I haven’t experienced a “real” Minnesota winter during my two years at Macalester due to disappointingly sparse snowfalls. Last summer was equally outside the norm, as the Midwest was hit by devastating drought. Our East Coast counterparts have had similar problems recently, but at the opposite extreme: last week’s blizzard left the region immobile for days, and Superstorm Sandy destroyed thousands of homes and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
How can we take our weather back? Next week Thursday, February 21 at noon in Weyerhaeuser Chapel, Bill McKibben, one of the world’s leading climate activists and authors, will speak about how we can the combat the forces that are causing these climate extremes.
McKibben and 350.org recently launched a national movement to address what is likely to be the defining global issue of our generation— climate change. On college campuses across the United States, student organizations, in collaboration with 350.org, are creating campaigns to encourage their schools to divest from the fossil fuel industry. This type of concerted divestment has precedent; a similar movement catalyzed the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid state in the 1980s.
We must act in a similar fashion today to combat this existential threat: the abnormal weather events I described above are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Global warming is an all-encompassing problem—it threatens the world’s agricultural system, our cities’ infrastructure, and the planet’s fragile ecosystems. It will create massive population displacement and heighten conflicts over water and other resources.
The international community understands the threat of global warming, and has acknowledged in multiple international climate conferences that the planet cannot handle a temperature rise of beyond two degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, US political leaders have not put ambitious reduction targets on the table, and we are on course for a substantially greater increase. McKibben laid out the global carbon budget in stark terms in a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine.
To avoid the bottom-line rise of 2°, we can only afford to release 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yet that is only a fraction of what’s out there: the fossil fuel industry has 2,795 gigatons of carbon in proven reserves (oil, coal, and gas yet to be extracted), all of which could soon be converted to atmospheric carbon dioxide—almost five times the safe limit.
“So what?” you might say, “these fossil fuels are still in the ground. There is no guarantee that they will be burned, especially as renewables become more widespread.” The problem, however, is that these holdings are “economically above ground”—fossil fuel companies are planning to extract and burn them, which is what makes their business so lucrative. These reserves are what give fossil fuel companies their value, making them the most profitable industry in the history of industry.
In a vicious cycle, the immense profitability of fossil fuels entrenches them further in our society. More of your tax dollars go to fossil fuel subsidies than incentives for renewables. The profiteers of climate change fuel the flames of climate science denial, block any legislation that encourages consumers to pay the true price of carbon, and coerce communities and governments to allow them to harvest their toxic products in vulnerable areas using hazardous methods.
How can we change such a gigantic and influential industry? What if we could take away the fossil fuel industry’s profitability and social license? McKibben, 350.org, and student activists across the country are planning to do just this with their campaigns. As the divestment movement grows from college campuses to cities to governments (as was the case with the anti-Apartheid movement), the divestment movement will constrain the fossil fuel industry’s ability to alter the chemical and physical fabric of our planet.
This is where we at Macalester come in. Our school certainly recognizes the threat of climate change, evidenced by its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2025 and other on-campus sustainability initiatives. But all of this is within the “Mac Bubble.” The students of Fossil Free Macalester, a coalition of environmental and political organizations on campus, assert that the best way for Macalester to continue our role as a nationwide environmental leader is to actively take part in this nationwide movement to divest from fossil fuels.
McKibben’s visit to campus next Thursday should stimulate serious thought and dialogue within the Macalester community about what our place in this national movement can be. We—as responsible individuals, Macalester students, and global citizens—must evaluate what our responsibilities are to combat climate change, not only on campus or in the classroom, but also in the global economy and community.
Any student who is concerned about the long-term stability of our school, which depends on the health of our planet, should come listen to what the leader of the nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement has to say, and spread the word about what we can do to take the profit out of pollution.