“The Paris agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2C above preindustrial temperature, but achieving this goal requires much higher levels of mitigation than currently planned. [emphasis added]” So begins an editorial, “How to govern geoengineering,” appearing on p. 231 of the 21 July 2017 issue of Science magazine.
The 3 authors, all of whom work at the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance (C2G2) Initiative, describe the two most talked-about versions of “geoengineering” (human actions designed to intentionally change the climate): carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). Both approaches currently run aground on unsolved technical problems, and, as the authors point out, “geoengineering does not obviate the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero, combined with adaptation to inevitable climate impacts. [emphasis added]”
To put it in straightforward terms, we can talk all we want about technical ‘engineering + adaptation’ fixes for the planet, but we still need to stop producing greenhouse gases. This means halting the burning of fossil fuels, something that will happen only when Reed College, and other shareholders in fossil fuel companies, stop clinging to a narrowly defined view of “fiduciary responsibility” that says short-term profit is a viable option even if it leads to long-term disaster.
I have 34 years of college teaching at 3 different institutions under my belt, and I know that what we do is worthwhile, but I cannot identify a single college program that would justify financial transactions that will ultimately make refugees out of the millions who live in coastal communities, and threaten the global food supply, to name just two likely consequences of climate change (“The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, 9 July 2017 and “Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?” The Atlantic, 10 July 2017).
Our institution’s approach to the fossil fuel industry needs to change, and yet, even as I try to picture the necessary changes I know that these will need to be managed carefully and thoughtfully. Overnight divestment is not a viable option. Unfortunately, what concerns me is that the College’s leaders have so far denied that there is even a problem here worthy of their attention. They find it easier to blow the dust off of documents written for a bygone age, and point to phrases like “fiduciary responsibility” and “protecting academic freedom,” phrases that will almost certainly lose all meaning in the world that is now appearing all around us.
Sometimes it helps to look at the data. Here are globally averaged CO2 levels (measured at the ocean’s surface as reported by the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) taken from the last 27 years of my Reed career:
- April, 1990 (my first Reed Thesis Parade) – 355.4 ppm
- April, 2013 (class of ’17 clicks ‘yes’ on Reed’s admission offer) – 396.5 ppm
- April, 2017 (class of ’17 celebrates Thesis Parade) – 406.7 ppm