Those of you who have followed this blog over the last couple years, know that I have picked on my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, several times as an example of how our colleges and universities could become far better leaders than they are in addressing the world’s greatest problem, that is, global warming. More specifically, I have criticized the administration of StO for two reasons. One is that their college’s endowment funds are still invested in the fossil fuel industries and the second is that they promote a great deal of unnecessary travel by carbon intensive means of transportation. While 20 years ago, these activities used to be environmentally acceptable, they no longer are – as our out-of-control greenhouse effect pushes us to the very edge of our planet’s range of stability.
If I can assume that StO College has not joined the ranks of climate change deniers, I find that the stances it has taken on the issues of investment and carbon intensive travel are both hypocritical and indefensible. They do not appropriately acknowledge the urgent need for the extreme action that is called for by the latest science concerning climate change. This, in spite of the fact that StO has several departments of science that could keep its administration up to date on the latest state of climate change science. Apparently, that is not happening.
It is not difficult to guess why any scientifically-challenged college administration would avoid going the full ten yards in a fight against global warming. One superficial reason is simply that “everyone else” is indulging in these carbon intensive activities and another is that any change in their investments would have only a “tiny effect” on the vast world of finance. Both of these anemic excuses are unacceptable and even irresponsible, however, if uttered by an institution of higher learning that claims to be preparing their students for the challenges those students will face upon graduation. One of my favorite quotations concerning “education” comes to mind: “In teaching, example is not the most important thing, it is the only thing” – Albert Schweitzer.
Granted, StO College is to be commended for greatly lowering its carbon footprint on its campus by the installation of windmills and solar panels and increased insulation in its buildings. While these changes are very helpful with respect to reducing carbon emissions, they were always wise for a financial reason – the payback time for these changes is now down to less than a decade, after which the power provided by them will be free of charge for at least a couple more decades.
So if StO college is promoting the use of carbon-free sources of energy for altruistic, and not just financial reasons, why then has it not divested its endowment funds from fossil fuel related businesses? This time, the answer appears to be related only to a financial concern. StO college undoubtedly receives significant donations from fossil-fuel-dependent industries and wants that source of income to continue. Ties such as these between colleges and industries are now so ubiquitous that participating colleges have become essentially integral parts of our all-powerful industrial complexes. For this reason, most colleges can now be just as appropriately described as being “business partners” as being independent “centers of intellectual thought”.
So yes, I think I understand why St. Olaf College is not interested in assuming a distinctly higher level of leadership in the world’s fight against global warming. But what has not been so clear to me, is “HOW” StO manages to maintain a semblance of moral rectitude and self-respect while it continues to promote programs and investments that absolutely and unequivocally result in the elevation of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in our atmosphere.
In communicating with President David Anderson of St. Olaf College, I have learned a bit about ‘HOW” StO tries to get away with the more hypocritical components of its climate change stances. Their plan seems to be based in the judicious “compartmentalization” of various elements of their program so that there is no one central person or even committee that is charged with deciding and defending their stance – in spite of its profound moral implications. At least I have not been able to find and communicate with that “center”. I will provide two examples that illustrate this operational scheme below.
The first example is how StO gets maximum PR in their own “war” against climate change by highlighting their impressive efforts to decarbonize their electrical needs on campus (this does not include the heating of their buildings which I assume is provided by the combustions of natural gas). As a result of these changes, StO claims to provide a uniquely low carbon footprint per student use of electricity. While these changes are to be commended for environmental reasons, it is also recognized that they are now financial “no brainers” with respect to long-term energy use. Nevertheless, the PR value of these upgrades in their physical plant, gives StO a useful leg up in defending their other exceedingly fossil fuel intensive activities such as their extensive studies abroad programs for both students and alumni.
My second example of StO’s compartmentalization of their response to climate change concerns my own attempt to communicate these concerns to the Board of Regents at StO. About one year ago, I unsuccessfully tried to get the following letter sent to ALL of the Board’s members.
March 18, 2016
To the members of the St. Olaf Board of Regents
My wife and I are St. Olaf graduates, Class of 1966 (50th Reunion this June). I spent my working years as a chemist and more specifically as an atmospheric chemist (my full resume can be seen at ericgrimsrud.org). Since retirement, I have been doing my best to bridge the wide gap of understanding that exists between our climate scientists and the general public. That is why I am writing to you now.
