On the inaugural Earth Day, Americans flooded streets and college campuses to channel their fears, desire, hopes and longings into their vision for a better future. All these years later, we have failed to heed their call.
This Monday, two days before Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, oil futures went negative for the first time in history. Buyers were so eager to offload oil commitments that they were willing to give their crude away at cost. This crash only emphasizes the inherent instability of the carbon economy and the need to create a more stable future. We need to disentangle our society from fossil fuels and let the industry die.
Right now, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and a climate emergency, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do so: a unique financial imperative to push for the systemic change necessary to protect our planet and our communities.
For decades, fossil fuel companies have been burning through carbon reserves at the expense of everyday consumers. Propped up by profit-centric public officials and greedy Wall Street financiers, they have thrived even as their primary product is an unparalleled moral and financial hazard. Now, as Covid-19 shocks the world into realizing the depth of its addiction to oil, we are seeing just how destabilizing this reliance on fossil fuels is.
Take Harvard University, which despite boasting a pre-pandemic endowment of more than $40bn, has turned in recent weeks to playing austerity politics: enacting hiring freezes, declining to meet the broader community’s requests for aid and refusing to guarantee pay for some workers. Harvard’s excuse for this behavior? That market losses have significantly shrunk its holdings, creating, in Harvard president Larry Bacow’s words, “less capacity to support our existing operations”.
This pressure is in no small part due to its unsustainable investments: rough calculations suggest that Harvard may have lost $700m through its fossil fuel holdings alone. This is merely a symptom of broader institutional ties, including a trustee who also serves as Exxon’s top lawyer.
For years, economists have warned of how the carbon bubble‘s rupture might take much of the economy along with it. What we’re seeing now is a preview of what that will look like. Broad societal entanglements with the fossil fuel industry make crashes like this all the more dangerous, and if even the richest and most powerful institutions are paying the price, imagine what the consequences are for those without a multibillion-dollar endowment to fall back on.
It’s clear that we need to end the fossil fuel economy, and replace it with one that is built with environmental sustainability and social equity as foundational principles. Achieving this goal demands the innovation and leadership of our educational, governmental, and financial institutions.
At this critical juncture in history, the fossil fuel industry is mobilizing to remain part of our social fabric long into the future. Either we give it the bailouts, corporate welfare and investment it needs to continue business or as usual, or we seize this moment to craft a better future.
If we’re going to overcome powerful special interests and achieve serious climate action, we must let the fossil fuel industry die now. The call to action is clear: to all of our elected officials, bail out people rather than big oil. And to our institutions of financial power, from higher education to Wall Street, invest in a just and stable future rather than the industry destroying our planet.
On Monday, the oil was practically begging to be left in the ground – let’s leave it there, buried, along with our societal dependence on fossil fuels. Let’s make the 50th anniversary of Earth Day the day we commit ourselves to a more just and stable system, and never look back.
Ilana Cohen, Connor Chung and Joseph Winters are organizers with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard