The end of summer means that college students all across the country are heading back to campus. Few experiences compare to college life. It is a time of freedom, adventure, and intellectual and personal growth. It is where social and political issues of the day are discussed and debated, and where many experience their first foray into politics and social activism.
One popular topic on campuses again this year will likely be climate change and how colleges and universities can help bring about change and accelerate our country’s transition to a carbon-free economy. Why? Because professional environmental activists like Bill McKibben and his group 350.org are pushing a well-funded and coordinated campaign to enlist students to pressure their college or university to divest their endowments from energy companies. This is part of their larger campaign to demonize the energy industry and the many life-enhancing products that are derived from oil and natural gas, with the hope that it will magically spur the development and scaling of alternative energy sources.
Don’t be mistaken, the energy industry welcomes a debate about climate policies, particularly on college campuses. But the discussions should be intellectually honest, and students should be provided with the facts and not mere rhetoric. Divestment activists owe it to students to inform them of the value that fossil fuels provide humanity and the true costs of divestment for colleges, universities, and the students they serve.
The benefits of oil and natural gas can be seen all around us, yet remain unmentioned by the divestment movement. The reliable energy provided by fossil fuels has lifted billions out of poverty worldwide, and has given us the highest standard of living in human history. Fossil fuels keep homes, dorms, and classrooms warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. They provide energy to airplanes, cars, buses, and tractors. And affordable fuels and low energy bills give breathing space to stretched household budgets.
Fossil fuels are also central to virtually every product we rely on in our daily lives. From food to medicines, clothes to smartphones and computers, vehicles to buildings, without oil and natural gas none of these essential products would be possible. While holding promise for the future, the alternative energy sources backed by the divestment movement – wind, solar, biofuels – simply cannot fill the void that would result from “keeping it in the ground,” at least not anytime soon.
Nor do they tell you that divesting from the energy means divesting from companies that have given billions of dollars for medical research, treatment, and programs. Huntsman Corporation, for example, donated over $100 million to build the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where today researchers are hard at work to prevent or even reverse genetic changes that cause cancer. Other companies produce vital ingredients for medicines or soaps that prevent or cure intestinal ailments that would otherwise end up killing millions of young children in developing countries. These are just a few examples. There are many more.
The divestment movement also neglects to mention the harmful effect divestment would have on universities and students themselves. A recent study found divestment could cost schools as much as 12 percent of their endowments’ value. For a large endowment, this could translate to as much as $7.4 billion. These endowments are vital to funding faculty, scholarships, and research.
This is where the misunderstanding stops and the hypocrisy begins. Exceptional students, who lack the ability to pay for an education that matches their abilities, have long benefited from scholarships paid for by endowments. While portraying their cause as one of justice and helping the vulnerable, the divestment movement threatens instead to deny low-income students access to top-level education, as well as stunting a university’s capacity for life-changing research.
Outside of the college campus, the hypocrisy extends to the most vulnerable in our society. While families benefit from affordable energy provided by fossil fuels, the divestment movement seeks to stigmatize this energy in favor of wind and solar. However, these energy sources are more expensive, and the most vulnerable in our society will be the ones hardest-hit.
Thankfully, the divestment movement has gained very little traction. Most schools, including some of the country’s most prestigious universities – such as Boston College, Harvard, NYU, and MIT – have refused the call to divest, citing fiduciary duties, responsibilities to students, and fears over politicizing research.
As thousands of young minds go back to college, they would do well to remember that there are two sides to every story, and very few things are as simple and clear cut as they might seem. They should also demand that professional activists provide all the facts, because only then can they obtain a good education.