• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Photo: Headshot of Rich Barlow, an older white man with dark grey hair and wearing a grey shirt and grey-blue blazer, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey backdrop.

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

Comments & Discussion

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There are 37 comments on BU Faculty Petition Urges Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies

  1. First, can someone prove to me that CO2 is directly responsible.

    Second, why not put your money where your heart is and just stop using fossil fuels. Since you think green is the way to go, go green.

    1. Dear Bernard:

      Nothing can be “proven” definitively. However, the notion that climate change is real and caused by human activity is supported by 97% of climate scientists (PNAS (2010) 107: 12107), and by 27 Royal and National Academies of Sciences from around the world. Thus, this notion falls in the category of “settled science,” which is as close to “proof” as science ever gets.

      Here is the upshot of why “CO2 is directly responsible” is settled science.

      (1) The lower atmosphere is warming, while the upper atmosphere is cooling, which is consistent with a heat trapping mechanism for the earth’s warming. (Inconsistent with, e.g., increased sun activity.) (2) When one looks at the spectrum of heat being trapped, it is in a region of the spectrum consistent with CO2 being the heat trapping agent. (3) Since industrialization, CO2 has been increasing in the atmosphere, which can be attributed to fossil fuel use for several reasons. (a) Mass balance: the CO2 increase approximately equals the amount of carbon being burned. (b) Changes in the C13/C12 ratio of carbon is consistent. (I can explain in detail if you wish.) (4) There are also models and correlations, as well as other arguments to support the notion.

      1. Dear Ed,
        Settled for some, perhaps. Others apparently are not yet persuaded.

        “Peer-Reviewed Survey Finds Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis

        “Only 36 percent of geoscientists and engineers believe that humans are creating a global warming crisis, according to a survey reported in the peer-reviewed Organization Studies. By contrast, a strong majority of the 1,077 respondents believe that nature is the primary cause of recent global warming and/or that future global warming will not be a very serious problem.”


        1. Greg, I just have to call you out on this. There is no other way to say it. The article you cite is junk science. I just read it and encourage everyone to do so to expose this nonsense. Look at the research methods. They cherry pick fossil industry scientists working the tar sands. I’m actually very surprised that so many from that supremely non random and interest – conflicted pool actually have the guts to admit we may have a problem. “To answer this question, we consider how climate change is constructed by professional engineers and geoscientists in the province of Alberta, Canada. We begin by describing our research context and the strategic importance of Canadian oil worldwide, to the economy of Canada, and the province of Alberta. We outline the influential role of engineers and geoscientists within this industry, which allows them to affect national and international policy. Then, we describe our research design and methods.

          1. That is hardly a refutation. You did not deal with anything substantively. You simply pulled the “junk science” card which, on this subject is the equivalent of calling someone a racist or a Nazi. It is conversation stopper.

            That there are top climate scientists from places like MIT that disagree with you as well as climategate should make any rational thinker questions this dogma. Because it is more religion than science.

        2. This is in response to Dave, below. To clarify, the comment made above by Greg referring to the opinion of 36% of geoscientists and engineers seriously misrepresents scientific opinion on climate change. The sample in the study was highly skewed toward the opinions of fossil fuel industry scientists and engineers from a region economically dominated by the tar sands extraction industry. Don’t take my word for it; read the article yourself. The fine print in the appendix admits the bias; but its not in the sound bite given by Greg. A reader will get an instant sense of the lack of scientific objectivity and outright politicization of this paper from the beginning – the paper leads with a quote from Senator James Inhofe that man-made climate change is a hoax.

          I’m actually surprised to see that even with the cards stacked thus, 36% of those surveyed believe we are facing a serious problem. Overall, this paper does not provide an accurate representation of overall scientific consensus.

          1. Nathan,

            People are concerned about a lot of things. It does not mean their concerns are justified. I mean Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has been widely debunked for several of its claims. Yet most people take it as gospel. This is driven by media and politics. In my lifetime the consensus said we were headed for a new ice age and naysayers we ridiculed.

