Harvard and Brown Fail on Climate
University presidents once spoke their conscience on matters of great public importance. In the early 1950s, many protested the loyalty oaths that required faculty members to forswear membership in the Communist Party. One of the most courageous critics of McCarthyism was Nathan Pusey, first as president of Lawrence College in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, then as president of Harvard. In the 1960s, some university presidents openly opposed the war in Vietnam. Even at the cost of donor support, Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. publicly contested the war and decried the inequities in the draft. He permitted protest demonstrations and skillfully kept the Yale campus open and relatively calm.
In the 1980s, a protest movement arose on American campuses as students—and some campus presidents—argued that it was immoral for universities to own stock in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Although Harvard president Derek Bok refused to support divestment over apartheid, Harvard eventually did sell most of its South Africa–related stock—and Bok did endorse the sale of stock in tobacco companies.
Today, university presidents and the institutions they lead confront a moral choice over a crisis that threatens human health and society on a far greater scale than either tobacco or apartheid: climate change. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in Field Notes From a Catastrophe, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” In the last few years, students have begun urging their colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies (FFCs), whose products are driving climate change. Two of the first university presidents to respond, Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard and Christina Paxson of Brown, this fall placed themselves and their institutions on the wrong side of science and of history by rejecting divestment.
I believe that presidents Faust and Paxson were wrong, gravely wrong, not only in the broadest sense—because their choice harms humanity—but because they failed in their narrow duty to protect their institutions and their present and future students.
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Both presidents argue, as Faust puts it, that it is an “inconsistency” to “boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services….” Yes, this is a dilemma that each person and each organization faces. We have no choice but to be embedded in a carbon economy, yet science tells us unequivocally that carbon emissions threaten our future and that of our institutions. Ohio State University climatologist Lonnie Thompson warns that “virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” Retired NASA scientist James Hansen tells us that “coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Sea level rises due to melting ice sheets, Hansen says, hang “like the sword of Damocles over our children and grandchildren.”
The influential Stern Report from 2006 cautions that the damage from man-made climate change could be on the scale of “the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.” That warning, sobering as it is, vastly underestimates the danger: those wars and the Great Depression occurred at different times and were not accompanied by record-setting sea level rises, storm surges, heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes. Neither world war reached into every corner of the globe, and, thankfully, each one ended far short of a decade. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of climate change will not end “for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.”
Climate change threatens to return the world to the Dark Ages, or worse. As Oberlin College professor David Orr put it, “Whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause on a dying planet.” Which is more inconsistent: for a university to divest from FFCs while remaining embedded in a carbon economy in other ways, or to profit from products that threaten the university’s own future, that of its alumni and even civilization itself?
Universities in this country are already suffering the effects of a changing climate. The American Association of University Professors reports that Hurricane Katrina caused “undoubtedly the most serious disruption of American higher education in the nation’s history.” Hurricane Sandy closed dozens of colleges and universities and, according to CNN, affected an estimated 1.2 million students. Hurricane Irene caused many colleges and universities—including Brown and Harvard—to cancel campus events or close temporarily. Scientists believe that warmer oceans likely strengthened Irene, Katrina and Sandy, as well as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines more recently. Those storms and a multitude of other recent extreme weather events offer an ominous portent of what life in the coming greenhouse world will be like.
Climate change is a special threat in the Northeast, home to Harvard and Brown. Global sea levels are already rising at the fastest rate on record—but according to the US Geological Survey, along the East Coast from North Carolina to New England, the sea levels are climbing at three to four times the global average. As one report put it, “if sea levels rise just 2.5 feet, it could take little more than a Nor’easter to put much of the Back Bay, East Boston, South Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge, and elsewhere underwater, including much of Logan International Airport and the financial district.”