Fossil-Fuel Divestment — Part 3
At Harvard these days, Green is the new Crimson.

Divest Harvard protestors


Stanley Kurtz

Yet where does the Office of Sustainability draw the line? Is it legitimate for news stories to quote those who doubt that current models have rightly estimated the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide? Can news stories still quote those who have questioned the attribution of Hurricane Sandy to climate change? May those who would focus on tech-based solutions and economic growth in preference to lifestyle changes be interviewed by respectable reporters? And if Harvard would tolerate the inclusion of such views in media accounts, might it consider scaling back its intrusion into students’ lives?

Harvard’s Office of Sustainability may not have endorsed a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, and yet it’s easy enough to see how its activities could have put a damper on campus debate. How seriously does Harvard University take its core obligation to preserve a free marketplace of ideas on campus? Perhaps not seriously enough.

The divestment campaign hasn’t yet worked its way into the center of our national debates, although that may soon change if tactics now under consideration, like hunger strikes, sit-ins, and building seizures, go forward. The biggest publicity coup to date was a Harvard-inspired story in the New York Times, which helped the campus movement to spread nationally. Despite a brief, obligatory quotation from a petroleum-industry spokesman, that article was a virtual advertisement for the divestment campaign. And as at Harvard, the only real debate explored by the Times story was over divestment as a tactic. McKibben was handled with kid gloves; his hugely controversial no-growth philosophy never came up.

A couple of months after that piece appeared, the Times devoted its online “Room for Debate” feature to campus fossil-fuel divestment. The setup styled divestment a “worthy goal,” and the debate’s uniformly left-leaning participants tussled over tactics alone. Maybe the editors should have called it, “No Room for Debate.”

“But what about global warming?” you ask. Even if we don’t want to become postmodern peasants, even if peak oil was a myth, don’t we still have to stop using fossil fuels just to stop the planet from frying? No, we don’t. That’s why a real debate is so important.

Using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s own estimates, Jim Manzi has argued powerfully that the negative effects on economic growth of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes outweigh potential gains. This is not a case of “putting profits before people,” by the way, since depressing economic growth can very easily cost lives. Refrigerators holding vaccine in rural Africa need power, after all. A look at Manzi’s exchanges with climate activists ought to be required reading for any student considering joining the divestment movement.

Addressing climate change through technologies of mitigation and adaptation (prizes and small, well-targeted public and private grants to further demonstrated progress, not massive government subsidies) makes more sense than pulling the plug on the world’s economic engine. McKibben and Klein reject technological fixes, and yet if economic opportunity led to tech-based solutions for the seemingly intractable problem of peak oil, why not for global warming?

All this assumes the models behind the most widely quoted climate estimates are accurate. Increasingly, there is reason to believe that revisions may be in order. Sheer physics dictates that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has a warming effect. Yet the long-term rise in global temperatures has leveled off over the past decade or so, even as carbon-dioxide emissions have increased. While it’s possible that this warming standstill can be fully explained by confounding factors like atmospheric particulates and changing ocean currents, it may well be that climate is less sensitive to carbon-dioxide emissions than some current models hold. It’s going to take time to get a more accurate estimate of sensitivity levels, very possibly forcing significant revisions in Bill McKibben’s math.

In short, it’s possible to agree that carbon-dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels are having an impact on the climate, while still raising legitimate questions about the extent of that impact, as well as about the data upon which our estimates are based. (Here’s an inconclusive yet interesting example of a question about basic data.)

Economic growth and the technological innovation that drives it have long been bulwarks of our domestic tranquillity and national security. Enlarging the pie for everyone prevents politics from devolving into nasty zero-sum squabbles over redistributing wealth. Growth also keeps us strong enough to hold external threats at bay. Do we really want to surrender this time-tested recipe for social peace and international success?

The creators of the divestment movement would like us to do just that. Whether their young followers recognize it or not, the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is tailor-made to discredit America’s economic system. Turning oil companies into murderous monsters and shutting off the energy that drives our prosperity is a roundabout way of undercutting capitalism itself, as the divestment campaign’s sponsors well understand. To accede to these propositions without serious debate is to cheat ourselves and our posterity, while betraying the very principles of intellectual exchange upon which liberal education rests.

The campus fossil-fuel divestment campaign tells us plenty about the direction of this country right now. Conservatives warn that Democrat-supported initiatives like Obamacare and cap-and-trade will inhibit economic growth and tamper with our freedoms in profound and dangerous ways. Democrats dismiss such talk, yet do little to count up the costs. The occasional imprudent voice on the left can’t help bragging that conservatives are right about what stands on the other side of our ongoing transformation, yet most play it smart by playing dumb.

McKibben straddles the line. Although he has long insisted that the death of fossil fuels would spell an end to economic growth, the kid-gloves treatment he now receives in the liberal press downplays such talk. McKibben seems happy to oblige, perhaps understanding that success for his divestment campaign would do more to advance a post-growth society than any mere lecture or book.

Millennials, meanwhile, are in a bit of a haze. Their support for an expanded entitlement state and an end to fossil fuels threatens to render their employment woes permanent and their tax burdens unsustainable. Yet they have barely considered what is at stake. How could they, when the press won’t cover the conflicts? With a monolithically leftist faculty, and conservatives viewed as either dangerously uncool or outright genocidal, campus debate over such issues has all but disappeared.

Conservatives rightly want to win back the culture, especially among the young. The problem is that many millennials aren’t waiting to carefully consider earnest arguments from both sides about what sort of society we should want. They’ve swallowed the Left’s caricature of the Right, more out of the need for a secular religion or as a matter of fashion than from due consideration of the issues. That will be tough to reverse.

The fossil-fuel divestment campaign will test the capacity of our politics, our press, our universities, and our young people for thoughtful debate on serious issues. The results so far are disappointing.

 Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This is the final installment of a three-part article.