            Don’t get me wrong. I am all about being green and sustainability. I deliberately drive small vehicles that a fuel efficient etc. But alarmism is still not science. There just needs to be some sanity in this. Not extremes based on politics and feelings.

          2. Nathan,
            So the research of scientists associated with the oil industry is politicized and not to be believed, but research funded by the U.S. Government, National Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, etc. – all of which have an incentive to promote climate alarmism – is completely unbiased and should be accepted because… Please explain the logic.

            “The science is settled” argument is unpersuasive. The science was also settled when the world’s greatest minds knew that the earth was the center of the universe and that black bile was the source of cancer. Thankfully some scientists chose to challenge the dogmas of their times. Compared to other fields, climate science is in its infancy. To hear that the science is already “settled” reflects poorly on the scientific rigor of this discipline.

          3. Greg, I actually find common ground here with you. I personally don’t put much into polls. I wouldn’t bring science polling into this discussion, but you did, so I just called you out on how misrepresentative that poll is in the way you presented it, compared to other polls mentioned.
            Also, I think I’m more skeptical than many. Your’re right that experts shouldn’t be blindly trusted. I also think an abundance of caution is needed when we don’t know the exact outcome of big changes we’re making. No one doubts that the CO2 level is greater than 40% above where it was 150 years ago – a blink of the eye in geologic time. And no one doubts that humans are the cause. Being the basic substrate for the metabolism of the biosphere, a 40% sudden hammer to the earth’s metabolic system is something that really concerns me, no matter what it might do. It’s like a person who wakes up overnight with 40% higher blood sugar. If you don’t feel pain, do you assume there’s no reason for concern? And do you assume that since sugar is energy, more is better? No – you should be very careful about this biospheric dial having gone so quickly off scale, start to ask why, and do what you can to stop the exponential rise. That’s prudence. That’s precaution. That is being very conservative. The fossil build out that we are seeing now, on the other hand, is reckless and willfully blind to the exponential changes that are happening in earth’s atmosphere and ocean systems (acidification).
            In addition, the centralized power systems we are all currently invested in make us more vulnerable by progressively centralizing more and more power (of multiple sorts) into fewer and fewer places – mega pipelines, mega extraction sites. And we say this is energy independence? We’re further and further tethered to centralized control. For me this movement is as much about freedom and liberty as environment. I want to be free from control by vulnerable, centralized power systems. And so we have a double whammy in tweaking the earth’s atmosphere very significantly in ways, in truth, no human can fully grasp, and we are making ourselves more vulnerable in the very process of doing that.
            Even the US Military understands this fossil vulnerability. The tanker truck supply lines are sitting ducks for terrorism. So would be the keystone XL pipeline unless you want to militarize that along its length.
            I want an increase in local resilience and political and economic self determination, not increasing enslavement to centralized power systems. And I don’t want a US foreign policy and development philosophy that is also predicated on supporting development of more and more centralized power systems (again with multiple meanings of the term power).
            I think I’m actually more of a political conservative than many who claim to be. Every time we gas up and spew pollutants into our air, we’re demonstrating our utter lack of independence. And did you hear about Exxon’s recent deal with Putin? Is that the kind of thing we should invest in?
            On another comment you made, you said we should not be emotional in taking an engineering approach to the purely ‘technical’ problem of the co2 rise. Full disclosure: my research is informed by values and emotion and aspirations for a better world. And I believe that is fully consistent with BU’s mission statement. It’s why our Engineering Dean Lutchen emphasizes that our engineering school trains “societal engineers”, not technically-myopic automatons.
            As for funding issues, do you realize how great a divide there is between the different entities you mentioned? Even with the so-called big enviro groups. Very very different if you look closely.

          4. Greg,
            Do you agree that there might exist different personal and financial interests between a geologist and engineer working for a a for-profit oil company and a scientist writing a report for an non-profit organization such as Union of Concerned Scientists or Sierra Club?

