Research shows that it is becoming increasingly important to divest from the use of fossil fuels
In 2012, Bill McKibben wrote the Rolling Stone article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math that signifies three numbers that easily explain climate change and global catastrophe. McKibben calculates that normal human activity can emit no more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which will keep the planet from rising 2 degrees Celsius. The issue is that the fossil fuel industry has 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide — five times more than the safe amount — in reserve and they are planning on burning all of it.
McKibben and 350.org, a website he helped found, built a climate movement urging for climate action around the globe. A large part of that movement involves calling on universities, religious organizations, and other institutions to divest from fossil fuels. I have discussed fossil fuel divestment before, but this initiative becomes even more imperative every day.
Many schools in the United States have jumped on board with divestment, but for this movement to be successful there has to be full participation. I believe this is an easy decision whichever way you look at it. Protecting our environment from ourselves is of utmost importance to any future that involves human activity. So any action that can be taken to avoid catastrophe should be considered our highest priority.
If McKibben’s calculations are accurate, then there is no choice but to act. Part of the issue at Ohio University and other schools around the country is the threat of poor endowment performance. Decision-makers who have the responsibility to make sure their institution is running efficiently do not want to take a risk that could hurt that progress.
These are understandable risks, but the schools that have already divested have shown that the risks are not substantiated. To quote Pitzer College trustee Donald Gould from an article he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about fossil-fuel divestment, “so the question really is whether fossil-fuel companies will do better or worse than the rest of the investable universe. Historically, the companies’ stock performance has been roughly in line with the rest of the stock market, and we see no reason to expect them to outperform the market in the future.”
Gould also brings up the idea of stranded assets, or, the other fossil fuels that are in reserve, saying, “many people cite ‘stranded asset’ risk … as a reason that they could underperform in the future… Divestment also creates a natural opportunity for targeted reinvestment in companies and projects that promote sustainability and other mission-consistent goals.” Simply put, if these stranded assets are burned up, then climate catastrophe will be inevitable.
In a blog post for Switchboard, National Resources Defense Council executive director Peter Lehner argues that investment portfolios without fossil fuels have performed better than ones with fossil fuel investments throughout the past five years. “If universities and other institutions are still afraid to divest, despite the facts, it suggests to me that the worry is really about breaking faith with the oil and gas industry and its very deep pockets.”
Lehner has a valid argument when he says society’s issue is how deeply embedded the fossil fuel industry is in our institutions and our everyday life. It is time to break free from fossil fuels, and it makes sense for our future in every aspect. Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash wrote an article for the Huffington Post that said it best: “Our donors gave money to create our endowment as an investment in the future. Our business as an educational institution is to invest in the future. In a rapidly warming world the future of our students will depend on quickly expanding the use of wind, solar power and other carbon-free sources of energy, and deep reductions in the use of fossil fuels.”
It’s time for OU to join the movement and build for our future. For students looking to get involved, there is an OUCAN event on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Nelson Commons. The Environmental Committee for Student Senate also meets every Thursday at 3 p.m. in the Student Senate office in Baker 305.
Grant Stover is a sophomore studying English, a member of the Environmental Committee on Student Senate and a member of the Sierra Coalition at Ohio University. Email him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter at @grant_stover.