Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 16, 2021

We must get better at discussing our most important problem

The relentless greenhouse gas warming of our planet is clearly the most important problem facing us today.  No other issue comes close in its importance.  One of the main reasons why it has us in dire straits today is that the problem has been largely ignored in the past and still is today in many quarters. The science behind global warming is clear, however. And, if not attended to in a prompt manner, it will change our planet so much – even within the current 21st century – that we will never have the opportunity to address it or any other issue again.

Thus, it should be clear that we have no viable options available to us other than to do our very best to resist the further advance of this global malady. Giving up and resigning ourselves to acceptance of whatever happens is not an option – that is akin to suicide on a species level. Those of us that are alive today have a shot at reducing the worst impacts of warming to the point where survival might be possible for many and possibly even most.  And please don’t buy into the latest message from the fossil fuel industries that it is too late to do anything about it.  We still have a chance of turning things around.

So yes, indeed, we as a species are presently in very big trouble and my apologies go out to any of you who don’t know or want to accept that fact yet. Perhaps one of the main reasons why so many of us do not know about or accept our present tenuous state is because so many of us who are in positions of leadership or public influence find the subject very difficult to accept as a possibility and do not want to talk about it in an open and honest manner. This common preference to “see no evil” in this instance is one of the most unfortunate side effects of this daunting problem and I have repeatedly observed it in many of our companions whose children and grandchildren will be just as affected by future warming as mine. 

I have found that the automatic freeze-up of our minds that occurs when this subject is brought up in polite company causes otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people to behave in illogical, irresponsible manners. An example of this is provided below in which the setting is a well respected college – a place where open and honest discussions of the world’s biggest problem should occur on a regular basis.  

Over the last few years, I have tried to engage the President and Board of Regents of my alma mater, St. Olaf College in Northfield Minnesota, in a conversation concerning the divestment of that college’s endowment funds from fossil fuel industries. In the process, I have also tried to learn more about the reasons for their point of view which typically go against the grain of our best science on this subject. The college responses have generally been of a narrow financial nature and included very little about the obvious ethical questions that should arise when assessing activities that are sure to cause great damage to mankind’s welfare in the future. The responses of the college’s leadership generally imply that they think it is not their responsibility to support or not support issues that that lie within the domain of governmental politics. Their responses also suggest that their own obligations to the global warming problem are being satisfactorily met by the fact that their college facilities now include sources of renewable energy (wind and solar) that provide the electrical needs of their campus. They do not discuss, however, other popular programs of the college that involve distinctly high carbon footprints – such as their studies abroad and travel programs which they are doing their best to increase via their promotional literature.  

While their efforts to provide the electrical needs of their campus by renewables is a good start that many home owners, including me, have also taken, I don’t believe that it excuses either the colleges or home owners from doing much more than that.  The world needs to bring all of its greenhouse gas emissions to near zero in the next few decades. What is currently missing from our colleges and universities is strong leadership and the promotion of more open and honest discussions of the total global warming problem – that include the ethical as well as financial aspects of the problem. Our educational institutions are well poised for undertaking that task.   

The ethical questions I have put to my alma mater would seem to be obvious and fair enough and the subject is exceedingly important. And, I have had a hard time believing that these college representatives don’t also recognize the ethical aspects of the issue which they refuse to discuss.  As leaders of academic institutions, these individuals should be promoting open discussions of all aspects of this issue including those of an ethical nature.      

It is my understanding that many colleges and universities of the USA took strong ethical stances against South African companies associated with the apartheid policies in the latter part of the 20th century.  If those stances were based on perceived injustices to the non-white populations of that country, why would we then encourage similar injustices being perpetrated on all future generations by our continued investments in fossil fuels? Is this because the administrations of today’s colleges and universities don’t see these injustices being done today to future residences of Earth or is it because they think that injustices based on racial differences require correction while those based on intergenerational differences do not?

My own conclusion regarding the question of divestments from fossil fuel industries by our educational institutions is that the ethical aspects of the decision should be determining factors when the underlying science is clear. Therefore, discussions of those ethical questions should be promoted by the colleges and universities, rather than discouraged as they now often seem to be – even though open discussions of our ethical responsibilities might lead to recommendations concerning institutional investments that are the opposite of those taken by the President and the Board of Regents. Sadly, free and open discussions of the type I am advocating presently appear to be discouraged on the campus of my alma mater and that of other colleges (read about similar events at Harvard University, for example, on my post of June 29, 2016) because the financial preferences of the college’s financial managers are overriding the ethical aspects of the issue that might be of greater concern to the wider campus community.  


  1. Interesting Eric, as you point out, to the nature of our dealing with problems like the racism of Apartheid , and the double standards that we rationalize as ethical, supposedly for the common good, of people and institutions. But Climate Change is an even larger foe and if it’s not acted upon , none of these other problems will matter, because the earth as we have know it won’t be able to sustain a livable environment. I hope we all become , as they say “ woke” and use these broken examples of short- term ,failed solutions ,to guide us before we run out of time!!

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