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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Weighing in on the divestment debate

An issue that has garnered extensive controversy on Western’s campus over the past two years was thrown back into the spotlight as two professors debated before about 40 people on the divestment movement.

Dr. Gene Myers, an environmental studies professor within Huxley, took the pro-divestment stance. Assistant Professor of Economics Phil Thompson detracted.

The event, which took place Monday, April 20, was organized by Students for Renewable Energy. Galen Herz, a leader of the club, gave a presentation on the history of divestment prior to the debate, which focused on the rising number of academic institutions that have moved to divest from fossil fuel related stocks.

In May 2013, about 2,000 Western students voted on divestment and 86 percent voted in support of it,  as did the AS Board of Directors in September 2014, but the Western Foundation Board, who control the university’s investments, voted not to divest that September.

Thompson, who also teaches within the Institute for Energy Studies, opened the debate by saying he was neither for divestment, nor against it.

“I don’t buy the argument that divestment is going to do anything to reduce CO2 emissions,” Thompson said.

He recognized the consensus that climate is changing, and that the greatest cause of the change is greenhouse gasses, but argued that carbon taxes and cap and trade policies are more effective than divestment.

Thompson advocated for a proposal to create a carbon tax in Washington, which would put a $25-per-ton tax on fuels that contain carbon.

“I frankly think that effort will do a lot more to reduce carbon emissions than divesting a couple million dollars worth of stock,” Thompson said, speaking of the statewide impacts of divestment.

He also argued for the importance of economic motives in achieving sustainability goals.

“They sell us this stuff because we want it, and we want it because it has many advantages, but if it cost more we would use less of it,” Thompson said.

Myers opened by accepting that “divestment is not probably justified by standard cost benefit analysis or by making a practical difference,” noting the small fraction of oil company investments coming from academic institutions.

“For all intents and purposes, this is a flea nipping at the heels of an elephant,” He said.

Myers’ argument focused more on the ethical contradictions presented when a university that prides itself on sustainability continues to fund fossil fuel producers.

Meyers said in an email that divestment raises the ethical bar for everyone and believes divestment should be paired with accelerated climate discussion, education, cultural norms, campus operations and direct adequate resources to meet deadlines outlined in the 2010 WWU Climate Action Plan.

“We claim to provide excellent preparation for the future, but even to a small extent, we are benefited by the destruction of that future at that same time,” he said.

Myers also called into question the legitimacy of investing in an industry that has worked to refute scientific efforts in the past.

“We claim to pursue the truth and wellbeing and uphold the highest standard of honesty and integrity, but we’re investing in an industry that has worked actively… to undermine the science and the public literacy about this issue,” he said.

Myers also argued that the University can’t promote human values without recognizing the contribution of fossil fuels to the plight of people currently impacted by climate change.

Julianna Fischer, a member of Students for Renewable Energy, has been involved in the divestment campaign at Western and had Thompson as a professor for an environmental economics class.

“I was really interested to see the different perspectives, I was interested to see how [Thompson] was going to handle [divestment] in a public setting,” she said. “I think he was definitely very careful, and knew who was in the room and that he didn’t have very many people supporting him.”

Part of SRE’s current campaign is gathering 350 faculty signatures to demonstrate levels of divestment support. Myers has signed the letter, Thompson has not.

“We got student support, 86 percent, and that didn’t do it, so now we’re trying to get faculty and staff support as a way of showing that it isn’t just naïve students who don’t know the broader impacts of what we’re asking the university to do,” Fischer said.

“It’s people with PhDs who are in these profession, and they also support it.”

More than 250 faculty members have signed the petition to date. During the question and answer period after the debate, Herz asked Thompson if he would sign the letter. Thompson once again refused.

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