It appears we have finally made it through the long and harsh winter. As the weather finally warms up (and hopefully stays so this time), Vassar is dedicating a week of activities and discussions to the environment as part of Earth Week.
2014 has already seen its fair share of extreme weather events around the world, including across the United States. We had the Polar Vortex in January, followed by months of unusually cold weather across the East Coast. Meanwhile, the West Coast experienced continued drought and unusually high winter temperatures. But short-term global weather variations, however extreme, are difficult to link to long-term climate change. Warmer Arctic oceans leading to a weaker jet-stream—which is generated by differences in temperature between polar regions and the equator—brought cold air farther south into the United States this year than usual, as well as warmer temperatures across Russia, Greenland and Alaska. So it is conceivable that our weather this year was affected by global climate change.
Let us be reminded that foremost among the things the Vassar Bubble is not immune to is climate change. Whether or not the 2014 Polar Vortex was directly caused by human-induced climate change, it gave us a personal taste of what Vassar might be like subjected to extreme weather due to such changes. Let us also not forget that whilst we may have simply considered the bitter cold an added nuisance, extreme weather and climate change have much greater impacts on communities across the world. Heavy floods destroy homes; drought endangers food security; freezing temperatures are potentially deadly for those without heated shelter.
Battles that generate greater impetus for action due to their immediate personal impact and proximity often take the stage at Vassar when it comes to issues of social justice and activism, with discussions about climate change pushed backstage. Whether this is due to a lack of controversy on campus about the need for action or a lack of will to address long-term issues, the effects of which are international rather than interpersonal, does not excuse the general atmosphere at Vassar which seems to be content at letting environmentalism stop at composting and personal behavioral changes.
It can often seem as though our activism is only limited to the campus and framing campus issues as part of a larger system linked to the rest of the world is a continuous struggle. The ridiculously obvious fact is that Vassar, despite the meter-high slate wall that marks us off from Poughkeepsie, is undeniably situated on planet Earth and necessarily is implicated in global systems. As the Vassar College Administration continues in its second year to shirk its commitment to sustainability and divest from the fossil fuel industry, let us be reminded that the rest of the world continues to progress, and that calls for political action against global climate change grow louder.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third part of its Fifth Assessment Report last week. In it, the UN panel concluded that it is eminently affordable for the world to switch to clean energy but that the cost will rise dramatically the longer we wait. Although effecting the change from fossil fuels to investing in renewable energy would only minimally impact global economic growth, it depends on concerted international cooperation and action in the coming decades. As reported in The Guardian, “To avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the lowest cost, the report envisages an energy revolution ending centuries of dominance by fossil fuels.”
In addition to the IPCC report, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres in January expressed the need for heavy investments in clean energy on the order of one trillion dollars a year to make the shift from a fossil fuel-based economy in order to keep rising mean global temperatures in check.
President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim similarly called for policy changes and divestment at a press conference at the World Economic Forum this January. He said: “Through policy reforms, we can divest and tax that which we don’t want, the carbon that threatens development gains over the last 20 years.” And in a call that could just as easily be directed at Vassar College, “Corporate leaders should not wait to act until market signals are right and national investment policies are in place.”
Calls for action targeting the fossil fuel industry are not limited to international organizations. If the Vassar administration won’t listen to students’ arguments, maybe it will when the same arguments are voiced by Desmond Tutu—after all, Vassar is so proud of its anti-Apartheid action, is it not?
In a recent Guardian article, he stated, “There are many ways that all of us can fight against climate change: by not wasting energy, for instance. But these individual measures will not make a big enough difference in the available time. People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”
“We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
Further on the religious front, multi-faith groups from the USA and Australia have addressed a letter to Pope Francis requesting that he support fossil fuel divestment by encouraging churches, organizations and investors to divest, appealing to the Pope’s championing of humanitarian causes and relatively progressive attitude.
If such moral and rational arguments are unable to break through to the Vassar administration, perhaps some cold financial reports will. Even financial organizations are now recognizing the International Energy Agency warning that only a third of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned before 2050 if we are to have a 50 percent chance at avoiding a 2 degree Celsius rise in global mean temperature—beyond that, scientists warn of unpredictable cascade-effects in climate deterioration.
Reports by HSBC Global Research and Standard & Poor’s warn investors of decrease in value of coal and oil, respectively, as global demand decreases in the coming decades, recognizing the need to adhere to limitations in burning fossil fuel reserves and the fact that two-thirds of all reserves are considered “unburnable.”
If the College Administration won’t listen to its own student body, considering the divestment campaign a passing fad for student activism, then perhaps it might prefer one or all of the voices sampled here. And if it blocks its ears to them all, then we have to ask, to whom are we beholden? The financial advisors and “specialists” stubbornly defending the status quo? A status quo that is part of the same system we are taught at Vassar to challenge. A system that exacts violence on the environment and all who depend on it, some more vulnerable than others—a system that is in fact self-destructive.
Digging a little deeper, then, we are confronted with another level of hypocrisy in addition to Vassar’s fossil fuel investments coinciding with its “commitment to sustainability.” This deeper hypocrisy shows itself as a betrayal of our supposed goal to foster critical thinking. Or, as President Hill recently quoted from the College’s mission statement, to “promote analytical, informed and independent thinking and sound judgment.”
The College seems content to direct student criticism against national and global political, social, and economic systems, but favors defending the status quo when the same informed thinking and sound judgment is directed against it. Vassar College fancies itself a leader, training a population of future leaders, but shirks away when it is held responsible.
It’s time for Vassar to step up.
—Martin Man ’16 is an art history major.