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Should the University divest from fossil fuels? Faculty panelists tackle issue at Tuesday forum

In light of a recent push encouraging Duke to divest from fossil fuels, a faculty panel gathered to discuss the issue.

Duke Climate Coalition—a student organization that has pushed for divestment—hosted the panel, which featured faculty from the Nicholas School of the Environment. The faculty shared their mixed opinions about the responsibilities of the government, corporations and general public to help mitigate climate change.

Last October, Duke Student Government Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for a complete fossil fuel divestment of the Duke Endowment by Jan. 1, 2024. 

The resolution asked the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility—a committee that advises President Vincent Price on ethical investing—to recommend divestment. The committee tentatively scheduled a potential decision for this semester on whether to make such a recommendation, ACIR Chair Lawrence Baxter told The Chronicle last October.

The rhetoric used in the divestment movement is potentially problematic because it intensifies the split in public opinion, said panelist Billy Pizer, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and faculty fellow in the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. 

“Fossil fuels are not bad, but the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are bad,” he said. 

Thus far, fossil fuels have powered the industrial development in the human society, Pizer added. He explained that the divestment movement pits people who are concerned with the environmental effects of using fossil fuel against those who are more inclined to tout its benefits. 

Drew Shindell, Nicholas professor of earth science, said he is supportive of fossil fuel divestment because such companies can earn profits off fossil fuels at the expense of society and future generations.

Divestment movements create needed conversation, said Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy. 

“The real challenge of [mitigating] the climate change is that even if you see hurricanes affecting North Carolina, people still think of [climate change] as something happening somewhere down the road,” she said. 

Panelists agreed that people cannot rely entirely on “inside efforts”—such as shareholder resolutions—to reduce carbon emissions. 

Consumers can play an active role in changing fossil fuel and energy companies' behavior, Konschnik said. For example, consumers may demand cleaner energy sources or purchase houses that efficiently use energy. Disclosing products' energy information to consumers could incentivize more eco-friendly practices. 

Shareholder resolutions don't have much of an impact on fossil fuel companies, Shindell said. 

“The real goal should be to try to get that company to stop doing business,” he added. 

Only tight regulations that make it unprofitable for companies to engage in fossil fuel production will ultimately reduce fossil fuel use, Pizer said. 

Skepticism of climate change in the United States is a unique phenomenon on the international scale, said Jackson Ewing, a senior fellow at Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions. He said the skepticism is a result of lobbying and campaign donations from special interest groups. 

Pizer added that there are naturally winners and losers in the debate about reducing fossil fuels. Those who stand to lose are typically more concentrated and more willing to lobby against fossil fuel regulations. 

Konschnik said that regulators should be strategic, tailoring their policies that apply to different types of industries or firms. 

“There is no tool that is going to fix the problem for all companies in all countries or jurisdictions,” she noted. “There are companies that are more responsive from the side, from the shareholders. There are also ones that are not—divestment is the way to go.”

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