A recent Daily Cal op-ed written by professor Kirk Smith calls out Fossil Free UC’s current faculty letter supporting the University of California’s divestment from fossil fuels as not adequately addressing global health effects from air pollution and as being too vague in its censure of fossil fuel corporations. We understand the need to have a holistic perspective on what climate change action should be and to be mindful of the broader effects of what we are pushing for. The health implications of indoor air pollution are undeniable and are an important aspect of the current energy economy.
Roughly half of the global population cooks its meals with an open fire or rudimentary cookstove, and indoor pollution accounts for 4 million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of more than 500,000 children under the age of 5. Black carbon emissions from cookstoves have also been shown to be an important driver of global warming, further strengthening the need for a large-scale response. One of the key lessons from cookstove research has been the need for localized solutions that emphasize input from those most affected. We must take a similar approach to climate change action. As beneficiaries of a legacy of fossil fuel use, first-world countries must be willing to be early adopters of carbon-neutral energy sources while assisting third-world nations in a substantial and respectful manner.
In the context of the Fossil Free UC’s divestment movement, it must be recognized that while we should not paint all fossil fuels with a broad brush, we should also not be doing the same for fossil fuel divestment. Our movement calls for divestment from the top-100 coal and top-100 oil and gas companies, sorted by the size of their carbon reserves. Many groups that design and promote local solutions to biomass cook fuels do not hold carbon reserves and are not targeted by our movement. Similarly, while some of the companies we target may make some contributions to cookstove projects, the vast majority of their business model is traditional fossil fuel energy. Just because a company spends a small percentage of its revenue on social and community benefit projects doesn’t mean we should ignore that its business model is based on the wide-scale combustion of fossil fuels. This is called greenwashing: doing the minimum amount necessary to appear environmentally friendly while making no attempt to change the underlying business model.
In general, we are not opposed to the usage of fossil fuels in cases where the carbon cost is offset by the potential benefits and where local communities have agreed to their use and will not bear an odious health burden. We are not David trying to kill Goliath. We are world citizens demanding that energy providers modernize. The change we are looking for is an inflection point, where carbon companies are forced to seriously grapple with the notion of transforming into a carbon-neutral world. This includes the fact that climate science now shows that the large majority of current carbon reserves must be left in the ground. As a movement, we must be serious about demanding that the full extent of the necessary changes occur and must push for no less. Where politics is the art of compromising, a social movement must show the strength of our determination to seriously take on the full extent of the challenge ahead of us.
None of this is to say that Smith’s overall point that our faculty letter could be improved is necessarily wrong. We take his criticisms seriously and are grateful that he would take the time to engage in a public conversation with us. While so much of the national climate change debate is still focused on the settled question of whether climate change is occurring, it is vital that the conversation shifts to how we are to respond. Our goal is to demand that the university divest from the top-200 fossil fuel corporations, but it is equally — if not more — important that we stimulate a universitywide conversation on our collective response to climate change. While we cannot change the movement’s central demands to satisfy one person’s issues with it, the fact that Smith is willing to speak out implies that there are probably more people with similar concerns, underscoring the importance of an active conversation.
Fossil Free UC is a movement based on a consensus model, where anyone can influence the direction of our movement simply by attending and being a part of the discussions. People are welcome to join in whatever capacity they wish, which turns the diversity of our members into our strength. If Smith believes that the faculty letter needs additional work before he feels comfortable signing it, we welcome his expertise and invite him to discuss with us possible improvements. We are eager to meet with him and other UC faculty during the fall term, forging unity among all sectors of the campus to advance our campaign to divest the UC portfolio of its top-200 fossil fuel investments.
Matthew Vannucci is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a member of Fossil Free UC, and John Foran is a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara.