Unity Magazine: Divestment Issue

The fall 2013 issue of our Unity Magazine focuses on Unity’s leadership in the divestment movement from a wide range of perspectives.  The magazine includes articles from guest writers Bill McKibben of 350.org and Dan Apfel of the Responsible Endowments Coalition.  Read on.

UnityMag

Strange logic on the Keystone XL

As the end game on the Keystone XL pipeline approaches, various pundits and editorial boards have argued that we should move forward with the pipeline.  The Keystone XL extension of an existing pipeline would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama is likely to make a decision on whether or not to allow the pipeline to be built within the next month or so.  These arguments make a few key points, which I will review here by focusing on two recent editorials.  The twisted logic in these leaves me wondering if the authors really think that their audience is incapable of parsing the truth.   I find it inconceivable that thoughtful readers can endorse this pipeline while simultaneously knowing how important it is that we address climate change.

KSXL

Map taken from Cornell University Global Labor Institute study, Pipe Dreams, 2012.

(1) The Washington Post editorialized that the new safeguards proposed for new sections of the pipeline, which will traverse a route that avoids ecologically sensitive lands, have addressed the primary environmental concerns.   The editorial remarks that “Mr. Obama should ignore the activists who have bizarrely chosen to make Keystone XL a line-in-the-sand issue, when there are dozens more of far greater environmental import.”

Astonishingly, this editorial does not mention anthropogenic climate change.  Apparently WaPo editors believe that the pollution threat from leaks and spillage are the only environmental issues involved.  This omission gives lie to the statement that Keystone XL is an arbitrary line-in-the-sand.  The oil from the Keystone XL is arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet, given that its refining produces substantially more greenhouse gas emissions than that of conventional oil.  A new report from Greenpeace lists the Alberta tar sands as one of 14 carbon bombs, and notes by 2020, the tar sands … would add annual emissions of 420 million tonnes of CO2, equal to those of Saudi Arabia.  Moreover, a byproduct of refining tar sand oil is petroleum coke, which will be sold to enhance the combustion of coal fired power plants, adding even more to potential emissions.  Various estimates have suggested that if we burn even 50% of the oil in the Canadian tar sands, it will push us substantially toward the 2˚C global average warming that my colleagues have argued is the limit that civilization can reasonably tolerate.  The Canadian tar sands are by most estimates the second largest known source of oil on the terrestrial planet.  If this is true, then opposition to the Keystone XL is hardly arbitrary.

In contrast, in March 2012 a paper in Nature Climate Change suggested that the emissions from the tar sands would have only a trivial impact on global temperature. Assuming that the estimate in this paper is correct, I would argue that the tar sands remain an appropriate target for activism because we simply must stop new sources of  oil from being developed.  As the eminent climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert at the University of Chicago has remarked, mining the tar sands with the intention of using this as an interim source of oil while we decarbonize the economy is analogous to the alcoholic who puts the vodka in the cupboard while promising to drink only a little bit.  Certainly, it is correct to say that coal is enemy number one when it comes to carbon emissions, but this does not mean that we should ignore the tar sands.  In my opinion, all sources of dirty energy are worthy of our attention at this critical time in the history of our species.  Further analysis that clarifies the paper in Nature Climate Change can be found here.

(2) A recent Nature editorial makes the claim that the tar sands will be burned anyway, and thus there is no point for Obama to not approve it.  Astonishingly, Nature argues that by approving the Keystone XL Obama would bolster his credibility within industry and among conservatives, presumably increasing the chances that a carbon tax would pass Congress.

First off, Obama has repeatedly tried and failed to appease and gain credibility with the conservative wing of Congress.  (How’s that been workin’ for ya, Barry?)  Clearly, using the Keystone XL as a way to gain ground with conservatives is an absurd suggestion based on the history of Obama’s failures with Congress during his first term.

The argument that the tar sands will be mined and burned regardless of whether or not Obama approves the pipeline is unconvincing in several aspects.  For example, the Canadian proponents of the pipeline have argued that the Keystone XL is critical to their ability to export the oil.  This suggests that exporting this oil may not be a foregone conclusion.  Secondly, it is obvious that the Canadians have not resolved their own disputes about how to transport the oil.  Native peoples have effectively blocked the oil from moving west to the Pacific, and the cost of the route east over a combination of rail and pipeline is likely to make the market value of this oil less competitive.

