Feeling the Heat

Student Davids Take on a Business-Led Global Warming Goliath

The world’s scientists have reached a nearly unanimous consensus that the surface of the Earth is warming as a result of human activities. With strongly affirmative voices from respected bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group of skeptics in the scientific community has now dwindled to a tiny handful. At last November’s Columbia University State of the Planet Conference, James Hansen, head of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, declared the scientific debate over. “Global warming,” he said, “is now a social sciences problem. Policy makers will determine the future degree of warming by determining greenhouse gas emissions.”

Yet U.S. policy makers and the public remain sharply divided on global warming. The belief that it isn’t happening, that it’s occurring naturally, or that it isn’t a serious problem, is still widespread. Much of this confusion can be attributed to the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a powerful association of energy industries whose objective is to stall enforceable action. The GCC, which includes giants like Exxon and Chevron, has spent millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying campaigns to convince policy makers, the public and the media that there is little scientific rationale for an emissions reduction policy.

GCC’s work focuses on opposing the Kyoto Protocol, an international emissions reduction treaty that was signed by President Clinton but has yet to clear the Senate. GCC has been effective, but its efforts are starting to wane, thanks to the endeavors of a student movement, Cool the Planet, that went national last year. The group’s activists are working to ensure that the GCC melts away before the polar ice caps do. Launched by Washington, D.C. nonprofit Ozone Action, Cool the Planet attacks GCC’s member corporations where they’re most vulnerable: in their bank accounts.

“Cool the Planet uses the strategy of university divestment, a tactic that proved effective in ending apartheid 10 years ago,” explains Brandon MacGillis, Ozone Action’s campaign director. “The idea is that students petition their student governments, asking that the companies the university has invested in withdraw from the GCC. If the companies refuse, the university pulls its investments.”

Although Ozone Action provides the students with information, and other groups like Free the Planet provide training, MacGillis insists that the students run their own campaigns. “They know what works best on their campuses,” he says.

MacGillis was surprised at how quickly the campaign took off. After meeting with enthusiasm from students and faculty at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington last spring, the campaign has expanded to 26 universities across the U.S. Ten of these schools have already passed resolutions through their student senates.

The University of Washington (UW) has been at the forefront of the movement. After passing resolutions through both undergraduate and graduate senates, students held a rally and sent postcards to their Board of Regents. They also used donated cell phones to call the board members nonstop for an entire day to emphasize their concern over the issue. Finally, despite an appeal from the GCC, the board agreed to begin a letter-writing campaign urging all companies it invests in to stop funding the coalition. The board will pull its investments only if the companies do not respond to its letters and proxy statements introduced at shareholder meetings.

Ingrid Chapman, an organizer with UW’s Cool the Planet campaign, explains that much of that campaign’s success is owed to faculty support. “As we were drafting our resolutions, we contacted professors from the chemistry and atmospheric science departments to back us up. The professors were really enthusiastic. Scientists don’t usually get political, but many of the faculty scientists at our school were so outraged to see their work attacked by industry that they were happy to help. Fifty three professors signed a statement saying that global warming is a human-induced problem that needs to be confronted.”

UW chemistry professor Richard Gammon says he’s personally angered by GCC’s distortions. “The consensus among scientists that global warming is occurring as a result of human activities is something like 99 to 1,” he says, “and that one skeptic is almost always sponsored by industry. It gives the false impression that the issue hasn’t been settled. The major thing blocking significant steps toward curbing global warming is the multi-million dollar campaigns waged by GCC and its members to confuse the public and elected officials.”

GCC spokesman Frank Masiano says he’s familiar with the growing student movement. He even concedes that “global warming is a serious issue,” but that doesn’t mean GCC is backing down. “We don’t need scare tactics,” he says, “and we don’t need arbitrary mandates like the Kyoto protocol.” Masiano repeats GCC’s standard position: that the science of global warming is uncertain, and that the federal government should work with industry on a voluntary basis until more information becomes available. “We need a common-sense approach,” he says. “Otherwise we risk the entire economy, and we may not be able to keep the world from falling into an economic downturn.”

But some industry leaders are beginning to disagree. In what students hailed as their first major victory, Ford Motor Company announced last December that it would stop funding the GCC. Cool the Planet’s role in that decision is unclear, but Ford held informal talks with the group prior to the decision. Ford’s environmental communications spokesperson, Terry Bresnihan, also expressed concern about the growing controversy. Ford is the first automobile manufacturer to admit that global warming is a serious problem, and the largest American company to drop out of the GCC.

Further encouragement for the activists comes from petroleum giant BP/Amoco, which, along with Shell Oil, dropped out of the GCC in 1998, citing “irreconcilable differences.” “Our company takes a different view of the issue,” says a BP/Amoco spokesperson, who asked not to be identified. “We feel that conserving resources, reducing emissions and investing in renewable energy will benefit us financially as well as ecologically.” As for the GCC, he says, “Frankly, I don’t think you’ll see that group around for too much longer.”