At a time when institutions of business and government continue to fail society, two of our leading academic institutions missed the opportunity to provide essential moral leadership on the most pressing challenge ever faced in the history of human civilization.
Harvard President Drew Faust issued her October statement first:
She and her colleagues on the Board do not believe “that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise."
Brown President Christina Paxson followed three weeks later with her own statement:
“Our consideration of divestment [from coal] is over."
Both statements, read in their entirety, explain the careful and thorough deliberations that took place within their respective academic communities. That these institutions can both fail to see the stark moral implications of their decision after such extensive deliberation only reinforces the severity of the crisis facing civilization.
Before looking at the rationales of these decisions, let us remind ourselves of the unprecedented challenge before us. Thanks to a paper released in 2009 by the highly respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, we have known for four years a staggering truth: if we are to avoid blowing through the 2 degree warming threshold and ushering in likely catastrophic climate change, we must leave the majority of the fossil fuels already discovered and on the books, beginning with coal, in the ground.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative brought this issue into common focus two years ago. At that time, we described a $20 trillion “Big Choice" facing society, anticipating OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria's recent statement: “The looming choice may be either stranding those assets or stranding the planet."
Beyond the shrinking lunatic fringe of climate change deniers, there is no apparent debate regarding this stark choice, only a judgment call around what is an acceptable degree of certainty we should shoot for in our quest not to destroy the planet for life as we know it. On this question, the scientific community is far too timid given all the non-linear risks they understand but shy away from talking forcefully about, on the pretext that such risks are by definition “uncertain." The financial crisis made us aware of the growing prevalence of Black Swan events and their consequences in complex systems. The global climate system is a complex system that makes finance appear simple in comparison. It's time to connect the dots.
Harvard's False Choice
With this as context, let us turn to the failures of moral leadership at Harvard and Brown. Harvard's decision rests on two arguments. First, Harvard is an academic institution and its endowment is held in trust to advance its academic mission. No argument. But then the rationale against divestment heads down its slippery slope by asserting a false choice between “the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution."
The toxic political climate in the U.S. has successfully defined climate change as a “political issue" pitting “business-friendly conservatives" against “wimpy green liberals" and both sides trapped in their worship at the alter of economic growth (no matter the costs). It is certainly conceivable that such lazy and reckless thinking has infected Harvard's own Corporation Board.
Let us be clear: climate change is a moral issue, not a political issue. Would the President of Harvard assert that the choice of the most prestigious University in the world is between being an academic institution or a moral actor (rather than a “political actor")?
After asserting its false choice between academics and politics, Harvard then reveals the crux of the matter. Divestment will come “at a substantial economic cost." It is reasonable to debate both the costs of divestment and the risks of not divesting (stranded asset risk), but that is not the point. Any hard moral choice by definition comes with very real costs. That is why it is so vital for us all as individuals, and certainly for our leading academic institutions, to be clear on issues of morality.
Brown's Deadly Rationalization
Brown University's decision was focused simply on divesting from coal, both mining and electricity generation from coal. The students who organized Brown Divest Coal apparently were trying to make it easier for the board, since divesting from coal and tar sands oil production are the relative “no brainers" from both a moral and an economic risk perspective.
One can feel Brown President Christina Paxson's struggle to explain her board's decision (which she tells us she "agrees with," although I have my doubts) as she delicately walks the reader through Brown's “guidelines for incorporating ethical and moral issues into investing." Those guidelines have supported previous divestiture decisions such as Brown's 2003 decision to divest from tobacco companies.
Unlike Harvard, Brown recognizes climate change as a moral issue, and Brown has “guidelines" for incorporating ethical and moral issues into investment decision-making. Brown is at least a decade ahead of Harvard it would appear in that regard; as part of their non-divestment decision the latter announced the hiring of their “first-ever vice president for sustainable investing."
Brown's failure lies not in recognizing climate change as a moral issue, but in how they consider whether the social harm caused by burning coal is “sufficiently grave" to warrant divestment. Tobacco passed that test because there were no offsetting benefits that tobacco enables. In considering coal divestment, Paxson writes, “Although the social harm is clear, this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy."
Let's substitute “slavery" for “coal" in that statement and see how it reads.
As I have written in “Beyond Divestment" and elsewhere, divestment is no panacea and as a stand-alone strategy, not likely to be effective in changing the investment decisions and business models of the world's energy industry. But until we properly define climate change as the greatest moral challenge of all time, affecting not just our fellow man, but all of mankind now and forever, and all of life as we know it on planet Earth, which is our gift, we will not take the bold steps we need to take, now.
Consider the ongoing costs of what was our failed moral leadership for far too long on the “energy system" of slavery. Now, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, let us be inspired by the courage of Abraham Lincoln's leadership. He endured great costs personally and on behalf of the nation he led for a moral clarity devoid of convenient or self-serving rationalizations in the face of entrenched and wrong ideology.
Now consider November's climate injustice of Typhoon Haiyan with a 20-foot storm surge, nearly twice as high as what Hurricane Sandy delivered to the New York metropolitan area. Naderev Sano, the Philippines delegate to the U.N. Climate talks in Warsaw in November, in a desperate search for moral leadership, announced he would fast “until we stop this madness."
"Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act." – Albert Einstein
Harvard and Brown have let us down.
This article originally ran on Capital Institute's Future of Finance blog.
Visit EcoWatch's CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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