Open letter to [school of your choice] president

I wrote and sent roughly this same letter to the president of American University this week. Fill in the blanks and send one on yourself.

President [so-and-so]:

The campus has been crawling with prospective students this fall. Many a day, I watch tour guides roving from building to building with hordes of high schoolers and parents in tow. I overhear all the usual chatter about history, scholarship and community — in short why they ought to attend [school of your choice].

As well we should tout what we have to offer. I just hope that maybe, when the conversation turns to our school’s principles, values and efforts toward justice and sustainability, the university might consider a new talking point. It would be great if we could tell prospects, “And because we value everyone on this planet — including all those unable to access the privileges of [relevant institution], we divested our financial portfolio from fossil fuels.”

I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you’ve heard of this concept — fossil fuel divestment — and if you’re well versed, then you can feel free to ignore this message. The best response I could get would be one telling me that [school acronym] has already divested.

But if you’re not familiar with the words of activist/author Bill McKibben, his organization 350.org and a growing chorus of concerned citizens calling out for institutional fossil fuel divestment, then give this a read:

Colleges can help battle global warming

Here’s the short version of McKibben’s math, which has been endorsed by the scientific and policy communities:

If this planet is going to maintain some semblance of life as we know it, we need to prevent anything more than a planetary temperature rise of two degrees Celsius. That works out to limiting our future carbon dioxide emissions to another 565 gigatons. More than that and we will break the two-degree threshold.

Annually, we already emit about 32 gigatons globally, though that’s almost certain to increase drastically in coming years.

Unfortunately, present day reserves of global corporations (and nations that act like fuel companies) of coal, gas and oil equate to more than 2,700 gigatons of carbon dioxide — or almost five times as much carbon as our current existence can reasonably survive.

Think on that for a second. What’s the likelihood that Big Energy is going to somehow stop short and not extract all they can? You and I both know that the business models of fossil fuel companies and indeed the current prices of oil, gas, coal as well as company stock are dependent upon that all of that carbon making it out of the ground and into the atmosphere.

I hope I’m clear on what this means: With our status quo, it’s not a question of if global climate change wrecks the planet, it’s only a matter of when.

That is, unless we make business as usual absolutely unprofitable for them, unless we make a real and serious transition. If we do nothing, those companies and states will continue merrily on with their business models, pulling carbon-based fuel from the ground. And human life — and particularly that of the poorest people on our planet — will forever be changed.

For the health of the ecosystems that sustain us, carbon fuels seem like a pretty bad investment, no? Yet across the country, universities, religious institutions, banks and even cities have their money — pensions, endowments, savings, portfolios, etc. — invested in these companies and countries whose business models depends on the certainty of global climatological meltdown. If you believe that the market is essentially beholden to the vote of the consumer dollar, then we’re essentially casting ballots for oil, gas and coal.

That’s why I’m urging you and the university community to heed McKibben and other concerned scholars and citizens. Take a moral stand. This isn’t about stalling economic productivity or creeping socialism or taking away freedom to drive cars or any of the other straw men attacks used against environmental campaigns.

This is about attempting to prevent the impending destruction of our climate by not funding those whose business model depends on said destruction.

Given your place in higher education, I imagine you remember the incredible power that the financial divestment of universities and other institutions had on the South African apartheid regime. Those were decisions made on moral grounds. They were concerted efforts to fight a system that was decidedly immoral.

Today’s challenge isn’t all that different. Though the fossil fuel industry may be legal — and given our economy may even be necessary to a degree in the short term — we must understand now that it is no longer moral. These companies and states spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year looking for new ways to get more fossil fuel into our cars, factories, power plants and homes faster. They buy or hoodwink our elected leaders and overrun our airwaves with false equivalencies and predictions of poverty without carbon fuels. They aim to be hegemonic, and as long as they have our financial support and tacit approval, they will not change.

It’s time to divest from this immoral model that will wreck the planet if we let it. So consider this a call to fight fossil fuel hegemony.

(Of course, there are tens of thousands of people who work for those companies and states. I do not wish to imply that they make up a cabal of evil. They are in all likelihood good people who just wish to take care of their families and lead happy lives. But even recognizing that, the industry’s goal — production of oil, gas and coal in amounts that will destroy the environment we have today — remains unacceptably immoral.)

Thankfully, we won’t stand alone; our colleagues at other universities are starting to take up this banner:

Unity College takes stand against fossil fuels, aims at ‘sustainability science’

So we need not be the first. But given what is at stake, I certainly hope [university name] is not the last.

[your name]

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