As a college president and chemist, I have worked throughout my career in areas connected to climate change. As an educator, I have written chemistry textbooks and regularly teach courses in which the most urgent issue is climate change. As a president, I frequently face decisions about investments in sustainable practices, whether green buildings (our most recent construction has been certified LEED platinum) or reductions in water and energy use, or curricular changes in support of our strong environmental-analysis major.
And yet on the topic of divestment of stock in companies that produce and market carbon-based fuels—an issue that is gaining attention on college campuses and in the news media—I am a profound skeptic. Why? Because we have passed the point for symbolic actions and need to take real steps to achieve change. Feel-good measures that have no effect on actual greenhouse-gas production are a diversion from the critical actions we must take before it is too late.
Many of those involved in the divestment movement say quite candidly that they do not expect divestment (even by major universities with much larger endowments than our own, and recently by our Claremont Colleges neighbor Pitzer College) to have an effect on the policies of the companies involved, but that this is one way of getting attention for the issue, to get on the front page of The New York Times.
That is how I see the widely reported decision this year by Stanford University to "divest" in coal. What they actually announced was that they "will not make direct investments in publicly traded companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation." After Stanford made the announcement, we looked at our own investments in the publicly available list of the top 100 coal companies and found that we do not have any investments in them. They are mostly unappealing companies that few have heard of. We could have made the same "divestment" announcement without making a single change in our endowment—or a dent in climate change.
Symbolic actions have their place. But at colleges and universities, our first goal is to educate students to be skeptical about simple claims and to weigh competing values. Then we encourage them to build on their values to make a difference in the world. That will be done most effectively in the area of climate change not by headline-grabbing divestment decisions at individual institutions, but by helping to build a coalition and elect public officials for whom climate change is a compelling and urgent issue.
Fifty years ago, just such a coalition was built on college campuses across the country. The Freedom Summer of 1964 was a courageous and highly effective movement to engage college students in the most compelling issue of their time: ensuring civil rights for African-Americans who had been systematically disenfranchised in the South. As we look at students’ efforts during that turbulent time, we see how they came together to organize a powerful movement that crossed racial, socioeconomic, and age barriers to help change U.S. laws.
Within a few years, college students again mobilized, this time against the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. Their political actions helped pressure political leaders to finally end the nation’s involvement in the war and bring troops home.
College students also turned their attention to the growing scourge of environmental degradation, which was typified by toxic-waste dumps, oil spills, air pollution, and rampant use of pesticides. They paved the way for the formation of a unique coalition that included Democrats and Republicans and people from every walk of life. On April 22, 1970, students held teach-ins on campuses across the country and were joined by millions of people who demonstrated in the streets for environmental protection. This historic political mobilization helped spur the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, with the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts coming soon after.
As I look at the political landscape of the climate-change discussion today, I see many lessons we can take from Freedom Summer, the antiwar movement, and the fight for our environment. Much like today’s climate-change debate, with skeptics on both sides of the political aisle, these issues were not universally embraced by politicians from any party or in any part of the country. Many feared taking them on. But through the turbulent decades of student-organized political action, politicians across the country were forced to deal with the critical issues of their time, and to do so with haste.
I see a similar opportunity today for students, professors, and others who believe in the pressing need to mobilize for climate change and in the process to force political change.
In my environmental-chemistry classroom, students grapple with the reality that we are doing an experiment on the globe (increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the fastest rate ever, and to levels not seen since dinosaurs walked the earth), and that this is not an experiment that humans can repeat if the results are unpleasant. We venture into economics, discussing the cost of different approaches. We consider the challenges of politics: electing officials for two- or six-year terms when the problems we face will become acute in coming decades, not next year.
The students are passionate about climate change and committed to finding solutions. Our major in environmental analysis extends from science to policy and is closely coordinated with course offerings at the neighboring undergraduate institutions of the Claremont Colleges. Students study a wide variety of topics—water use, waste disposal, organic farming—but most of the material connects directly or indirectly to climate change.
And this is where I see the future of the climate-change movement. It must again be a unique coalition, one of scientists, political activists, policy analysts, artists, business leaders, farmers, engineers, and others. It must be driven by students who see the big picture and the future—students who are committed to pragmatic political action, much like those in decades past. The reality is that the implications of climate change are here. If we are not effective in our efforts to move political decision makers to act, the future for our students and the planet will be grim.
While there are many efforts in higher education that seek to solve climate change, from trying to foster carbon neutrality to divesting from fossil-fuel companies, we must rethink how colleges are dealing with this issue because, frankly, we simply have not had much success in changing corporate policies, bending the stubborn will of politicians, or capturing the hearts and minds of most Americans.
Now is the time to move well beyond symbolism and ideologies and create a movement driven by young people. Decades from now, they will be able to look back with a sense of achievement (and relief) and see their results. Let’s get on with that important work.