sight and out of mind.

College divestment would send a message from the grassroots: We can and should reinvest in companies and industries that are engaged with building sustainable communities and a carbon-neutral future. One school—or institution, city council, or 4-H Club—won’t make a difference, but many will, given appropriate publicity. This dynamic has proven its effectiveness countless times since the birth of Christianity. It’s past time to act, and to do so in new, creative forms. That may be the only way the message will be heard where the power to affect systemic global change resides.

Contact Richard Hazlett at x18676 or rwh04747@pomona.edu.


1. See, e.g. Chapter 6 and Conclusion, N. Oreskes and E.M. Conway, 2010, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, 355 p

2. Fmi, Executive Summary, 2011, “Koch Industries: Still Fueling Climate Debate: An Update” (Greenpeace International, on line)

3. J. Gillis, Aug. 27, New York Times, “Satellites show sea ice in arctic is at a record low.”

4. Climatologist Peter Wadhams,Director, Polar Ocean Physics Group,  Cambridge University

5. Science Daily, July 16, 2012, No evidence of polar warming during penultimate interglacial

6. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II (Climate Impacts)

7. Archer, D., 2005, The fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time, Journal of Geophysical Research, 110, C09805, doi: 10.1029/2004/C002625

8. University of Cambridge Research News,  January 9, 2012, Ice Age, interrupted

9. Eby, M., Zickfield, K., et al., 2009, Lifetime of anthropogenic climate change: Millennial time scales of potential CO2 and surface temperature perturbations, and. Archer, D., 2009,  The Long Thaw, How Humans Are Changing The Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Princeton University Press

10. Stager, C., 2011, Deep Future, The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, New York, St. Martin’s Press, p. 48.

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