Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Students in the fossil fuel divestment movement employ venom and vitriol, but little persuasive argument.
On February 24, the student association at Vassar College made an important decision. By a margin of 23-1, these young people passed a resolution urging their school to withdraw investment funds from fossil fuel companies.
According to a news report, a member of the Vassar Greens later declared that the vote
means we have the student body’s support behind us…We’re presenting this as something Vassar students want. [ellipsis in the original]
So what arguments were advanced by campus activists before this decision got made? A December 2012 opinion piece published in the student newspaper is a good place to start. Titled Vassar must take lead in fossil fuel divestment, it was written by three individuals – two co-presidents of the Vassar Greens as well as the person who appears to be the primary author of the divestment resolution itself.
Early on, the students tell us they’ve partnered with climate crusader Bill McKibben’s 350.org activist group. They explain that that group’s name
is derived from the safe amount of carbon, in parts per million, that can be in the atmosphere. [bold added, article backed up here]
But this is not an accurate statement. Concern over global warming is all about carbon dioxide. On the Periodic Table of Elements, carbon is represented by a C. Two-thirds of carbon dioxide is composed of another element altogether – oxygen – which is represented by an O.
C is not the same as CO2. Since the periodic table is taught in high school, it isn’t unreasonable to expect college students to understand this difference.
An additional difficulty is that 350 is merely the number on which McKibben has personally fixated. Other people have alternative opinions. For example, the 2006 Stern Review – a much-criticized-for-its-alarmism report written by economists employed by the British government (see here and here) – suggests that a considerably higher number, 500-550 parts per million of carbon dioxide, is equally safe.
But those are minor points compared to what comes next. In an article intended to rally the student population to the divestment cause, we find venom and vitriol, but little persuasive argument.
Energy companies are described as “corporations that have recklessly endangered our health and put our future in jeopardy” (bolding here and below added). The fossil fuel industry, we are told,
has a track record of environmental and social abuse (e.g. BP’s oil spill, the Exxon Valdez [oil spill], or blowing up West Virginia’s mountains for coal). Divestment…appears to be the best way to target corporations that put profit above health. [bold added]
Overall, the word “health” is mentioned on three occasions, the word “abuse” is used twice. Yet the only specifics in this entire piece are the above-cited industrial accidents and mining technique. Where is the evidence that energy companies endanger human health? What, exactly, is “social abuse”?
The students talk blithely about “systems of oppression” and “the fossil fuel industry’s business model of extraction and pollution.”
They declare that “the fossil fuel industry’s business strategy is antiquated and destructive” and that Vassar should tell these companies “that their days of pollution are over.”
Enrolled at one of America’s most respected colleges, with three brains between them, these young people seem to think that loaded language and a fire hose of unsupported accusations adds up to an argument. It does not.
Are they truly ignorant of the fact that oodles of environmental laws and regulations have come into force in recent decades? Do they really believe that energy companies go around polluting at will, with no oversight whatsoever?
In the real world, it isn’t possible to generate massive amounts of energy and yet never have an accident. The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill – and the 24-year-old Exxon Valdez spill – generated nightmare publicity and cost tons of money. These are not regular occurrences, nor are they incidents that anyone in the oil industry is eager to repeat.
In the real world, everything has a dark side. In 1969, four people died at the Altamont rock concert in which the Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and deadly weapons were involved.
In 1979, 11 people died at a Who concert in Cincinnati. In 2003, a Rhode Island nightclub fire accidentally started by the pyrotechnics of the live band killed 100 people and injured 230 more.
Would focusing on these events paint an accurate picture of the music industry? Would it be fair to cite only these incidents and then insist that no one should ever attend a rock concert?
Energy companies employ thousands of people. Inevitably, some of those people will make bad decisions some of the time. Does that really negate all the good that cheap, reliable, abundant energy has contributed to our well-being?
In 1936, a heatwave killed more than 5,000 Americans. In 2012, less than 100 Americans perished in a similar heat wave. Air conditioners – and the energy that powers them – helped avert widespread tragedy. Do facts such as these not deserve a mention in the fossil fuel divestment debate?
It’s wonderful that young people at Vassar are looking outward, that they are engaging with the world around them. What’s not so wonderful is that their expensive education appears to be serving them so badly.
A young person who has attended college should be able to construct an argument, not just bad-mouth people.
A young person who has attended college should be able to tell the difference between lazy, predictable, comic book rhetoric and reality-based analysis.