Leaving fossil fuel behind prematurely; a response to Fergus Green’s blog about Birkbeck’s decision to adopt Fossil Free Careers
In this blog post, Fergus Green took the opportunity to celebrate Birkbeck’s announcement that it adopts Fossil Free Career events and opportunities for its students. The author demonstrates the significance of the move by arguing that such a decision is ethical and serves the interests of the students.
The author strongly believes in ‘the devastating consequences of global heating’ and reminds the audience that ‘[they] have been unfolding for some time.’ Global heating (or warming as it is better known) received attention in the early ‘00s when former US Vice President Al Gore launched a large-scale campaign to inform the public that they should reduce greenhouse gases as a matter of emergency because humanity was facing a true planetary emergency. However, none of the devastating scenarios has materialised yet. Fifteen years later, even Al Gore appears unconvinced about the real urgency or the catastrophic consequences of climate change and seems unsure of the time frame of the disaster.
At this stage, the reader is surely wondering what scientific data tells us. It depends on who answers the question and how available data are interpreted. NASA announced that 2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880 only if you ignore that El Niño (a well-known warming phenomenon) was not in effect for most of the same year or, if you fiddle with the baseline period, as NOAA, another agency, did. The American Geophysical Union presented a study in the same year showing that the surface temperatures recorded by NASA/NOAA are significantly higher than the real temperature leading to an overestimation of the real effect. For the well-intended person, all this could be a reasonable scientific debate if concerns about fraudulent behaviour in relation to data manipulation had not been raised (here, here and here). More broadly, looking at natural disasters, which are often taken as a measurement of climate change, it is easy to show that it is unclear whether there is an upwards trend in the frequency or significant impact from them.
In short, and despite the publicity, the current state of the matter is that science is not able to provide reliable, valid and trustworthy data to establish whether there is permanent and catastrophic climate change (which is a misnomer, in any case) let alone pinpoint a single factor like carbon emissions or fossil fuel as the culprit.
There is no doubt that fossil fuel generates by-products that affect the environment and the health of people. Scientists have been aware of this for more than 40 years. The author of the initial blog is adamant that ‘the fossil fuel industry bears enormous historic responsibility for bringing us here’ making the reader consider what this ‘here’ really represents. For the author, it is the impact on the environment. For the average person, it is the overall human well-being. A deeper look at the total fossil fuel production per country shows that the top-10 list features most of the developed countries in the world like the USA, Canada and Australia. It has, also, been shown that rich countries that enjoy high standards of living produce high levels of emissions and poor countries with low levels of emission suffer from poor standards of living. There are, of course, exceptions but this is the reality for most countries and their societies.
Well-being is tightly linked to employment. The fossil fuels sector is an important source of employment across the world with estimates reaching a few million employees worldwide. In many countries, this is the only industry to work in and, in other areas, fossil fuel jobs offer higher salaries, support to the local economy, provide better career prospects and longevity than most jobs. The intention here is not to glorify the fossil fuel companies but to emphasise the significant role the industry plays in everyone’s life and how tightly connected it is with human well-being.
All alternative solutions (renewable sources, nuclear power) lead to a mechanism that repeats the cycle of production and storage of energy and conversion to electricity. This technology is novel, inefficient and still premature at large with serious technological challenges. The word wide infrastructure is, also, inefficient to guarantee wide-spread accessibility as there are regions on the planet where less than 50% of the population has access to electricity. The good news is that there is a lot of activity and research in the field but the bad news for now is that most of them are carried out by entrepreneurs, start-up companies and research centres. In other words, all alternatives to fossil fuels are at experimental stage and will, most likely, take 25-30 years (or, one or two generations) to reach a stable commercialisation phase.
In light of the above, it is hard to understand why Birkbeck and other Universities have taken the view that it is in students’ best interest to divert them from working in a mature and, slowly, declining industry (that, most likely, will be around for at least one generation) and invest their expectations and lives on a new and, more slowly, ascending industry with a high probability of firm death and job loss. It is like suggesting that finance students should not work in investment banking because investment firms have been using tax heavens and, instead, they should only work in cryptocurrency start-ups.
In the employability arena, it is very common to encourage students to work in innovative companies. This is what happened with challenger banks when they had a stand next to traditional banks at career fairs. What is different this time is that Birkbeck has banned fossil fuel companies from career fairs excluding students from an opportunity. It is naïve to believe that students will stay away from such companies because they are not present at a career fair organised by a university. It is even more naïve to believe that international students from South-East Asia or from Africa will appreciate a university that provides employment opportunities without any value back home where the biggest employer may be a coil factory or an oil company.
It is true that societies should reconsider the extent and use of fossil fuels and embrace more efficient technologies that respect the environment. However, we need to realise that these technologies are not able to allow a smooth transition yet and universities should genuinely think about how they should balance their decisions to move to this space. In higher education, we should not deprive students of opportunities but open more for them. This is the duty of care we have.
Full Disclosure: I tried to publish this post on HEPI. The editors were very welcoming at the beginning but after they received it, they told me that there is a backlog of blog posts and it will take a while before they publish it. I inquired when they think they will find a slot but they never replied. I suppose this article is not politically correct and HEPI does not really offer a platform for voices with alternative views. First WonkHE, now HEPI. All well and good.