            “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair

          5. Nathan,
            Good points and I agree that there is much common ground. Energy independence should be a priority, and from sources that produce manageable waste. Distributed power distribution is an interesting concept but in my experience is often not practical due to the costs and efforts involved in building, operating, maintaining, securing, and ultimately decommissioning a large number of power generation systems, even small ones. Add to that the not-in-my-backyard response that generally arises whenever a new generating unit is proposed and it seems unlikely to ever produce the amount of energy needed to sustain a modern economy. It sure would be nice to have a serious forward-looking national energy policy that goes beyond “all of the above” bromides.

            Nuclear offers a potential solution: produces lots of power, near zero emissions, proven technology, and wastes that – while dangerous – are small in volume and can be contained. Unfortunately due to an overabundance of regulations – many of which do nothing to improve safety – nuclear is one of the more costly sources per kwh. And due to decades of demonization by activists, the media, popular culture, and yes, even some scientists, the prospects for building widespread nuclear-power generation capacity are pretty much dead. If people were really serious about reducing fossil fuel CO2 generation now, they would demand increased nuclear capacity. As it stands, the trend is in the opposite direction.

            Using fusion to generate electricity and produce hydrogen for use in automotive fuel cells and other mobile applications perhaps would resolve most of these issues. But success in fusion has been elusive and without extraordinary amounts of electricity to produce hydrogen via hydrolysis, large-scale hydrogen production from natural gas and other fossil fuels (currently the preferred method) is not economical and does not really solve the root problem. If scientists really want to do something to secure the future of mankind, they should focus attention on these technologies. By the way, many of the energy companies that are the subjects of BU’s divestment petition are developing exactly these types of future capabilities.

            As things stand, coal, petroleum, and natural gas are the only sources with the BTUs and around-the-clock, any-weather, transportable capability to meet the world’s electricity and transportation needs. Eliminate them, and life will return to its natural state: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

            I actually consider myself a conservationist and have been one since before the environmental movement hijacked the ideals to create a religion. To the extent that it can be avoided, dumping pollutants into the air, water, on land clearly is not a good idea. However, I think that scientific discovery, applied research, and technological development are the keys to success, and that petitions, finger-pointing, political gamesmanship, and the like only hinder the efforts to find practical and economically sustainable solutions.

    2. Dear Bernard and Dave:
      There are numerous legitimate analyses, the most careful and comprehensive being of 1374 climate scientists in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (2010, 107: 12,107), which is one of the three most prestigious journals (along with Nature and Science.

      And what about the 27 Royal and National Academy of Sciences who have publicly stated that climate change is real and caused by humans?

      The authors of the article you cite (Lefsrud and Meyer) surveyed members of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), a professional association for the petroleum industry in Alberta. Hardly either an unbiased or a cross-section of true climate scientists.

      The authors themselves state: “First and foremost, our study is not a representative survey. Although our data set is large and diverse enough for our research questions, it cannot be used for generalizations such as “respondents believe …”

      But, yes, Dave, 97% of scientists agreeing that climate change is real and caused by humans still leaves 3%, which is a lot of scientists (including Richard Lindzen at MIT).

      We seldom get 100% agreement in science. Remember, there are still top virologists who claim that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS (e.g., Peter Duesberg). But thank heaven we did not listen to them when AIDS was tackled.

      And if 30 engineers tell you not to drive over a bridge, because it will fall, but one says it won’t – would you drive over that bridge?

      Regrettably, I suspect that no amount of legitimate evidence and logic will change your minds. (Sigh.)

      1. Ed,

        I did not realize that science is a matter of consensus?

        I am curious as to where you got your “97%” number though. And how do you define scientist? Are these all climate scientists? Are biologist and organic chemists included? Being a scientist does not mean someone has any expertise in all areas of science. It is like saying that 97% of patent prosecution attorneys agree with a district attorneys opinion in criminal case. It does not mean much.

        Man made global warming is far from proven. Also, inconveniently, the earth is not warming. It has not warmed at all in well over a decade.

