Demonizing fossil-fuel companies and portraying them as a public-health menace for contributing to atmospheric carbon buildup, and divesting their stock were advanced at Williams College by a key academician as ways to save humans from extinction because of climate change.
“We have to focus on the purveyors of carbon, because they will use their money and political money to thwart and sabotage our efforts [at curbing climate change effects],” says Michael T. Klare, Five Colleges professor of peace and world security studies. “They are criminal in my mind, we want them to go out of business . . . they have to be demonized, and isolated and portrayed as a threat to human survival in the same way tobacco companies were demonized.”
Klare spoke by invitation at Williams on Earth Day – Tuesday, April 22 – to an audience of about 60 people. He argued that institutions such as Williams should divest their endowment portfolios of any stock in fossil-fuel companies. “These stocks pose a threat to human health,” he said. “They pose a threat and they should not be in anyone’s stock portfolio.”
He challenged Williams trustees to take a leadership role in divesting fossil-fuel stocks. He called such divestment politically inevitable, and said Williams had a choice to make whether to be a leader or a follower in that regard.
Now 680 colleges and universities have adopted a pledge to become carbon neutral in their emissions by a certain time,” said Klare. Hampshire has said it will do so by 2032. Oberlin is moving faster. “But they have made a commitment to adopt zero admissions by a certain date…. Williams College must adopt such a plan, if not right away, in time.”
Klare said he thinks the drive toward divestment will proceed as it did with the tobacco industry or stocks in South African companies supporting apartheid. “Williams will divest, I can tell you, from its carbon stocks,” he predicted. “The question is will it be a follower or a leader? But it will in time.”
Tactical disagreement with Bradburd?
Klare’s view on divestment and demonizing was challenged during a post-talk Q-and-A session by Ralph Bradburd, a Williams economics professor. Bradburd argued the oil companies are investing in carbon-capture and other technologies that have the potential to slow or stop global warming. And he argued that investors or colleges selling their stock would have no practical effect on their ability to operate because they rely upon operating profits and bank lending rather than stock sales.
“I think there are some flaws in your arguments and you are not aware of some of the facts,” said Bradburd. After the talk Bradburd and Klare continued to talk cordially. For Klare, divestment and demonizing are strategies based upon the assumption that it is unethical or immoral to support the fossil-fuel industry. Bradburd agreed climate change is a public-health crisis, but favors economic strategies that encourage the companies to turn their business models toward alternative and renewable energy technologies. Each scholar agreed each strategy might be useful to varying degrees to achieve a result they both seek – reduced buildup of atmospheric carbon.
During the Q-and-A, one commentator asserted it was “pretty clear the powers that be” at Williams do not support divestment. “Williams is a very conservative, non-activist campus,” she said. That’s unfortunate, she added, “because we have enormous moral and political capital in this country.”
Thirty years from now, Williams students who now graduate to work for fossil-fuel companies will no longer do so, because the companies will have failed and gone out of business, Klare argued. Another audience-member said that might not happen, because the companies will either morph their businesses beyond fossil fuels, or will take their businesses outside of the United States. Is it right to demonize companies that are support promising research, for example, on photovoltaics, asked an audience member?
Klare argued solar and wind technologies, among others, will become comparatively less expensive than fossil fuels, and that will drive change. “These companies may be spending pennies on alternatives, but they are spending vast amounts to perpetuate fossil fuels . . . in increasingly destructive forms of extraction. I don’t think there is any partnering with these people.”
“Divestment is a movement building,” said audience member Andrea Ayvazian, pastor at the Haydenville Congregational Church in Haydenville, Mass. “Smith College is putting huge pressure on their president” she said. “And she is listening to them. She keeps coming to meetings and they keep pressing . . . divestment is a good tool for informing and exciting and agitating people and I’m seeing it in the religious community.”
Pressure on Smith College
If economic pressure, political pressure or business strategy don’t change the trajectory of carbon burning by humans, Mother Earth will accomplish the change, said Klare, unleasing climate changes so severe that hundreds of millions of people will gradually face migration, starvation and death. “Mother Nature is not forgiving,” he said. “Mother Nature is going to deliver this message – incrementally.”
As for climate change, said Klare, “fossil fuels are the heart of the matter.” He said a 50-percent rise in fossil-fuel usage is predicted between now and 2040 – with most of the growth coming from the economies of China and India. He said average global temperatures will rise between 3 degrees C and 5 degrees C, or higher, some say, if the growth in fossil-fuel usage continues. Meanwhile, the world population of autos is predicted to double in the next 25 or 30 years.
“Oil is the most profitable commodity ever created by humans,” says Klare. “The oil companies are the richest companies in the world and regularly report the highest levels of profits. They exhibit no intention whatsoever to change their business plan and to produce anything else . . . They also engage in active efforts to sabotage moves in the other directions . . . and they spread disinformation intentionally.”
Until a few years ago, says Klare, scientists and policy experts were predicting that we would reach “Peak Oil.” A point at which the supply of carbon fuels would begin to decline. But now, it appears that new and more environmentally hazardous extraction methods – arctic and deep-water drilling, tar sands, oil and coal shale fields – are causing supply to keep up with rising demand.
“The supply of fossil fuels is inexhaustible,” says Klare. “So it is not going to be the onset of scarcity that will bring an end to the fossil fuel age – it will only be the onset of the effects of climate change.”
More force and intervention is required to get oil out of shale – solid rock, he said. “You have to shatter or fracture the rock using water under immense pressure – using poisons, toxics, to liberate the oil.” He adds: “Drilling in the artic will endanger all the species that live there. These procedures will produce exponentially increasing environmental damage as time goes on.”
A cycle of addiction cited
Think of oil use as “a public health emergency” on a par or greater than a drug addiction epidemic, said Klare. “It is a public health threat to human survival on a global scale,” he says. “We have to adopt an anti-carbon strategy which sees it as a toxic threat destructive to human life and establish anticarbon campaigns to turn this back.
“We have created a civilization which is totally dependent on an abundance of fossil fuels. That’s the way our civilization has now become hardwired. That is the essense of the carbon curse,” says Klare. He called it an addition. And like any other addiction, the addicts – us – are in denial about its effects.
“How do we find ways to resist the allure of carbon, because if we can’t, we have no way to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change …. How do we resist or eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.”
“Climate change is not an environmental problem, it is something very, very different, it is a threat to human survival on the equivalent of thermonuclear war or a global virus to which we have no protection. We are not talking about an environmental problem, we are talking about an existential threat to human existence … or at least to hundreds of millions of people.”
“We need to talk small steps to free ourselves. Driving less, driving electric cars, not driving at all, using public transition, heating our homes with solar power – moving away from our addiction on carbon. “We have to move our communities away from dependencies on fossil fuels.”
Klare is the author of the book “The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.”
Klare holds a B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of the Union Institute. He has written widely on U.S. military policy, international peace and security affairs, the global arms trade, and global resource politics for The Nation, Harper’s, Scientific American and Technology Review. He lives in Northampton. He serves on the board of the Arms Control Association.