The University of Colorado this month provided a great lesson on the difficult question of how best to address climate change. It came not from the science or politics department but from the board of regents.
In case you missed it, students and faculty attended a public regents meeting on November 19 and called on the university to join the growing list of U.S. universities that are committing to divest from the fossil fuel industry. As some of the attendees surely knew, the city of Boulder, where the University of Colorado’s main campus is located, is one of many U.S. municipalities that have also committed to divest.
But members of the board pushed back. Republican from Grand Junction Glen Gallegos said divestment would cost Colorado jobs. Sedalia Republican Jim Geddes said he didn’t really believe in climate change. And Castle Rock Republican Sue Sharkey turned the spotlight onto the students.
“How did you get from Denver to Colorado Springs today?” Sharkey asked, waiting to hear that student Coby Wikselaar drove to the meeting in a gas-powered car. “It all starts at home,” Sharkey said. “There’s a screen up there. .. How much gasoline was used to get to this meeting that could’ve been saved by a presentation up there on that screen? I’m asking you to use those solutions yourselves.”
Last week, dispirited but unsurprised activists in Colorado circulated reports about the meeting. Environmental consultant Gary Wockner sent an email with a link to a Daily Camera story and included with mock pride this line about the university at the bottom: “My alma mater: MA ’89, PhD ’97.”
The main position taken up by the Republican board members — that making personal lifestyle changes is the way right now to tackle climate change — demonstrates how little they know about the topic. Choosing not to drive a gas-powered car and to put solar panels on your roof is great, but it has been beyond obvious for years that those things won’t create the kind of cuts to carbon emissions that will impact the warming climate. That’s why millions of people around the world are now demanding institutional change — where companies and towns and then whole industries and regions and nations shift to renewable power and move investments out of fossil fuel.
The CU regents at the meeting talked about personal responsibility even as they chose to turn responsibility away from themselves as institutional representatives and decision-makers, which is exactly the problem the global divestment movement has been organized to address.
Journalist-turned-climate-activist Bill McKibben wrote his first book about climate change 25 years ago and has written many more on the topic since. He has contributed to the nation’s top publications and he organized the climate march in New York this year that drew more than 300,000 people into the streets of Manhattan to demand action from people in positions of power. This is the answer he gave in 2013 when the CU Regent Sharkey-style question about his lifestyle and climate change was put to him:
“This is a systemic problem. It’s going to be solved or not solved by a systemic solution. It’s past the point where we’re going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time. The roof of my house is covered in solar panels. When I’m home, I’m a pretty green fellow. But I know that that’s not actually going to solve the problem.”
[Photo via CNTV of a boat stranded on the dried up Hanjiang riverbed in China’s Hubei Province, May 15, 2011.]