This past Tuesday, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben stood before a crowd of 600 people at Cooper Union’s Grand Hall, urging them to confront universities about divesting from fossil fuel companies. His organization, 350.org, is devoted to finding tangible, strategic and systematic ways to restrict the powers of big oil companies from perpetuating the grave problem of climate change.
Young high school students, New York City college students and doctoral students filled the room. There were baby boomers, too. Even their parents were there. Everyone sat wide-eyed and hopeful — hopeful, but scared.
Scared because the facts about climate change are indisputable; scared because humans have had the power to alter Earth’s atmosphere; scared that we have melted the arctic; scared that our oceans are made up of 30 percent more acid; scared that our air holds more vapor than ever; scared that this year, our hottest year ever, has broken the record by one whole degree.
McKibben presented three numbers to the audience on Tuesday. These numbers come from his Rolling Stone article from this past July, which became the basis for his Do The Math campaign that toured the country last fall. They are as follows:
2: Officials at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference deemed that 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, is the limit that our global temperature can rise without creating an uninhabitable environment. Scientists, on the other hand, say this is an exaggeration.
565: 565 gigatons of carbon are allowed to burn by the year 2050 in order to stay under the 2-degree limit.
2,795: Fossil fuel companies have 2,795 gigatons of carbon underground, ready to be burned at their discretion. McKibben said this is roughly five times the aforementioned limit. These gigatons are worth about $27 trillion.
This final point is jarring. According to McKibben, if we do not stop this, we are looking at a 4 to 5 degree Celsius rise this century. If you are scared, you should be. But remember: If we have the power to destroy our Earth, we also have the power to fix it.
At NYU and more than 200 universities across the nation, students, faculty and staff have come together to urge the university to invest in sustainable, renewable resources instead of fossil fuels. NYU Divest’s goals, as stated by their website, include “immediately [freezing] any new investment in fossil fuel companies. [And divesting] from the top 200 publicly traded and government owned fossil companies — which hold the vast majority of the world’s proven coal, oil and gas reserves — including direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.” This means that NYU, an institution that boasts fine environmental and sustainability programs, must let go of the investments that contradict any and every green movement it promotes.
With the power of the masses, perhaps we can tighten the reins on these financial leaders. If we can urge our university to withdraw its investments from big oil companies, we have made a step towards progress. Already a handful of schools have divested. If NYU wants to maintain its eco-friendly image and compete as a leading green university, it too must divest. Without our Earth, what value is our education after all? As students, we must realize that our Earth comes first. This is not just another passing green fad. This is a fact. This is math.
Jaime Mishkin is a contributing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.