Apologies for the long silence. It’s been a very hectic past few months, between working on multiple research projects and papers, applying to graduate schools, beginning a senior thesis, and increased involvement in Divest Harvard, where I’ve been coordinating the alumni wing of the campaign. I hope to have more to say about the first item in the next few weeks. In the meantime, here’s a talk that I gave that relates to the last.

I recently attended the 30th anniversary event of the Center for Excellence in Education, as an alum of the Research Science Institute, which was my first experience being a (however small) part of a mathematical community, and incidentally where I began blogging about mathematics. CEE offered attending alumni the chance to present short talks about topics of their choice. My talk, whose title is that of this post, is included below; the talk was also videotaped, and the video has been posted online. Here is the text.

It is great to be here. I was RSI ’09, and it was one of the best summers of my life. I would like to thank the Center for Excellence in Education for making that experience possible, and for organizing today’s very enjoyable events.

Like most of you here today, I am a scientist — or rather, a scientist-in-training. I am a scientist because I think discovering new things is stimulating and exciting. Yet I want to make the case that making discoveries is not enough for the world we live in — and that we have an ethical obligation to do more, to transcend the traditional scientific position of neutrality.

Much has been said about the ethics of science, ranging from physicists’ work on nuclear weapons to the treatment of animals. But the question we face today isn’t a question about the ethics of science itself: it’s a question about what happens when science speaks and yet no one listens. How can science make itself heard? And should it?

As you may surmise, I am referring to the climate crisis. Decades after scientists have understood the role of fossil fuels in the warming of our planet, the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions continue their steady growth. I know everyone here has heard a lecture about polar bears at some point in their lives. I don’t wish to repeat that — because it’s too abstract, and it overlooks the absolutely fundamental human rights dimensions of the crisis. Climate change, simply put, threatens hundreds of millions of lives, and my generation’s future. I believe that it represents one of the critical issues that future generations will judge us on — just as we judge previous generations by their positions on civil rights, or on slavery.

My generation is obviously not the first to take climate change seriously. Many people have been valiantly fighting climate change for decades, developing cleaner energy technologies and lobbying our political system — some of you may be among them. But these efforts have been insufficient, and for a clear reason: powerful forces stand in the way. And foremost among those forces is the fossil fuel industry.

Why is that? According to the IPCC and others, the world has a “carbon budget,” comprising some 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide that can be burned to have a 80% chance of at most two degrees warming, the upper limit that the international community has set for global warming. This “carbon budget” leaves us with a limited time window, roughly thirty years at our present rate, in which to transition to a low-carbon future. It’s no secret that the world is not on track to make that transition. This is, in fact, a huge understatement. The proven reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies amount to 2,795 gigatons. At this point, there is no expectation — in the markets or otherwise — that they won’t all be burned, leaving almost no chance for a stable future. It’s clear that no industry wants to have to write off the vast majority of their assets — which makes the motivations for fossil fuel industry’s well-documented campaigns to block climate change legislation all the more evident.

That’s why thousands of students at universities across the country, and across the world, have been calling on their schools to divest from fossil fuel companies — along with activists at numerous local governments and religious institutions. I’ve been proud to have been one of them, through the Divest Harvard campaign. Since last fall, we’ve been putting pressure on our administration to divest by cultivating a groundswell of support from students, faculty, and alumni. We’ve had considerable success: for example, in a referendum last fall, 72\% of Harvard undergraduates voted for a resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Nationally, so far, seven universities have divested, along with several religious institutions and local governments. We don’t expect this to be an easy or quick victory, but then again, climate change is complicated.

What is divestment? Divestment is the removal of one’s investments from a particular firm or industry, often for ethical reasons. As a tool for social change, it has illustrious precedent. After pressure from students and faculty, numerous universities, notably UC Berkeley, divested from South Africa in the 1980s, in addition to pension funds and state governments. This has been credited with helping to end the apartheid regime.

All the same, many of you are probably wondering about the connection between divestment and stopping the climate crisis. It’s admittedly true that divestment itself is no substitute for better solar panels and better policies. Divestment is, instead a tool, to stigmatize an industry whose very business model necessitates catastrophic warming. And as a tool it has enormous promise. A recent Oxford University study showed that previous divestment campaigns, such as divestment from apartheid South Africa, were highly effective in bringing about necessary restrictive legislation. That report, moreover, found concluded that fossil fuel divestment is growing much faster than any of the previous campaigns analyzed.

