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Jim Oldham: Listen to students: take action on climate

Underreported in the media, ignored by our political “leaders,” news about climate change just gets worse. The increased frequency of extreme weather — most recently Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Bopha — has begun with temperatures just 0.8°C above preindustrial levels. Now some very mainstream organizations are predicting that temperatures this century will likely rise significantly higher than the 2°C often considered the maximum before huge impacts on human society and nature become unavoidable.

A recent World Bank study warns that even if all current pledges for emissions cuts are met, we are “on a trajectory for a global mean warming of well over 3°C,” leading to a meter of sea- level rise by 2100, more severe heat waves and extinction of many coral reef ecosystems, among other impacts.

The International Energy Agency provided a similar analysis, while pointing out that the world’s nations aren’t even meeting their climate goals. A November report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers is still more pessimistic, stating: “(T)he world economy now needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 5.1 percent every year to 2050 to have a fair chance of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation.”

The authors state that “even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with six degrees of warming by the end of the century.”

A six degree rise is unthinkable, intolerable — yet apparently quite possible. It means our children and grandchildren face a future of mass extinctions with large parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable.

The report makes clear that “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions… (and) much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.” Sadly, as the recent Doha climate summit underlined, political leaders remain unwilling to act.

In this bleak picture, one ray of hope is the leadership of students pushing for needed action.

Inspired by organizations like 350.org and one another, campus groups around the country are calling their colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuels. Gofossilfree.org lists close to 200 campus campaigns in this nascent movement.

Locally, students at all Five Colleges have been calling for divestment, with a Climate Action Now conference in September, coinciding with a talk by Bill McKibben, and a rally on the Amherst Common this month. Hampshire College, ahead of the curve, reports that its policy to align investments with values of social responsibility and sustainability, adopted last year, has led to investments in renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, proving that institutions can invest in ways consistent with their mission.

Next semester will bring further student organizing, and hopefully quick positive results. More college and university trustees need to join Hampshire, and Unity College of Maine, which voted in November to divest, in realizing that, as Hampshire President Jonathan Lash put it, educators’ “business … is to invest in the future.”

Divestment is a political strategy as much as an economic one. The intent, Jamie Henn of 350.org explains, is “to erode the social license of the fossil fuel industry, weakening its political power in Washington, D.C. and opening up the space for bold climate legislation.”

As one of the signs at the recent rally on the common put it, “Climate change is subsidized; it’s time for us to mobilize.”

When colleges and universities, followed by pension funds and municipalities, divest from fossil fuels, this can provide the social underpinning for the laws needed to keep underground the reserves that will otherwise kill our world.

As we celebrate the winter holidays of our various traditions, and prepare to welcome a new year, there is no better way to express hope and care for the future than to add our voices to those of the students and redouble our efforts to save our planet.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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