Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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LETTER: Divestiture revisited

To the Editor:

A group of Boston University students known as DivestBU recently asked President Robert Brown to divest the institution’s endowment from corporations that sell fossil fuels, the principal source of greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

Brown personally acknowledged the request and promised to have the university give it serious consideration. I hope that the committee will be empowered and encouraged to take a really long and hard look and be guided by what is needed and possible right now more than what conventional wisdom says is doable right now. The conventional wisdom is that without fossil fuels we will return to the Stone Age, and that the alternatives are not ready for prime time. Like so many other times in human history, conventional wisdom is wrong. In the course of my teaching and researching energy over the past 30 years, I have learned that alternatives —including energy efficiency — are ready to be scaled up.

Yet, this is “creative destruction.” It disrupts existing patterns of investment and creates winners and losers in the business world. Those who will lose out when the world seriously embarks on the great carbon transition fund a powerful campaign to convince the public that we can’t make that transition. They are just protecting their revenues, which are the largest in the world. But we’ve seen this story before, with DDT, lead in gasoline, CFCs, cigarettes, acid rain and with slavery: that it is impossible to make the changes that we know we need to make. We hope that the establishment of this committee will mark the beginning of the university lifting itself out of the common, shared delusion that we must continue pouring out dangerous emissions, that we have no alternatives. We hope that the committee will educate itself and continue down the path that the university has started on. Many faculty, staff and students stand ready to help.

The focus on alleged technical feasibility of alternatives sidesteps an important reality: what is technically and economically feasible for the nation is a completely distinct issue from what is financially possibly and ethically appropriate behavior for BU. The transition to a low-carbon energy system cannot happen overnight, but there are a host of low carbon and demand-management industries that are financially and technically viable right now. Global investment in low-carbon energy amounted to $257 billion in 2011, and is rising sharply despite the global macroeconomic malaise. Solar and wind energy and energy efficiency lead the way. There are hundreds of stocks and dozens of funds that specialize in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy, and some of these exhibit impressive financial performance. Thus, if the university views energy as an attractive area of investment, it has some clear choices other than the carbon corporations.

The ethical issues surrounding the university’s support for corporations that sell carbon are compelling. Many benefits from fossil fuel use — warmth, mobility, lighting, food, clean water, iPods, trips to Disneyworld — benefit the living. But the brunt of the costs of fossil fuel use will be born by future generations in the form of rising sea level, more frequent tropical storms, reduced air quality, increased drought and, more generally, a world that for many will be less safe, less secure, and less predicable than the one that existed before humans started using fossil fuels. What ethical responsibility does the current generation have to future generations? Universities should lead the way in this discussion and lead by example in teaching, research, operations and finance.

Then there is the issue of the behavior of the carbon corporations that the university supports with its investments. Large fossil fuel corporations have actively funded a campaign of lies, fear and misinformation regarding climate change science. For example, organizations such as the George C. Marshall Institute and Frontiers of Freedom launder money from Exxon Mobil and other carbon corporations, passing the cash on to a small cadre of scientists who parrot the carbon industry’s claim that (a) climate change was not “real,” and (b) shifting away from fossil fuels would wreck the economy. Both claims are at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus and are increasingly seen for exactly what they are: naked examples of corporate greed that place profits and political ideology ahead of broader social welfare. Is the behavior of Exxon Mobil and other carbon corporations — which continues to this day —consistent with the ethical and moral values of BU? In this regard, I view the behavior of the carbon corporation as no different than that of the tobacco companies who for decades funded a campaign of lies and obfuscation that perpetuated the notion that smoking doesn’t kill you. Finally, we must ask the question, to what extent is BU’s financial and operational behavior aligned with its central mission, namely education and research? On the education front, the university confers degrees with names like “Environmental Analysis and Policy,” “Environmental Earth Science,” and “Ecology and Conservation Biology.” Myriad courses that span at least a dozen colleges and schools explore some aspect of the preeminent challenge facing humanity: what does a sustainable human existence on the planet look like? There is an equally impressive range of faculty research related to energy, climate change and related issues in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

On the operations side, the university has made impressive gains in energy efficiency and has invested in a shift from oil to natural gas, both of which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The financial side remains an open question. Does our investment behavior align with what we teach our students, with the results of faculty research and with the campus sustainability program? We do not know. Brown indicates that he is concerned about (a) climate change and (b) the performance of our endowment. He can address both by selling some fossil fuel stocks and investing the proceeds in energy efficiency on our campus! It is entirely plausible that the university can earn a better return on this type of investment than holding Exxon Mobil stock (or its carbon equivalent). We should urge Brown to press the Board of Trustees on this issue.

All members of the BU community should welcome this opportunity to discuss this important issue, and make sure that the tough questions surrounding divesture are openly and thoroughly investigated.

Finally, the divestiture issue reminds me of a slogan from the 1970s: “solar energy would be practical if the oil companies owned the Sun.”

Cutler J. Cleveland

Professor of Earth and Environment, College of Arts and Sciences and Co-Chair, University Committee on Sustainability

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