The fossil-fuel divestment campaign now sweeping America’s college campuses is a window onto much that is wrong with our culture and our politics. The fate of America’s free-enterprise system — long the engine of our prosperity and security — now hangs on a generation increasingly skeptical of the system’s premises.
Surely doubts about capitalism held by America’s 20-somethings have been greatly magnified by climate change. Yet it is not changing global weather patterns but the deteriorating climate of intellectual interchange in the nation’s academy — and the press — that has shaken the faith of America’s young in the foundations of our prosperity.
We have examined the course and ideology of the fossil-fuel divestment movement in the two previous installments of this article; this final installment is a case study of the debate at Harvard University, where decisive victory for a student referendum last November put tremendous momentum behind the national movement to have university endowments sell off their fossil-fuel holdings.
The quality of debate in the runup to that student-body vote was atrocious. America’s oil companies are incomparably reckless public enemies, we were told. We should abandon 80 percent of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves unused. These claims at the heart of the divestment movement went virtually unchallenged. Campus critics of divestment instead went out of their way to praise the campaign as an admirable effort based on an appropriately dire assessment of the facts. Such criticisms of divestment as were offered were largely tactical: Sell-offs won’t work because stocks will be purchased by other investors, leaving the oil companies flush and Harvard’s endowment poorer. Well, yes. But the fantasy of a cost-free post-carbon economy went largely unchallenged. There was plenty of talk about the consequences of doing nothing, yet nary a peep about the costs of the so-called remedies. And although McKibben has been invoked repeatedly at Harvard — before and after the November vote — his highly controversial vision of America’s post-carbon future remains all but ignored, as does Klein’s.
Harvard’s divestment debate was also littered with apocalyptic disaster scenarios drawn from the most questionable studies. The numbers were trumpeted repeatedly in the Crimson and elsewhere without challenge. One popular claim, drawn from a New York Times blog post, was that unchecked global warming would mean death for six out of every seven inhabitants of the Earth — 6 billion people. Yet the same blog post contains links to stories casting doubt on such lurid predictions.
A second prominent claim during Harvard’s divestment debate was that “the human death toll from climate change could exceed 100 million by 2030.” The number derives from a September 2012 study of climate change issued by a group called DARA, an international organization that advocates and facilitates “aid for vulnerable populations suffering from conflict, disasters, and climate change.”
The DARA study and the credulous treatment of it by the press were quickly skewered by critics. Bjørn Lomborg showed that the 100-million-deaths figure had been grossly inflated by combining projected deaths due to climate change with the much larger number of projected deaths from factors like indoor smoke given off when dung or straw is burned for home cooking and heating in developing countries.
A DARA official later conceded that several press reports had “misattributed our air pollution and other carbon economy death estimates to climate change.” Attempts to justify the report’s findings and presentation in the wake of Lomborg’s criticism seem strained. In any case, fossil-fuel divestment at Harvard isn’t designed to prevent Asian or African peasants from using dried cattle dung for cooking fuel. If anything, divestment would make it harder for the developing world to acquire safer cooking fuels like kerosene or pressurized gas. Yet DARA’s apocalyptic death projections were seized upon and touted repeatedly in Harvard’s debate — well after the 100-million climate-change death figure had been exposed and essentially discredited.
In truth, Harvard’s divestment debate was barely a debate at all. Objecting to the movement on any grounds other than tactical was clearly out of bounds. The exchanges amounted to a bunch of left-liberals strategizing among themselves. Is this the best America’s most storied university can do at exploring one of our great national controversies? No wonder those funny mass-death numbers went unchallenged. Raising perfectly legitimate questions about either the math or the premises of the divestment campaign would have left opponents liable to be stigmatized as climate-change “deniers” and abetters of corporate evil.
Harvard’s administration has contributed to this problem by turning climate-change activism into something close to official policy. Like many universities today, Harvard has an eco-bureaucracy — an “Office of Sustainability” with its own motto: “Green is the new Crimson.” The office is dedicated to making Harvard’s buildings more energy-efficient and to pressing lifestyle changes on students (e.g., drive less, consider vegetarianism). There are also “peer-to-peer behavior-change programs and initiatives” to forward this goal. There’s even a green holiday of sorts, the “Green Is the New Crimson Sustainability Celebration”; the first such event, in 2008, featured an address by Harvard alumnus Al Gore.
Harvard’s Office of Sustainability has even issued a guide for activists to use when speaking with “skeptics and opponents.” Would “opponents” include those who favor technologies of mitigation and adaptation over lifestyle changes as the most sensible approach to climate change? Harvard’s guide to dealing with skeptics bemoans the fact that about half of all mainstream news stories on climate change make a point of including opposing views. From the official Harvard perspective, climate change would therefore appear to be beyond debate.
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.