Let's Break The Illusion That Universities Actually Want To Fix Climate Change

They want it to go away -- or to use it for public relations -- but they don’t particularly care about fixing it.
Harvard University refuses to withdraw its investments in fossil fuels.
Harvard University refuses to withdraw its investments in fossil fuels.

This week, the University of Denver announced it will keep on investing in fossil fuels as it has been. Take note: even now, in this political moment, when we moan of future disaster and of irresponsibility on grand scales, we refuse to take even basic actions available before us.

It’s important that we come to terms with an illusion we have lived under for too long: that our learned leaders actually want to fix climate change. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them do not.

If the board of the University of Denver actually wanted to save its children from climate change, it would treat the problem seriously. It would take consequential steps to solve it. It would be eager to address the problem. The simple but unfortunate truth, though, is that when push comes to shove, it doesn’t much care.

The board of the University of Denver is not alone. It is in prestigious company. It is joined by the board of Harvard, the board of MIT, the board of Columbia, and many others. McGill and the University of Toronto—supposedly Canada’s best and brightest—are in that circle as well. All have said that they care about climate change but that they refuse to reduce their fossil fuel investments.

In doing so they deny science. Reducing investments in fossil fuels is necessary to address climate change according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the scientific literature, and nongovernmental organizations. And it is an unavoidable and fairly obvious truism that if a society wishes to stop using something, then it must reduce its investments in it.

Our prestigious boards of directors deny this evidence and logic without batting an eyelash. Reducing investments in fossil fuels “wouldn’t be an effective means of mitigating global warming” according to the head of the University of Denver’s board. The obvious response is, “Why not?” The boards of our universities are incapable of answering this question.

In the face of an unprecedented threat to our species—and authoritative evidence that reducing investments in fossil fuels is in fact needed—what does the University of Denver offer instead? Composting.

Composting is not the response of someone who wants to save humanity from climate change—it’s the response of someone who deep down does not care.

Lest you think the handwringing over investments is much ado about nothing, consider Harvard. The carbon footprint from its fossil fuel investments is estimated to be 100 million tons (of CO2). Harvard’s board knows this and does nothing about it. Its faculty know this and most of them do nothing about it. Compare that deep apathy to the university’s recent, self-congratulatory announcement that it had reduced its operating emissions by a grand-sounding 30%—which appears to translate to only about 60,000 tons per year. In other words, Harvard’s investment carbon footprint is about 1000 times bigger than its campus carbon footprint. The university is using climate change for public relations while its true, much larger contribution to the problem—its continued investment in fossil fuels—sits unaddressed.

Here’s the rub, though: The board of Harvard does not want for information. It is not a mistake that Harvard trumpets the reduction of its campus carbon footprint while it stubbornly guards its much larger investment carbon footprint. For the leaders of Harvard, all of this climate talk is not actually about addressing climate change. If it were, Harvard would have willingly revised its investments—its main contribution to the problem—long ago.

Harvard’s president, in a meaningless string of corporate speak that may be the undoing of our children, has proclaimed that investments are “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” Innocuous words at first glance, but let us be sober. The “change” in this case is to not make war on the future of our species. It is to be distinguishable from those throughout history who have engaged in the easy banality of evil, selling out humanity for profit. The “change” in this case is to possess some basic principle other than money and convenience.

And yet it appears we have none. According to the University of Denver, it must continue to invest in fossil fuels because it has a “long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit” to its students and others. Simple betrayal never sounded so beautiful, so soaring. The university itself denies science and inverts morality so that harm is good, and words are true simply by being spoken.

Let’s finally break the illusion that our leaders—even the ones on “our side” in our new political landscape—actually want to fix this problem. They want it to go away—or to use it for public relations—but they don’t particularly care about fixing it. Most are careerists, plain and simple.

That means it is up to us to get things done, to fight obstruction wherever it appears—whether in the White House or the university. When it comes to climate, they’re not always all that different.