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Op-Ed | To see or not 2 °C

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 24, 2013 08:01


Oliver Porter / The Tufts Daily


To some, climate change means fewer polar bears. To others, it means an increase in the frequency and power of natural disasters. To us Tufts students, it means a disproportionate burden on people in least developed countries, especially people of color in the global south. It means generations of profligate industrialization, it means the hottest year in America on record, and it means injustice and inequality. Climate change stands for a call to action for students not to let our world crumble due to the inaction of our decision makers. Divestment from the fossil fuel industry is one crucial tactic to announce our generation’s symbolic rise to the occasion: We will not let our Earth warm to two degrees Celsius.

“To see or not 2 °C?” is the hallmark question when thinking about climate change. Two degrees Celsius, or 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, is decidedly (through international and scientific consensus) the uppermost limit of warming to retain a livable climate for human civilization, and many scientists believe even this is too generous an estimate. So far, humans have raised the temperature of Earth 0.8 degrees Celsius and just this has caused our oceans to become 30 percent more acidic and one-third of our summer-sea ice to melt, as well as a drought last summer and one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit the Northeast, according to an article by co-founder Bill McKibben. As McKibben wrote: “The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius — it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines.” Despite this fact and that a large majority (61 percent) of Americans show sympathy for the goals of the environmental movement, our political representatives have not even hinted at measures to turn this metaphorical ship around.

Here’s where we, Tufts students, come in. This past year, the Tufts Divests campaign was initiated on our campus and has since gained national recognition along with similar groups on over 200 other campuses devoted to the cause. Forbes, The New York Times, NPR, The Nation and many other national news sources have written articles regarding this burgeoning student movement. We aim to embolden and encourage our respective Board of Trustees to divest our substantial endowment from the fossil fuel industry. We must divest from this industry for one simple reason: it currently holds 2,795 gigatons of potential carbon dioxide in its reserves, or five times the amount necessary to stay under two degrees Celsius.

We do not have to wait until two degrees Celsius to see the effects of climate change on human life. According to a 2000 report by Abt associates, an average of 20,000 people a year are killed due to the burning of coal, natural gas and oil, from direct and indirect pollution exposure. Power plants are placed in communities without the political power to take action against them and studies — including a 2007 EPA risk assessment — have shown this has caused increased levels of cancer. It has loaded the dice for irregularly strong and frequent droughts, famines and natural disasters, all of which have killed millions, according to McKibben’s article. Yet we still get a majority of our energy from these sources. If we remain silent and allow our Earth to continue to warm, a study conducted by the governments of 20 nations shows that 100 million people are estimated to die from the impacts of climate change, and the global economy will suffer a 3.2 percent reduction in potential output by 2030. An international report last fall found that 90 percent of those deaths will occur in developing countries.

Despite all of this, our government still has not done the one thing that could stop this global crisis: put a price on carbon pollution to regulate the fossil fuel industry, the primary perpetrator of these injustices. 

We know divesting is not going to be easy but as students whose futures are on the line we must assert what we know is right. When the adults in charge won’t lead, students must take matters into their own hands. Where would South Africa be if the student apartheid divestment movement did not put up a fight for decades? Nelson Mandela has said that the campus divestment movement, as it rippled out from college campuses to national legislation, was a primary political force in ending apartheid. In other words, if students had turned a blind eye to the atrocities of apartheid South Africa instead of taking action to divest, the destructive regime could still hold power today.

Divestment from fossil fuels has already started to ripple out in the same way. The success of only Unity and Hampshire Colleges in divesting their endowments has caused a huge gain in momentum. This past December, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that he is working towards divesting the pension fund from the fossil fuel industry, and making sure city funds never get invested in the fossil fuel industry. This is only the beginning. Every student and alumnus who comes out in support gives momentum to the overall goal of getting legislators’ attention by framing the fossil fuel industry as detrimental to human society. So far, 1,100 Tufts students have signed on to divestment, as well as 200 alumni. Tufts alum investment professional Micheal Kramer wrote, “I pledge to withhold donations to Tufts until the university divests

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