There are many questions that have been raised, by people generally in support of action on climate change, on divestment. It is not, after all, the type of technique traditionally used by the environmental movement. Classical environmentalism has focused on individual responsibility and moral suasion. Important as that is, it suffers from a fatal flaw: there is no way putting on a sweater can bring about a political solution on climate change. And we really do need a political solution on the climate crisis.  The challenge is, after all, to convince a hugely profitable industry to write off the majority of its assets.

The most common counterargument against divestment observes that we are all complicit in the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Nonetheless, I believe that it is the fossil fuel industry that has made it impossible for us not to be complicit: it has prevented the political action that would allow us meaningful alternatives. Given the size of its reserves, this was only rational on their part.

But another common counterargument, which we often hear both from scientists and researchers and from university administrators, states a position of neutrality. Scientists and researchers, especially those who study climate change, are reluctant to do anything that might be seen as politicizing their work. After all, we’ve been told that it’s our goal to make the discoveries, not to legislate.
Money managers claim that endowments and pension funds should maintain a neutrality to best ensure returns.

The problem with that is that climate change is an existential threat. It is not a political issue, and wanting a stable future is not a special interest. There is no neutral ground for us, as scientists, and there is no neutral ground for institutions — like our universities — that will be directly affected by climate change.

My generation is not, obviously, the first to understand the seriousness of the climate crisis. But members of my generation, at least the ones I’ve talked to, have a certain urgency in confronting the climate crisis — an intensity matched, perhaps, by the seriousness of the problem. Members of my generation tend to see climate change as more than a technical fix to be solved with engineering wizardry, but instead as a profound ethical issue. Though we didn’t cause the problem, we are, after all, the ones who will inherit a warming planet. In calling for divestment, our hope is that we can bring about a world that decides to keep four-fifth’s of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

As scientists and scientists-in-training, I believe we have a special obligation to confront the climate crisis. But I do not believe neutral research and education, the role that we and our universities traditionally play, can suffice: all the solar energy research in the world cannot help if we elect to keep burning coal anyway. I believe that there is a place for grassroots social activism on this, in which we can play a role.

The chasm between political organizing and scientific research is often vast. But the example of James Hansen, among others, suggests that it may be bridged at the highest levels of both. I hope many of you will consider bridging it yourself, whether by telling your alma mater that you won’t donate until it divests or by writing a letter to your senator explaining why you support a carbon tax.

Like most of you, I went to RSI because I wanted to solve hard problems. This may be the hardest problem the world has ever seen. I hope we can work together on it. Thank you.

I wrote this for a guest post on Cathy O’Neil’s blog mathbabe.

Climate change is one of those issues that I heard about as a kid, and I assumed naturally that scientists, political leaders, and the rest of the world would work together to solve it. Then I grew up and realized that never happened.

Carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to rise and extreme weather is becoming normal. Meanwhile, nobody in politics seems to want to act, even when major scientific organizations — and now the World Bank — have warned us in the strongest possible terms that the current path towards ${4^{\circ} C}$ or more warming is an absolutely terrible idea (the World Bank called it “devastating”).

A little frustrated, I decided to show up last fall at my school’s umbrella environmental group to hear about the various programs. Intrigued by a curious-sounding divestment campaign, I decided to show up at the first meeting. I had zero knowledge of or experience with the climate movement, and did not realize what it was going to become.

Divestment from fossil fuel companies is a simple and brilliant idea, popularized by Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” As McKibben observes, there are numerous reasons to divest, both ethical and economic. The fossil fuel reserves of these companies — a determinant of their market value — are five(!) times what scientists estimate can be burned to stay within 2 degree warming. Investing in fossil fuels is therefore a way of betting on climate change. It’s especially absurd for universities to invest in them, when much of the research on climate change took place there.

The other side of divestment is symbolic. It’s not likely that Congress will be able to pass a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system anytime soon, especially when fossil fuel companies are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns. A series of university divestments would draw attention to the problem. It would send a message to the world: that fossil fuel companies should be shunned, for basing their business model on climate change and then for lying about its dangers. This reason echoes the apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s.

With support from McKibben’s organization 350.org, divestment took off last fall to become a real student movement, and today, over 300 American universities have active
divestment campaigns from their students. Four universities — Unity College,
Hampshire College, Sterling College, and College of the Atlantic — have already divested. Divestment is spreading both to Canadian universities and to other non-profit organizations. We’ve been covered in the New York Times, endorsed by Al Gore, and, on the other hand, recently featured in a couple of rants by Fox News. (more…)