        This is political not scientific. When those at the very top of the field question it then it is far from a fact – an ridiculous to mock those who disagree. But it sure does make people feel good about themselves and politician rich. And we all now that scientists get research money so it certainly pays to cause alarm to justify a continued livelihood. This happen all the time in science. Just look at how much money goes into embryonic stem cell research. Years of study. Zero positive results. The list goes on. Follow the money and the celebrity endorsements.

        When you all personally divest from fossil fuels you will have some credibility. But I assume most of you at least occasionally travel by car or plane. Causes are about helping other not making yourselves feel good and getting public accolades.

        1. Dave, you said: ” Also, inconveniently, the earth is not warming. It has not warmed at all in well over a decade.”

          Can you please provide evidence to support this claim? Since we are discussing an existential matter, I think that is a legitimate request.

          1. Itai,

            Here you go:



            There is much more out there if you google it.

            I also disagree that this is existential. The earth has gone through natural cycles of warming and cooling for millennia – with no help from man.

            Of course there is climate change. It is natural.

            Also, how do we deal with the idea that we are now hearing about a coming global cooling? We cannot predict the weather a month away. We are giving man way to much credit and fear-mongering with not nearly enough evidence.

            For the road: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/146138/100-reasons-why-climate-change-is-natural

          2. What a great opportunity this is to show that BU is doing the very groundbreaking research called for by Greg: My colleague Prof. Bruce Anderson has published peer-reviewed research demonstrating the role of ocean heat uptake as a likely cause of warming. This by no means gets us out of the woods; it bakes climate change further into the earth’s inertial climate/ocean system:

        2. Dear Dave:

          I TWICE gave you the reference to the most careful and comprehensive study of the views of CLIMATE scientists. The abstract states: “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC (i.e., human-caused climate change”) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…

          Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (2010, 107: 12,107).

          Here is a link:

          This link also includes 2 other documents with statements from 27 Royal and National Academies of Sciences stating that climate change is real and caused by humans.

          An Academy of Sciences is a country’s most august collection of scientists – their greatest experts. Academies study scientific questions and then come to conclusions. The ~1000 smartest scientists in each of 27 countries have decided that climate change is real and caused by humans. How can you discount 27 of them all coming to the same conclusion? Does that not give you some sense that maybe you need to rethink your opinion?

          1. Dave, did you read the very article from Nature you linked to (For a moment I’ll disregard the other, which is from a British tabloid)?

            It clearly states that climatologists attribute the said hiatus in warming in the past 10 plus years to the absorption of most of the heat by the oceans! Or, in other words, as a more research study found (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/grl.50382/abstract), global warming has actually accelerated, with more overall global warming in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years. This happened because approximately 90% of overall global warming goes into heating the oceans, which have been warming dramatically.

          2. Ed,
            The conclusions presented in the PNAS paper could be interpreted a couple of ways. The first is that these 97% of climate scientists are all very, very smart people who have landed on the correct theory and that everyone else should just shut up already. This, of course, is the interpretation pushed by the climate alarmists.

            Another explanation is that the only way to get a job on the faculty as a climate scientist is to toe the party line and not offend the tenure committee, the members of which have staked their professional and personal reputations on the theory of ACC.

            This is why the appeal to authority argument is so weak. The East Anglia e-mail scandal and the fact that temperatures stopped rising 15 years ago don’t help either.

          3. Dear Greg:

            Wikipedia gives a reasonable summary of the final verdict of the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit (East Anglia).

            “Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.”

            You are proposing a hoax involving thousands of scientists. You are in essence calling scientists, many elected to THE most elite societies (Academies of Sciences), liars. Does that not ring an alarm bell that maybe your “hoax hypothesis” does not make sense?

          4. Dear Ed,
            Not calling anyone a liar although there are a few people in the climate change camp who may fall into that category. Likewise, I have deliberately not used the word “hoax” to describe global warming because it implies a malevolence that I do not believes exists.

