More academic climate action occurring

Greetings from COVID containment. My wife and I remain sequestered. We spent Halloween night watching costumed visitors from our bedroom window and watching horror movies.

But COVID can’t stop my work!  Today I’d like to share several stories about global warming and academia.  I think they might be evidence of rising climate action within higher education.

First, students from six campuses – Pennsylvania State University, Tufts University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania,  Pomona College, and Washington University in St Louis –  filed legal complaints with their respective states atttorneys general.  The charge: “by investing in coal, oil and gas, the schools are violating their obligations as non-profit organizations to prioritize the public interest.”

I found several interesting details in this story.  For one, it wasn’t just students: “Each filing elicited signatures of support from dozens of faculty and staff members, alumni and local, national and international climate-focused groups.”

For another, they charged campus fiscal support of fossil fuel firms to be contrary to institutions’ intellectual missions:

“Fossil fuel companies have long engaged in a well-documented campaign to undermine climate science and distort public debate about how to deal with the climate crisis – including through efforts targeting Penn scientists and researchers,” University of Pennsylvania students wrote in their filing. “The industry’s spread of scientific misinformation undermines the work of Penn faculty and students who are researching and designing solutions for a sustainable future.”

Students also raised this point about consistency:

“If universities say, ‘We’re climate leaders, we stand for justice,’ but then on the other hand financially contribute to the climate crisis, we just see that as unacceptable,” said Moli Ma, an undergraduate student at Tufts, who helped lead the complaint against her university. “There’s an incongruence there. It doesn’t match up.”

"A view of the oil fields from the bluff on Panorama in Northeast Bakersfield, CA - USA"

“A view of the oil fields from the bluff on Panorama in Northeast Bakersfield, CA – USA”

Not being a lawyer, I can’t offer authoritative comments, but was struck by two legal strategies which look to be nearly universally applicable.  One concerns a specific law, which paying petroleum companies might violate:

Four of Monday’s filings allege that schools breached the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, a law adopted by 49 states requiring non-profit institutions to consider their “charitable purposes” in their investments and to do so with “prudence” and “loyalty”.

Pennsylvania apparently stands alone on this score:

Pennsylvania has not passed such a law, so students’ legal complaints against the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State University are based on similar regulations that fall under the state’s Decedents, Estates, and Fiduciary Code.

Then there’s this very pragmatic point:

Another key argument in each complaint: investing in fossil fuel stocks not only harms the climate and threatens human health, but also creates financial risk.

“We make the case that fossil fuels from a purely financial point of view are a very bad investment,” said Ted Hamilton, a lawyer with the Climate Defense Project who has worked on each of the legal filings. “This sector is very volatile. It’s been underperforming lately, and especially for long-term institutional investors like universities, it has a very bad value thesis [for] the coming decades.”

The next two stories aren’t purely academic, but include a bunch of faculty and staff.

Several health care groups with large memberships are about to post a joint letter calling for urgent climate action.  Apparently the text is all about the impact of global warming on public health:

“We the family doctors, doctors and health professionals of the world call on world leaders to take urgent action to safeguard the health of global populations from the climate crisis,” the open letter reads.

And the urgency is clear:

The signatories include health bodies from Canada, India, Europe, Pacific nations and the UK, who are demanding all governments end the expansion of any new fossil fuel infrastructure and production, phase out existing fuels, remove subsidies and invest in renewable energy.

“If we are to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5C and halting the escalation of the climate health emergency, we must end the proliferation of fossil fuels,” the letter says.

Now these are health care practitioners, not all academics, but some of them surely are academics: full time faculty members, medical professionals working as adjuncts, and so on.


Matt Hrkac Farewell Party for Fossil Fuels Extinction Rebellion put on a 'farewell party' for fossil fuels outside of a fuel terminal in Yarraville, Melbourne.Third story: the Washington Post reports on what it finds to be a growing sense of climate emergency among scientists.

References to “climate emergency” and “climate crisis,” once used primarily by activist groups like the British-based Extinction Rebellion or the U.S.-based Sunrise Movement, are spiking in the academic literature…

Tim Lenton,… professor of earth system science at the University of Exeter… said he isn’t afraid to use terms like “emergency” or “climate and ecological crisis.”

Shannon Osaka notes an increasing desperation among scientists to get political leaders to pay attention and take action.

As with the medical associations story, not all climate scientists are academics, but some are, either full- or part-time.

What do these stories signal about academia and the climate crisis?

Overall, I think they point to incrementally rising climate concern among the higher education community. It’s not a radical break, but an advance along a growth curve.

Note the students taking that bold legal and political step. I wonder how many campus presidents and (for private institutions) trustees feel outflanked and irked.  Personally, I admire the combination of student research and practice.

Note, too, the overlap with non-academic professional societies.  They may become a soure of climate energy.

Watch for more stories like this.  See if the students, faculty, and staff around you are following suit.  And hey, you could join them.

(two links via Bill McKibben’s excellent newsletter; crowded oil field photo by Babette Plana; “Just Stop It” photo by Matt Hrkac)

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