William K. Reilly, who served as Administrator of the EPA under George H. W. Bush and worked on the passage of the Clean Air Act, received an honorary doctorate degree from the School of Public affairs and spoke at its commencement ceremony on May 9th. Reilly is currently a prominent voice in environmental policy, as shown by his leading role in the Obama administration’s investigation into the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. His perspective on environmentalism, however, should be considered with careful regard to his current corporate ties. Reilly is a director at ConocoPhillips, a Fortune 500 energy exploration and production corporation, and until recently served as a director at DuPont, a leader in GMO production.
Reilly is a product of his time – the 1990’s-era environmental movement. Under the extreme free-market ideology still running rampant, many environmental groups (including the EPA) sought to reconcile the needs of corporations with the future of our planet. This was perhaps most telling in his comment praising Walmart for selling more sustainably-sourced produce. But the climate chaos that we face today is in many ways very different from the environmental issues of the past, given its sheer scientific urgency. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the UN says we must warm the planet by no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and yet the business-as-usual approach championed by Reilly puts us on a path far beyond safe atmospheric limits. And, as if we were not yet satisfied with our current levels of catastrophe, fossil fuel companies continue to tear the planet apart for more unconventional energy sources like tar sands. One of the world’s leading climate scientists, Dr. James Hansen, asserted that the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and future tar sands development projects would be “game over for the climate,” given how considerably dirtier these tar sands are compared with conventional oil and gas – a comment that Reilly casually shrugged off as mere pessimism.
But Hansen is not pessimistic. Climate activists today are the opposite of pessimistic – we are taking on one of the most powerful industries throughout history, and we expect to win. However, this does not mean we are not realistic. We know that climate change is not an easy political task. After all, think of states like Kentucky, Reilly says, that rely on coal for revenue. However difficult it might be for our government to act on climate, though, it is infinitely more difficult for the frontline communities already facing the impacts of a warming planet. Whether you look at disenfranchised and polluted communities forced to live down the road from a coal-fired power plant in the United States or the people of Kiribati losing their country to a rising ocean while simultaneously enduring intensifying storms, these individuals have it harder than Mitch McConnell will when he is forced to acknowledge the scientific reality of climate change. And their lives matter more than any political inconvenience that this reality demands. When talking about solutions to climate change, we have to be honest: there will be no win-win scenario. We would be delusional to look to the Exxons and Walmarts of the world to get us out of a problem that they not only helped create, but also profit from every day. In fact, we would be more ignorant than those who deny the existence of climate change if we expect solutions to come from its benefactors.
This level of global destruction and disregard for human rights has been disheartening and overwhelming, and climate chaos has quite literally taken the life out of powerful community organizers around the world. But we are not without options; we have the power to make change on this issue. The rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement has demonstrated a vigor that proves today’s environmental advocates are not a picture of pessimism. To take on the giant that is the fossil fuel industry is a daunting task, to be sure. But the science of this issue is clear, even if corporate politics are muddled by competing interests. Divestment is the tool we can use to call out these companies for the unabashed devastation they have caused around the globe. We do not seek to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry or to set our sights on unrealistic goals, but rather to make clear that this profit-driven degradation is not something our community will stand for any longer. The divestment movement is based in the reality of climate science, and we are calling on the leaders of our American University to recognize the urgency of facts and remember its commitment to social justice.