Embedded but unstated in the argument that the oil will be used regardless of the pipeline approval is the notion that a large amount of that oil would be sold in the U.S. market.  There is considerable evidence that this is not likely to occur.   The refineries on the Gulf Coast are largely export facilities, and by far the largest market for this oil is overseas.   Indeed, the Canadians are intent on exporting the oil by ocean, it just so happens that a southern route to the Gulf is the least costly way to get the oil to a coastline.  Similarly, various proponents continue to raise the issue of the jobs that the Keystone Xl would create as a potential boost to the U.S. economy.  Speaker John Boehner famously stated that the XL would create over 100,000 jobs.  Here again, the evidence shows otherwise.  According to a study by researchers at Cornell University, the number of jobs may be as few as 2,500-4,650 mostly unskilled, temporary positions in the U.S.  The permanent, skilled workforce that would result from the pipeline would be trivial in the context of our overall rate of unemployment.

Nature refers to the scientific community as advocating a price on carbon.  Indeed we do, but mention of this in reference to the Keystone XL in this editorial is a non-sequitor.  Nature goes on to remark that “the Obama administration might be able to put the United States on track to meet its Copenhagen commitment to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.”  This statement is bizarrely out of place in this editorial as it is utterly unclear what this has to do with approval of the Keystone XL.  As a scientist, I have always expected more from Nature, one of the top-ranked scientific journals in the world.  I can’t help but wonder if this editorial is the opinion of one or two senior individuals on the staff.  It is arguably poorly written and inadequately reviewed.

What is most troubling about both of these editorials is that they seem oblivious to the scientific fact that we have very little time to begin aggressive mitigation of emissions if we are to salvage a livable planet for our grandchildren and beyond.  The impact of failure to act will have consequences that will last a millennium.   There has never been an environmental threat with this degree of urgency or potential for devastation.  A line in the sand?  Indeed, I hope so.  Given the dubious logic of these arguments, if we won’t take a stand on the Keystone XL now, it is hard to imagine what might move us.

Forward on Climate

Another trip to the White House

photo credit: Adam Welz

Unity College is going back to DC! This time to join the LARGEST CLIMATE ACTION the nation has ever seen. Many of you will remember, we’ve taken this trip before: in 2010 on the Solar Road Trip, the following spring to Powershift and a private meeting with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and again in November, 2011 when a squad of Unity students and staff — led by President Stephen MulkeyCircled the White House to say “no” to the Keystone XL Pipeline and “no” to tar sands.

On Sunday, February 17th, we’ll again join thousands and thousands of others outside the White House to support and challenge President Obama and his State Department to do the right thing: move Forward on Climate, and stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Click the image below for details on the event.

Our concerns about the Pipeline are many, but it boils down to this:

  1. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will unleash unbridled development, extraction, and use of Alberta’s tar sands oil, and
  2. emissions from burning that oil is essentially “game over” for the climate.

Read more about tar sands oil and “The Case for Leaving the Carbon in the Ground” from President Stephen Mulkey who a year and a half ago wrote:

 I urge all of us to take this science seriously and to act in every acceptable way to influence our policy makers to begin massive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Join us in DC February 17th to do just that. Unity College climate champions, read on below for trip details.

FOClogoCOLORbig

WANT TO JOIN US IN DC?

  • Must register by email (click link) or sign up with the Sustainability Office, and submit $10 deposit by February 8th. Space is limited. Sign up NOW!
  • Must  attend pre-trip meeting February 12.
  • We’ll leave Saturday night, February 16th, on a charter bus with other Maine climate riders.
  • Rally in DC from noon to 4 on Sunday, February 17th.
  • Return from DC Sunday evening and return to Unity pre-dawn on Monday, February 18th.

Tar Sands Action – Portland, January 26

An open letter to college and university presidents about divestment from fossil fuels

13 November 2012

Stephen Mulkey

Dear Colleagues,

On the 5th of November 2012, the Unity College Board of Trustees unanimously voted to divest our endowment from fossil fuel industries.  While one might think that this was logical for a college where Sustainability Science structures the academic program, it was not easy.   Indeed, the Board’s committee on investment carefully reviewed the potential fiduciary impact of this action.  Some members of the Board were uncomfortable with the choice to close off this source of revenue at a time when the College needs every penny.  In the end, the Board embraced our ethical obligation to stop supporting an industry that has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of commitment to future generations.  I write this letter to urge you to raise this crucially important issue with your governing body.

