EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 3 of a three-part series. Click to read part 1 and part 2.
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.