            The fact is however that climate scientists have a vested interest in proving that human activity is leading to a climate catastrophe. How long would funding continue if they concluded, “Nothing to worry about, this is just normal variation”? Or even, “Yes, human activity is causing some changes but the earth is a resilient place and will adapt with little measurable impact”? They’re not lying but they are not likely to look for things they do not wish to find. Unless the climate science community starts encouraging the type of vigorous dissent that exists in most other academic fields, it will be difficult not to question the motives.

            And regarding Itai’s earlier comment, Upton Sinclair’s quote applies equally to someone whose salary depends on the non-profit that is paying it (or funding the research). Non-profit does not mean “motives pure as the driven snow.” A non-profit is simply a business that has structured itself in a way to avoid tax liabilities. Case in point, the National Football League is a non-profit…

            Personally I would just like to be able to read a good book by the warm glow of a 100 watt incandescent bulb, give my toilet a decent flush, and stand under a nice strong shower. Unfortunately those little pleasures no longer exist thanks to the efforts of those who have now turned their attention to global warming. I just think thoughtful people should exercise some healthy skepticism before we also find ourselves shivering in the dark.

        3. This is not a debate like who would be the best player for your fantasy football team. If all of these scientists are correct (and they are!), we are talking about the destruction of the planet as we know it. More killer hurricanes. More killer tornadoes. Part of Manhattan under water. Droughts. Floods. In the 1980s there was on average 1 billion-dollar catastrophic weather event per year; now there are more than 10 per year. This is the meteor on a collision course with earth, except the meteor is in the atmosphere.

          1. Regarding Dave’s inaccurate impression that temperature has not been rising in the last decade, here is a letter written by a colleague that nicely summarizes the data to the contrary.

            A recent letter…suggested that global warming was a hoax. This was based on the observation that average global surface temperature has not increased much since 1998, whereas atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased apace, reaching 400 ppm last year.
            In fact, much of the missing heat has been found. K. Cowtan and R. Way (reviewed by E. Kintisch, Science v344, p348, 2014) recomputed global average surface temperatures from 1997-2012 taking into account big gaps in the network of recording stations over Antarctica, Africa, and, crucially, the Arctic, which is the fastest warming region on the planet. The adjusted average is 0.119 C/decade, compared with previous values of 0.080 and 0.046 C/decade computed by NASA and HadCRUT, respectively, and with the range 0.102-0.412 C/decade predicted from different computer simulations of atmosphere-ocean models.
            Much of the remainder of the missing heat has been disappearing into the oceans, which, by virtue of cold, deep water, constitute a very large heat sink. Most notable in this regard is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which engages in 15-30 year cycles that affect wind speeds and ocean currents over much of the Pacific Ocean (Reviewed by J. Tollefson, Nature v505, p276-278, 2014). Its cool phase began in 1997-98 with deep upwelling and cool surface waters over much of the eastern Pacific Ocean. This circumstance effectively transfers heat from winds to ocean and thus cools the atmosphere. Consistent with this idea is the fact that the oceans have continued to warm during the current slow down in surface warming and Arctic Ocean ice and glaciers in the Arctic and Western Antarctic continue to melt and destabilize.
            Other possible factors considered are variations in incident solar radiation (e.g., the 11-year sunspot cycle), volcanic haze, and urban particulate pollution, but none of these separately or in combination seem of great importance in the present slowing of surface warming.
            A lesson from this is that trends in global climate change ought to be considered over periods of 50-100 years and not in 5-10 year bites.

          2. Ed,
            Manhattan under water, and you live in Boston – also at sea level! Bummer.

            Here is the dilemma. When the temperature goes up, it’s evidence of global warming. When the temperature goes down, it’s evidence of global warming. When the temperature stays the same, it’s evidence of global warming. It sounds less like a scientific theory (or “fact” if one considers the science to be settled) and more like a tautology or even a religious belief.

            By one count there have been 52 explanations for the global warming pause (http://wattsupwiththat.com/climate-fail-files/list-of-excuses-for-the-pause-in-global-warming/). Another explanation, and applying Occam’s razor, perhaps the most plausible, is that temperature increases in the past ~150 years and the pause in the last 15 years are the result of normal variations in the earth’s climate.