Since retirement from my day-time jobs, I have developed a web site in which I can relate and discuss my thoughts to and with many people in an efficient manner. One of my concerns is that even our nation’s colleges and universities don’t seem to realize how very badly we have already painted ourselves into a horrendous corner – one that our descendents will be paying for all too soon. Rather than going through all of my reasons for this in this letter, I will urge you to dial up my website, ericgrimsrud.org and read some of its posts.
In particular, I would encourage you to first read ‘The disconnect between modern climate science and St. Olaf College, for example’ which appeared in May of 2015. Also I would encourage you to read ‘Exxon Mobile continues to deceive’ posted in March 2016. And especially please have a look at ‘Why so little ethical guidance from academia?’ posted in February 2016. You might also find some of my other posts useful in assessing the gravity of the climate change problem and, more importantly, our inadequate responses to it so bluntly explained in ‘The tyranny of the contemporary’ posted in February 2016.
The problem of climate change has now moved well past the point where appropriate leadership is simply undertaking technical refinements on one’s campus in order to improve energy efficiency. Because we have waited far too long for action, we are now between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Much more strident leadership and immediate action are needed. The issue is now more a moral than technical one. As an example of such a leader, please have a look at the video I linked to in ‘StO, for example’ referred to above in which Dr. Kevin Anderson describes the challenge before us in clear and sobering terms.
So what might St. Olaf do about all of this? For starters please read some of my posts and its many links to related information. The answers are clear, if not attractive. Divesting from fossil fuel industries and reducing carbon footprints are great starters – the low-hanging fruit, that is, that we know for sure will work and can be done. Paying more attention to the Keeling Curve than the Dow Jones Average would be another good idea. If we fail in this, Geoengineering with all of its unknown and unintended consequences will be next – while our grandchildren will be wondering why we simply rode out the party when simple corrective actions were still possible.
Thanks for considering, Eric Grimsrud
In determining how to get my letter to all members of the Board, I asked President Anderson for help. He told me that while he could not provide me with each of their email or physical addresses, I should send my letter to him and he would forward it. I was then very disappointed to be informed by President Anderson that he would be forwarding my letter only to the investments adviser of the Board and not to the entire board. This disappointed me because the reasons for my objections to some of StO’s policies were based entirely on moral and not financial considerations. I would think that any decisions based on altruistic / moral reasons would have to be made by the entire Board and not by only one of its members. Furthermore, I would expect that the financial adviser who was sent my letter would feel responsible to advise the rest of the board only on the financial viability of any investment opportunity – a topic my letter did not address. I have received no feedback concerning the fate or impact, if any, of my letter even though the above letter was sent almost one year ago – leaving me to assume that it was simply ignored.
So that is my story concerning my attempt to get StO up to date with respect to what now needs to be done in order the prevent the worst aspects of future climate change. Overall, I have been very disappointed in this effort. Like so many other colleges, StO has learned to excel in “talking the talk” on climate change and in taking only those steps that would be financially beneficial anyway. They are not willing, however, to take the risks associated with taking the next, more difficult steps, such as divesting StO College from the fossil fuel industries and learning how to manage their special student and alumni programs in a manner that does not require the emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.
“Urgency” is the key word here – that StO does not seem to get yet. Mankind has painted itself into an extremely small corner with respect to its allowable future carbon emissions. That number is now commonly thought to be less than about 400 gigatons total while we are presently emitting about 10 gigatons of carbon per year. While our annual world-wide emissions are still increasing (yes, they have not even been leveled yet!), we must somehow bring them down to near zero in the next few decades. Is this “alarmist” talk? You bet it is, but is also the talk coming straight out of modern science. And StO does a great disservice to its students by not telling it like it is and not walking the entire walk.
Obviously, StO should not think its windmills should give it a “free pass” for its future omissions and, instead, should begin to act more responsibly with respect to the greatest challenge facing the world today. In short, its time to cut back on the deceptive PR, tear down those walls of compartmentalization, get connected to the best and latest science of climate change and for the good of your students, pay attention to the comment of Albert Schweitzer provided above.
It goes without saying that the problem illustrated in this post applies equally to most of the private colleges of the USA, including our first and still most influential, Harvard College of Boston. Thus, an important component of our society is not helping nearly as much as it should and, if it chose to, St. Olaf College could become a novel exception to this most unfortunate trend.