Sustainable UConn

By Rich Miller

How our values about the environment, clean energy, and social responsibility are greening the Husky Blue. Rich Miller is director of the Office of Environmental Policy.

Accelerating to the Climate Cliff

Several UConn scientists said it well in a recent Hartford Courant op-ed piece, “… we find ourselves beset by one of the biggest challenges our country has ever faced. No, it is not the fiscal cliff we hear so much about. The largest challenge our country faces is the climate cliff. If we do nothing to address climate change in the next four years, the solutions become more limited, more expensive, and more damaging to our country.” Kudos to Drs. Urban, Capers, Likens, and Anderson whose clear commentary called for leadership from President Barack Obama to unite Americans and begin a bipartisan fight against this common threat to our national security.

Citing the midwestern droughts and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, the UConn scientists echoed the world’s leading climatologists and warned, “[n]o one should feel secure when the climate – the very basis of our food and our economy – is shifting. Failure to act now will mean more severe warming, more extreme droughts, more frequent storms, and it will mean that this ‘new normal’ we have created will last longer than the hundreds of years to which we already are committed.”

Speaking of food, the economy, and climate, Mark Hertsgaard’s article in Newsweek and the Daily Beast, provocatively titled “The End of Pasta,” is recommended reading about how climate change and the discovery of new American oil fields have combined to threaten the future of rice, corn, and grains, such as North Dakota-grown durum wheat, used to make pasta.

Author Mark Hertsgaard speaking at a CIMA program jointly sponsored by UConn and the Town of Mansfield on March 27, 2012.

Author Mark Hertsgaard speaking at a CIMA program jointly sponsored by UConn and the Town of Mansfield on March 27, 2012.

EcoHuskies will recall that Hertsgaard was a featured speaker last March at UConn’s Climate Impact Mitigation and Adaptation (CIMA) events. In his keynote address at a CIMA program co-sponsored by the Town of Mansfield, he offered excerpts from his latest book about coping with climate change (Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth). In his Newsweek article, he describes how “the development of controversial ‘fracking’ technology, which enables drillers to extract oil and natural gas from previously inaccessible underground locations, has given rise to a massive expansion of production”one that could make the U.S. the leading oil-producing nation in the world by 2020.

What then can we do to stop the acceleration to the climate cliff that will inevitably increase following this surge in production by the oil and gas industry, which Hertsgaard notes is already “the richest business enterprise in human history?”

A new strategy promoted by 350.org and advanced by a few small colleges across the country calls for higher education endowments to divest in fossil fuel stocks. Activist Bill McKibben of 350.org explained the rationale for divestiture in a Rolling Stone article published last summer. Simply put, the amount of carbon contained in the world’s proven oil, coal, and gas reserves – the assets that the fossil fuel industry is committed to extract and sell in order to realize full economic value for their owners, investors, and shareholders – is five times greater than the cap on carbon emissions that scientists say would prevent a catastrophic global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius. If energy companies could not exploit these reserves, their values would plummet, because they would be writing off, or “stranding,” an estimated $20 trillion in assets.

In fact, these assets don’t even account for the new American oil and natural gas boom from shale discoveries made accessible by fracking. And companies like Exxon and Shell are not only ramping up their efforts to search for more fossil fuel reserves but also scaling back or shutting down their renewable energy divisions in order to focus on their “core business.”

Thus, according to McKibben, 350.org’s “Do the Math” campaign aims to expose, demonize, and divest in the fossil fuel industry, “… what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

McKibben cites the successful 1980s campaign to divest in companies doing business in South Africa, when 155 U.S. college campuses joined 19 states, exerting international financial and political pressure that eventually led to the end of apartheid.

Unfortunately, odds are against 350.org’s fossil fuel divestiture campaign. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges and universities are less willing than they might have been 25 years ago to use their endowments as tools for advancing social or environmental goals, or frankly for any objective other than maximizing return on investment. Coming out of a deep recession, especially at public universities where state appropriations have been slashed, most college endowments have set ambitious goals for growth, and fossil fuel company stocks have been and will be among the most profitable.

Let’s resolve that 2013 will be the year for political leadership and non-partisan policies here in the U.S. and around the world to address climate change. The environmental and economic consequences are too severe and likely happening sooner than predicted if we continue accelerating down the road to the climate cliff.