            Since climate science funding (not to mention jobs and reputations) depend on this not being the case, I don’t expect that it will be accepted, or even explored. But for those of us who are not so heavily invested, it seems like a distinct possibility.

          3. Dear Greg, Dave and Bernard:

            Thank you for this lively “discussion.” But I give up. I guess this is just not the forum in which to work through this issue so that I can help you come to appreciate the gaps in your understanding, the errors in your “facts,” and the flaws in your reasoning. But at least some of you are parents of BU students – yes? If you ever have time, please, stop by my office, and I would be glad to show you data and help you work through the gaps in your understanding. (I am also hoping you will stop by, because I am really intrigued by people who hold the beliefs you hold. I honestly want to understand how people come to be so misled. I apologize if this sounds condescending, but you are of course free to bring your “facts” to try to convince me that I am mistaken.)

  2. The studies cited in the UNEP Finance Initiative study (referenced in the Aperio Group document, footnote 3 of the petition) suggest that absent another tech boom, divesting in this manner is likely to have a negative impact on BU’s financial portfolio. How do these faculty members propose that the University should make up the difference? Yet another tuition increase?

    Travel, particularly by air, is considered to be a major contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. How did the amount of travel conducted last year by BU faculty compare to the year before? Does the “…moral obligation to…the future of our planet” extend to the faculty members who signed this petition acting in their own lives as if this is the crisis they profess it to be?

    As a parent who is, in part, paying the salaries of these 245 faculty members, I would prefer they spend less time on self-serving moral posturing like this and more on their jobs of education and research as stated in BU’s mission statement and the Admission Department’s glossy brochures. Perhaps by applying their intellectual talents towards finding practical and economically viable alternatives to carbon-based fuels, these faculty members could make a meaningful contribution towards solving these sorts of problems.

    1. Dear Greg:

      I am one of the faculty organizers of the fossil fuel divestment effort at Boston University. I am sorry that you have such negative feelings about those of us on the BU faculty who believe that the planet is in trouble because of climate change and wish to do all we can to try to rectify this situation. Let me address each of your thoughts.

      I believe my colleague Nathan Phillips adequately pointed to retrospective financial analyses that show that divestment would be unlikely to result in significant financial loses to Boston University. I would only add that the current Treasurer of Massachusetts, along with the three Democratic candidates for Treasurer in 2014 support divestment of the Massachusetts Employees pension fund, which suggests that these financial experts do not consider divestment to be a ridiculous idea.

      Personally, I ride a bike everywhere. I have solar panels on my house, and before I got them I arranged to get my electricity from windfarms. I have a plug-in hybrid car. I am a vegetarian, which also lowers my carbon footprint. I could go on. I believe I could do better, but in my personal life I am striving to act consistently with the values espoused in this petition.

      I spend an enormous amount of time preparing to be the best instructor I can be, and my students seem to appreciate my efforts. I don’t think my efforts on behalf of climate change (done in free time) detract significantly.

      I don’t know what reasoning you are using in order to characterize my concerns for the future of planet as “self-serving moral posturing.” The planet is in deep trouble because of climate change, and I am working on multiple fronts to try to rectify that, including my efforts at BU, in my town (Brookline) and in Massachusetts. It is hard for me to see how this could be characterized as “self-serving” and my concerns don’t seem to me to be “moral posturing,” so much as an expression of “heartfelt concern.”

      Unfortunately, my scientific area of expertise (cancer research) does not easily lend itself to finding viable alternatives to carbon-based fuels. But I intend to continue to do what I can given this limitation.

      1. Dear Ed,
        I appreciate that people are deeply passionate about this issue. It seems however, that this passion sometimes gets in the way of objectivity.

