Just as the worryingly delayed turn of the season ushers in Autumn, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a report predicting irreversible climate change by 2030 at the current rate unless temperatures are kept from rising 1.5°C. The findings of this study have stirred deep fears regarding the future of this planet and impending environmental violence creating droughts, flooding, crop failure, mass migration and climate-driven refugees.
However, the dire analysis of anthropogenic climate change and its troubling impacts is not new. Knowledge of pollution-related ecological consequences has been speculated on since as early as 1977 when Exxon Mobil (known as Exxon at that point) launched a decades-long misinformation campaign. The multinational oil and gas corporation aided in establishing the Global Climate Coalition—an international lobbyist group formed in 1989—which played a major role in questioning the scientific validity of climate change since the late ‘80s and prevented the United States, India and China from signing the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, the U.S. has been widely recorded as the largest carbon polluter in history and walked away from the Paris Climate Deal back in 2017, a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.
In an age of unprecedented concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising sea levels, one might ask why this data wouldn’t trigger meaningful, large scale change. In part, the inaction is due to a growing climate-change investment industry where, for example, a top JP Morgan Asset investment strategist advised clients to invest in sea-wall construction as sea-level rise is inevitable. Despite facing nearly certain deadly environmental destruction, relentless, expansion-centric capitalist logic is finding ways to frame destruction as ripe for profit. Under an unregulated market based economy, not even threats to Earth’s capacity to sustain human life can compete with the lure of further capital accumulation. However, while the wealthiest among us reap in the profits of a poisoned ecology, the rest of society is left to face the brunt of consequences. One only needs to turn to the aftermath of natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to understand how climate change impacts vary based on class and race. It is not coincidental that people lacking material resources, financial stability and economic capacity to evacuate end up being left behind when storms bear down on land, leaving them with dire prospects and little to no recourse.
So, the next logical question is, of course, what is to be done given our bleak situation? According to one 2017 study, the four most effective individual actions to take against climate change were having one fewer child, switching to a more plant-based diet, living car-free and taking one fewer flight per year. However, this neoliberal, individualist rhetoric misses the mark if our goal truly is to combat the main sources of pollution. Although advocating for changes with green consumerism and corporate environmentalist policies are certainly in vogue, countering studies have shown that these individualized approaches and small scale restrictions are not enough. Even with those changes to personal CO2 emissions, the United States would still far exceed its 2050 per capita emissions goal.
In reality, the overwhelming source of carbon pollution stems not from careless litterbugs or airline passengers, but corporations. A study released by the Carbon Disclosure Project with the Climate Accountability Institute stated that 71 percent of global emissions come from just 100 companies and that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 originated from 25 corporate and state-owned entities. For example, as detailed in Dark Money by Jane Meyer, the “Koch Industries alone routinely released some 24 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year.” Furthermore, what’s especially alarming is the conclusion of three major empirical studies since the Rio conference: “absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.” In other words, we can’t just invest in more efficient technology and dream up the right incentives. Efficiency has a limit and there are few convincing free market incentives to do right by the planet. We simply can’t simultaneously maintain current consumption rates and reduce our carbon footprint. We can side with capitalism or the well-being of the environment, but taking a bipartisan position is fundamentally impossible.
This isn’t to say that change on an individual level is entirely useless, but personal changes alone will not be enough. Individual choices will only have their greatest impact when backed by an economic system that provides viable, environmental options for everyone, not the elite few. We need to be critical and multifaceted in our analysis, unapologetic and radical in demanding structural change and collective, not individualist, in our actions. Duke made a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2024 and, just recently, Duke Student Government Senate took an admirable step by unanimously passing a resolution in support of the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility's potential resolution calling for fossil fuel divestment.
The Duke Climate Coalition had met with the ACIR back in April 2018 to discuss a fossil fuel divestment memo. Of interest in the report is how Chair Lawrence Baxter states that “direct investments are only a very small portion of the total investment portfolio Duke owns and divestment from fossil fuel companies would make only a minor impact” and how the committee expressed concerns on being “careful not to generate unnecessary polarization in an increasingly fractured environment.” This begs the question: fracture for whose environment? The environment of the people or the environment of wealthy CEOs of the fossil fuel companies that Duke is investing in—no matter how minimal (or intentionally minimized) the sum is? To further the question of divestment is to also examine who is investing in our university. About a month ago, the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University received a $5 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. Not only is this a troubling acceptance of neo-conservative networks in higher education that advance regressive economic policies, it’s also a clear connection between Duke and the dirty money that’s tainting our planet.
Ultimately, it’s hard to deny the cold reality of our current trajectory. Our planet is dying and those responsible for it will neither be held accountable for their damage nor will they face the brunt of the consequences to come. However, we still can commit to changes in the immediate future and within our capabilities towards greater sustainability, but it’s crucial to keep in mind that we must also expand beyond that. The necessary broadening of our environmental advocacy framework starts with not just holding each other accountable, but also the multinational corporations apathetically poisoning the Earth and their adjacent investors—like our university—responsible. While the prognosis is bad, but the end isn’t here yet. If we truly want to preserve this planet, we need a radical transformation of our economic system. Paper straws simply aren’t going to save us; it’s time for something more.