Why should colleges and universities divest?  It is increasingly clear that climate change will be the defining environmental factor of what will come to be seen as the environmental century.  Recent work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research indicates that our current rate of emissions will carry us beyond 7°F average global warming by 2100.  Other studies show that warming may be more than 9°F.

Either way, this level of warming is catastrophic.  The current generation of college students will experience a dangerously disrupted climate by mid-century.  We must provide strong incentives for fossil fuel industries to invest their gargantuan profits in alternative and renewable energy rather than in the development of new and increasingly marginal sources of fossil fuels.

Your institution must not be on the wrong side of this issue.  Given the recent decade of extreme temperatures and catastrophic weather, America is waking up.  In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change.   Our students are already demanding action, and we must not ignore them.  As college presidents, we are committed to the highest standards of honesty and integrity.  Failure to provide ethical leadership on an issue that has the potential to be the most profoundly negative factor in the lives of our students is unacceptable.

Financial managers may complain that divestment will be complicated and insurmountably onerous.  However, it takes no more effort to manage a portfolio for minimum exposure to fossil fuels than it does to manage for maximum market return – and these two goals can coexist.  Admittedly, markets are more complex today than in the time of divestment from companies associated with apartheid.  Depending on your particular mix of investment tools, achieving an absolute zero fossil fuel return may be difficult.  Unity College has chosen to strongly bias its portfolio away from such investments, and we are confident that we can achieve a negligible exposure to fossil fuels.  We also believe that under current market conditions our overall portfolio will generally not perform more poorly than the market average while holding true to our promise to divest.

All board members are acutely aware of their fiduciary responsibilities to the institution, and they will want assurances that investment practices bring an appropriate return.  While endowments must be managed to insure growth, we must turn away from the embedded acceptance of the notion of profits at any price.

Regardless of financial considerations, we must demand the highest ethical standards from our universities and colleges. It is ethically indefensible that an institution dedicated to the proposition of the renewal of civilization would simultaneously invest in its destruction.  In this respect, divestment is not optional.  As presidents, you do not control your institution’s investment policy, but you do have great influence.  Urge your board to take a stand and make it possible for your institution to speak from a position of integrity.

Sincerely,

Stephen Mulkey
president
Unity College
Unity, ME 04988

Unity College Board of Trustees votes to divest from fossil fuels

I am proud to say that earlier today the Unity College Board of Trustees voted to divest the College endowment from fossil fuels.  The following editorial is my statement to the public about this important step.

Time for higher education to take a stand on climate

Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey
President
Unity College
Unity, ME 04988

5 November 2012

We are running out of time.  While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.

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 5oC average global warming by 2100.   This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization and science shows us that 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.  As educators, we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions.  Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror twenty years from now.  What would you see?  Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe?  For me, the alternative is unacceptable.

Those within higher education must now do something they have largely avoided at all costs: confront the policy makers who refuse to accept scientific reality.  We must be willing to lead by example. Like the colleges and universities of the 1980’s that disinvested from apartheid South African interests – and successfully pressured the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system – we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios. We must divest.

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, in our country it is clear that 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 proud to be a part of the 350.org program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees for their willingness to make this affiliation.  Indeed, the Trustees have been on the path of divestment for over 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 policy makers 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 employing a destructive business model.  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?

Crisis and Opportunity in the Environmental Century

Stephen Mulkey

Photo: Unity College

This piece by Unity College President Stephen Mulkey originally appeared on Climate Access and is reposted with permission from that site.

Crisis and opportunity in the Environmental Century: Inspiring a generation to greatness

As an ecologist, I know that we have precious little time to prepare a generation to respond to the ecological crisis of our planet in peril. As the president of Unity College, I am alarmed by how little progress has been made in focusing higher learning on what is undoubtedly the most important challenge facing humankind. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of imminent climate disruption, failure to make climate literacy a requisite part of any undergraduate curriculum is inexcusable.

Recent papers in the journal Nature show that we have transgressed the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity with respect to several key environmental factors. Chief among these is climate change, which amplifies the effects of all other critical factors such as freshwater depletion, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and changes in land use. There is now mounting evidence that sometime during this century we will reach a state shift in the planet’s ability to support us (doi:10.1038/nature11018). Climate change will affect every facet of the academy and change the practice of essentially all fields of study.