        Divestment will have zero impact on the fossil fuel companies – someone else will simply buy the stock – but it might hurt BU. The petition cites a document by the Aperio Group as the basis for asserting, “that careful disinvestment will result in no significant financial hardships for institutions like Boston University.” In fact, the Aperio Group document admits, “…the results are mixed” – a conclusion supported by the UNEP Finance Initiative study (cited by Aperio) which, in its review of academic studies, has caveats like, “Since the study was undertaken during the tech boom of the 1990s, results are very much a function of this time period and may have been different if the study was undertaken over another time period.” I don’t know how much of BU’s portfolio is invested in fossil fuel interests but it is certain that, unless similar returns can be found elsewhere, divesting from high-return oil and gas investments will have a negative impact on the University’s financial performance. And just because the Massachusetts Employees pension fund did such a thing doesn’t mean they weren’t wrong. Perhaps it would be worth considering dissenting opinions before deciding. (And responding to other comments: Volatile investments are not bad per se, depending on the investment horizon. Exxon ranks #7 of the top 15 investments in Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway portfolio. The 2nd richest person in America didn’t get there by accident.)

        Every energy source involves trade-offs. Solar panels are made using toxic chemicals and many of them are manufactured in China using electricity from coal-fired plants. They are not scalable to large electrical needs and are unaffordable for all but the wealthiest. Wind farms (likewise manufactured using carbon-fueled electricity) kill birds, create noise, change local weather by disrupting air currents, and are visual eyesores. Plug-in cars get their electricity from somewhere: in Massachusetts, 69% of it comes from carbon fuels (according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy). The car’s battery uses a multitude of toxic chemicals that eventually require disposal. There is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to energy and pollution. Solutions that may be acceptable to one person (e.g. biking everywhere) may impose costs on others (such as building roads and bike paths) or be inaccessible those who are physically less fortunate.

        The climate has been changing since the beginning of time. In the 70’s it was the dawn of a new ice age. Then it was global warming. Now, apparently following 15 years of constant or dropping temperatures, it has become “climate change.” NOAA reports that the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere has changed from .000317 in 1958 to .000397 today. Nobody can say for certain whether it matters. Nobody can say for certain what has caused the change. What is an unresolved technical question that should be addressed through objective scientific inquiry and non-emotional engineering solutions has become a quasi religion with “believers” and “skeptics” (heretics), indulgences (carbon credits), sins (holding investments in fossil fuel companies), and penance (driving a Prius). To many people, it has taken on a moral dimension requiring public pronouncements of their piety and sanctions against those who do not adhere to the faith. The Puritans have returned, except God has been replaced by Gaia.

        Perhaps more productive approaches would be to seek solutions that help people adapt to climate change or, if carbon really is such a big problem, to push for deployment of proven, practical non-carbon-based energy such as nuclear or the development of fusion technology. These are the types of intellectual pursuits to which the faculty at BU are well suited.

        As far as I’m concerned, people can believe or do as they please. I ask only that the business of delivering a top-notch education at a price I can afford for my children remains the focus of BU and its employees. For that reason, this petition seems to be a misdirected effort that distracts from BU’s missions of teaching and research. As a parent, I am concerned that tuition increases could out-pace the value of a BU education. Faculty and staff should be concerned about this as well. This is a real threat that is much more likely to affect the future of my children and grandchildren than hypothetical human-caused impact on the Earth’s climate.

        I applaud your research and wish you the best in your endeavors.

  3. Bernard- Yes actually. CO2 concentrations have been increasing since the Industrial Revolution at a rate unseen in Earth’s recent life history. From basic chemistry we know that rising CO2 concentrations leads to an increased greenhouse effect and thus increased retained global heat. However, it has also been found that the radioactive carbon character of the CO2 in the air has increasingly matched the radioactive carbon character of fossil fuels, and has increased relative to the amount of fossil fuels used. So in other words, not only is the unprecedented rise in CO2 causing rising average temperatures and thermal expansion of the oceans, but is also undoubtedly from human action.

    Greg- It’s unfortunate to see a parent more concerned with the short-term financial goals of an institution than the well-being of the earth their children hope to live on. Tuition has been raised every year, faster than inflation, long before climate change entered public discourse. Action now will save trillions, as damage prevented is cheaper than repairing damage done. Furthermore, this action needs to come from leading institutions, such as BU, before we are too late and they become shallow PR necessities. Preventative action will save money and save face.

