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Yes, we too can profit by killing the planet because… we’re Harvard

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Gary Horvitz, an activist working on 350.org’s divestment campaign in the US, looks at why Harvard University is so seemingly reluctant to ditch its investments in the fossil fuel industry.

On October 3, Harvard president Drew Faust issued a letter detailing why Harvard will not be divesting from fossil fuels. The letter is a litany of the familiar objections raised by financial institutions and endowments to the idea of divestment: that seeking social ends will cost them money; that divestment reduces their investment options; that, rather than ostracise them, they prefer engagement with fossil fuel companies to “encourage them to become a positive force.”

But Faust also breaks new ground with a novel rhetorical contortion by claiming Harvard will not be divesting because of… academic freedom! She implies that divestment would violate their donors’ intentions to “advance academic aims” (it was their idea to invest in Exxon Mobil); that directly profiting from fossil fuel development is essential to their “independence”; and that divestment would sully the academic purity of the institution, which it apparently prides above all else, including an opportunity to demonstrate profound and far-reaching moral leadership.

Click here to read The Guide to Climate Change 2013

Presumably, being evenhanded in its investments has become part of Harvard’s standard of being evenhanded in its academic pursuits—which, in the face of an unfolding major extinction event, looks suspiciously like clinging to an increasingly obsolete definition of fiduciary responsibility trumpeted by Wall Street since the 50s that regards any consideration of morality or the common good as a fool’s errand.

Faust declines to permit the endowment to become anything other than an “economic resource” or to be drawn into leveraging it for social purposes, as i f— by holding fossil fuel investments — it is not already so.

With the fabric of the biosphere under strain and life support systems at risk, there is no longer any such thing as neutral investing.  That’s the unique thing about climate change. No one gets to stand unaffected on the sidelines — except maybe Harvard?

She also raises the objection that divestment limits investment options and reduces returns.  That might be true if there weren’t alternative energy investment options. As it is, fossil fuel investments probably occupy less than 5% of the entire endowment and it’s already been shown by a number of models (herehere, and here) that the risk to overall returns is minute to non-existent.

Aside from the academic freedom argument, what about that engagement strategy? Between 2008 and 2010, there were more than 200 proxy initiatives by shareholders on sustainability issues. Forty-eight per cent of those were withdrawn because the targeted companies promised to address these concerns, which they did in 80% of cases. So in response to 230 initiatives, 38% were successful.

Was Harvard a party to any of those shareholder initiatives? In 2011, Ceres and Green Century Capital Management filed shareholder resolutions with oil and gas companies pressing for reduced methane emissions, recycling of wastewater and for the elimination of superfluous fracking additives. Was Harvard a party to any of these actions? No.

In 2013, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, representing 34 investor groups with billions under management, filed 180 shareholder resolutions with 127 companies pressing environmental, social and governance issues including accelerated investment in renewable energy. Was Harvard a signatory to any of these? No.

In fact, Chevron has abandoned research in renewable energy because it simply isn’t profitable enough for them. BP and ConocoPhillips have sold off their interests in renewable energy.

Ever since 2004, the major oil companies, Exxon, Chevron, Anadarko, Marathon and others, have been the targets of shareholder actions that have gained significant support (in excess of 25%) for greater transparency with regard to climate risk, greenhouse gas emissions and Kyoto targets. Yet these companies are only now beginning to deal with climate change as a reality while they continue to lobby against new climate legislation and drag their feet on complying with existing legislation.

Most recently, they are being pressed to publicly address the issue of stranded assets and the global carbon budget supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would mean they will have to leave up to 75% of their reserves in the ground. Can we expect Harvard to engage on these issues? How will the Harvard Management Company turn fossil fuel companies into a “positive force” by engagement?

Faust provides a list of the many good deeds performed by Harvard in climate research, technological innovation and social design, implying that some of these efforts are at least partially funded by investments in fossil fuels. Yet she also implies that because we are the ones dependent on the use of non-renewable energy for our culture and livelihoods, that a campaign to remove the social legitimacy of the suppliers of that energy is somehow misdirected.

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has been completely integral to manufacturing, urban design and transportation systems. They are completely integral to the creation and promotion of the consumer culture of individualism and the barely restrained debasement of nature known as the American Dream.

It is no accident that we are addicted to oil, that funds for mass transit systems meet political resistance, that policy initiatives are bogged down, that anti-pollution laws are met with foot-dragging and legal challenges, that worldwide annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry remain in the neighborhood of $1 trillion, that decentralised power systems are resisted by monopolistic utilities and that autos are only now breaking mileage barriers that could easily have been breached decades ago.

The footprint of petroleum and coal, with campaign contributions, lobbying, astro-turfing, scientific obfuscation and tax resistance, is everywhere. Yet somehow, Drew Faust believes we are the ones who should kick the habit, leaving the pushers to continue untouched.

Harvard’s intentions and accomplishments regarding climate change do not exempt it from scrutiny or responsibility. It has recruited a new VP of sustainable investing from the largest public pension fund in the country. It is creating a ‘social choice fund‘ for future donors to the endowment to designate their contributions. However, past donors must apparently remain mingled with the “no choice” funds.

Yet the Harvard endowment, surrounded as it is by progressive non-profits who have for years been vigorously pushing the sustainable investing agenda such as the Tellus Institute, the Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk, not to mention its own business school and the Harvard Initiative for Responsible Investment, has decided that while it must get up to speed, it is not ready to lead.

Regarding climate change as an urgent global challenge while overlooking how the major fossil fuel companies continue to deepen that challenge does require some logical gymnastics and stands in the way of fully integrating the critical moral and financial issues. If the mayors of a dozen cities can get it right; if municipal water boards, community colleges, universities and national religious institutions can get it right, maybe Harvard can get it right, too. Just not yet.

Gary Horvitz is an activist and volunteer working on the California divestment campaign for 350.org.

Further reading:

Fossil fuel divestment is neither ‘warranted or wise’, says Harvard president

Students criticise Harvard’s ‘false neutrality’ over fossil fuel divestment

Fighting climate change is a moral obligation, Seattle mayor tells Harvard president

Students, universities and fossil fuels: divestment campaign comes to UK

The Guide to Climate Change 2013

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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