The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement: An Ethical Dilemma for the Geosciences?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Charles H Greene, Cornell University, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Ithaca, NY, United States and Daniel M Kammen, University of California Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy, Berkeley, CA, United States
For over 200 years, fossil fuels have been the basis for an industrial revolution that has delivered a level of prosperity to modern society unimaginable during the previous 5000 years of human civilization. However, society’s dependence on fossil fuels is coming to an end for two reasons. The first reason is because our fossil fuel reserves are running out, oil in this century, natural gas during the next century, and coal a few centuries later. The second reason is because fossil fuels are having a devastating impact on the habitability of our planet, disrupting our climate system and acidifying our oceans. So the question is not whether we will discontinue using fossil fuels, but rather whether we will stop using them before they do irreparable damage to the Earth’s life-support systems.

Within our geoscience community, climate scientists have determined that a majority of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if dangerous climate change and ocean acidification are to be avoided. In contrast, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and other members of the fossil fuel industry are pursuing a business model that assumes all of their reserves will be burned and will not become stranded assets. Since the geosciences have had a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the fossil fuel industry, this inherent conflict between climate science and industrial interests presents an ethical dilemma for many geoscientists. This conflict is further heightened by the fossil fuel divestment movement, which is underway at over 400 college and university campuses around the world. This presentation will explore some of the ethical and financial issues being raised by the divestment movement from a geoscientist’s perspective.