    As a former student, I can also tell you that many faculty members are incredibly passionate about climate change and actively researching ways to combat it. I’m not sure on what ground you claim that they are wasting their time on ” self-serving moral posturing”, but you should do your research before inflaming important topics such as this. And finally, if you’re concerned about the carbon footprint of air travel, there are numerous organizations that allow you to buy carbon “credits” to offset personal carbon emissions from travel. ( http://www.terrapass.com for example) Many BU professors purchase these for their trips to conferences and similar excursions. Conferences, by the way, that are crucial for the exchange and development the novel ideas and scientific progress you insinuate they are neglecting through petitions such as these.

    In conclusion, philosophically, human addiction to the dollar and increasing societal estrangement from the Earth’s value remains both a leading cause and sad perpetuator to our current situation of necessary global action. Extend your perspective.

  4. Dear Greg,
    As one of the faculty supporting fossil fuel divestment, I welcome your engagement on this important issue and the concerns you raised. The study you cited showed that of 20 academic studies, 17 showed positive or neutral results of screened investments; only 3 of the 20 showed negative returns. I don’t see evidence for the generalization you make. Can you point more specifically to the area of that study which most concerns you?
    Let me share this as well: Bloomberg reported a study recently that showed virtually no difference in the S&P 500 over the last ten years with our without fossil fuel investment: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-28/this-approach-to-climate-change-doesn-t-involve-obama-the-senate-or-the-un.html. Moreover, the Aperio Group study you point to also generally is supportive of the conclusion that divestment shows neutral to positive returns. Indeed the American Petroleum Institute’s own data shows that fossil fuel stocks are more volatile – in good times they pay off more; in bad times, worse. So they are more risky. Should universities invest in riskier investment portfolios and gamble on the possible payoffs?
    Finally, if we personalize the issue about who is dependent on fossil fuels, of course the truth is that we are ALL enslaved to a fossil based society, for most everything – including travel. The large scale energy infrastructure systems dictate this. To transition to the fossil free society that we know we must requires a massive, all-hands-on-deck effort. Universities like BU can play a leadership role in showing how we get there, and divestment is one part of the larger set of activities – including the research and application you call for – and which BU is leading, like in my own research which has shown that we are leaking large amounts of fossil fuel out of our gas pipelines, wasting money, endangering human safety and health, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

  5. Greg, I’m as grad student here at BU. While an undergrad in Iowa I accrued over a thousand dollars just in interest on the loans I had just taken out. So I absolutely share your concern about where costs are placed. Which is actually one of the reasons I support divestment. In response to the 08 Wall St crash my undergraduate institution had to reduce the number of courses students could take, making it all but impossible for certain majors to be successfully completed. Many analysts see all the huge investments in fossil fuel infrastructure as the next big bubble. The industry owns five times as much carbon as can be reasonably burned. It will take a couple decades to burn through it all, but it may not take as long for the market at large to realize many of those reserves will never leave the ground and are in fact worthless. If we wait for the market at large to say this is a bad investment it will already be too late. As a university we have a unique ability to understand the full extent of the consequences of climate change – much more so than most investors. You could really think of this as a distinct market advantage, which we would be foolish to not take advantage of.

    You also point to the tension between personal and collective action. The issue is urgent: at this rate we will burn through our “carbon budget” in the next few decades. We’ve know that climate change is dangerous and happening as long as I’ve been alive. And yet each year global emissions keep going up. The “environmental” movement has put an emphasis on personal action for quite some time with only moderate success. At this point I think we need to try all avenues. Ultimately the changes we need will not require great lifestyle changes (adaptation to climate change will, but not mitigation as much), but rather great infrastructural change – which the consumer has little control over.

  6. As a parent of a BU freshman, and as a member of a family deeply concerned about climate change and the impacts it has on our planet, I am heartened by the work of the DivestBU group and want to thank faculty and students for their leadership on this.

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