Unity College aspires to be America’s Environmental College and thus climate change must be a centerpiece of our programming. It is nothing short of mission critical that we get this right. At my request the faculty and Board of Trustees have adopted Sustainability Science (sensu U.S. National Academy of Science) as our overarching framework for all academic programming, and especially for upper division courses. Although this approach addresses all aspects of global environmental change, because of its innovative delivery, it is especially suited to the urgency of climate change. As a four-year liberal arts academy, a focus this specific has sweeping implications for our programming, but it does not obviate the need for critical skills such as oral and written literacy. Thus I am quick to point out that the humanities are foundational to implementation of Sustainability Science as pedagogy.

As multiple components of our life support deteriorate, I think it likely that this century is destined to be the Century of the Environment. There can be little doubt that a child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we are able to make significant adjustments in our use of natural resources and bring new sources of energy rapidly online. Development of a sustainable relationship with our natural resources is an imperative for our survival as we face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species. Owing to the lead-time required to address climate change, it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously transition towards sustainability. Because our curriculum is science-based, we do not shy away from acknowledging that the consequences of failing to respond will be catastrophic and irrevocable over a millennial time scale. Such a broad frame for the work of Unity College gives profound meaning to everything we do.

Interdisciplinary programming in higher education is accepted as necessary for effective instructional delivery of complex environmental problems. Unfortunately this approach has largely failed because of the impediments to sharing resources among disciplinary silos at universities. Moreover, the need for students to sequentially access information from different disciplines makes integration of knowledge unwieldy and slow. In contrast, Sustainability Science employs transdisciplinary programming, which requires that the perspectives of various disciplines be simultaneously integrated in problem-focused pedagogy. This is a promising alternative framework that focuses on the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems and is defined by the problems that it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. Students are empowered to become knowledge brokers, while faculty act as curators of knowledge to provide students with networked resources that are generally external to the classroom.

Although an exciting innovation in delivery, Sustainability Science will not be useful if we cannot quickly produce effective practitioners. We are simply out of time to address many aspects of climate change. Accordingly, it is the streamlining of knowledge management that we think is one of the most significant advantages of Sustainability Science as a paradigm. The entering class this fall will be the first to matriculate under this new framework, and we are eager to demonstrate that our graduates can bring the right stuff to the green economy.

Because of the opportunities inherent in our long ecological crisis I see many reasons for hope. This crisis, made hugely immediate by climate change, represents an opportunity rarely witnessed in the history of our species. During this century the current generation of students will be forced to the limits of their ingenuity, cooperation, and innovation. I am struck that the results of such efforts will be immensely rewarding. Those who are prepared and can lead will have unprecedented opportunities for service through the creation of a new global economy based on sustainable practice. They will be remembered long after their time for laying the cornerstones of a stable human ecology.

I believe that we have a covenant of duty to not merely prepare, but also inspire this generation to rise to greatness. Indeed, this is the Great Work of their generation (cf., Thomas Berry). As a scientist, I know that climate change will be the defining environmental issue of this century, but as an educator I know that an even more pressing challenge is one of motivation and inspiration. History shows us that our species will not rise to meet great challenges unless there is a force that speaks to our hearts. Inspiration and affective power must be embedded in this endeavor if it is to succeed.

Historically, the arts and humanities have been the key to such willingness, and I see these fields as utterly indispensable to Sustainability Science. Our vision of a sustainable future must inspire, rather than burden, and thus it should be partnered with fine art, great literature, and powerful music. It must lead, rather than support the status quo. It must build, rather than merely struggle to maintain. It must counter fear with a luminous path forward. It must provide brilliant, pragmatic hope when the future seems devoid of options. Through the ineffable power of art and literature we can experience the grandeur of the quest for sustainability. By infusing sustainability education with such primal affective substance we can reclaim the identity that connects all of us as obligate social primates to each other and to the Earth.

It is my fervent hope that we will soon arrive at a cultural tipping point when higher education will embrace the imperative of this mission. David Orr has noted that “all education is environmental education,” and I take this to be literally true if we are to have any hope of supporting a civilization of over nine billion humans by mid century. Placed in the context of our own survival, there can be no more important mission for higher education. Yet, like awareness of the inevitability of our own death, awareness of impending ecological collapse is overwhelming, and thus unthinkable. We push it from our minds, especially if the evidence is not in our faces. So, for now we continue with business as usual in higher education, acquiescing to the perennial demand to educate students for jobs. The great irony is that within the next few decades these jobs will certainly not exist if we do not address the environmental imperative that we so assiduously avoid.

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