November 20, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: Time for higher education to take stand on climate change, divest

Stephen Mulkey

We are running out of time.

While our public policymakers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is closing rapidly.

The way forward is clear, though for many confrontation-averse academics the path seems impassable. It requires action that is unnatural to the scientifically initiated: to fight to regain the territory illegitimately occupied by the climate change deniers.

Every day that we avoid taking action represents additional emissions and additional infrastructure that is dependent on our fossil fuel-based economy. In our zeal to be collegial, we engage with those who are 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 also sidestep the thorny issue of how oil and coal, in particular, fund large-scale organized opposition efforts to deny legitimate science, winning the battle for climate change public opinion with slogans, junk science and money.

While there is much uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns, one thing is very clear: Our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond five degrees Celsius average global warming by 2100.

This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization, and the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium.

I don't know how the stakes could get any higher.

Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers. We must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic and resource trade-offs among possible solutions.

Those within higher education must now do something they have largely avoided at all costs: Confront the policymakers who refuse to accept scientific reality.

We must be willing to lead by example. Like the colleges and universities of the 1980s that pulled investment funds and successfully pressured the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system, we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios.

The colleges and universities of this nation have billions invested in fossil fuels.

Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical. The "Terrifying Math" of the 350.org campaign is based on realistic, reviewed science.

Moreover, it is clear that in our country 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, where Sustainability Science, as developed by the U.S. National Academy of Science, guides our academic mission.

I am honored and proud to be a part of the 350.org program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees. Indeed, the college has been on this path for more than five years. The trustees have looked at the college's finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand. I can think of no stronger statement about the mission of Unity College.

Our college community will lead by fearless action. We will confront policymakers who continue to deny the existence of climate change. We will encourage those who work in higher education to bravely step out from behind manicured, taxpayer funded hedges, and do what needs to be done. 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 all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in destructive practices. 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 constructively to move these corporations to behave responsibly.

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

Stephen Mulkey is president of Unity College.

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