Alumni perspective: Why I support the Brookings sit-in

Todd Zimmer | Class of 2010

On April 30, the United Nation’s International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the best available scientific report on global warming and the likely consequences of continued carbon pollution. Based on 12,000 peer-reviewed studies, the IPCC’s report describes a terrifying future where dramatic climatic warming brings about “breakdown of food systems,” severe shortages in drinking and irrigation water, massive flooding and social violence. Most importantly, the IPCC’s report stressed that decisions being made now will have a massive impact on the severity of climate change’s impacts. Without immediate and dramatic action to curb emissions, the report warns, the harms of global warming could spiral “out of control,” past the point where human action could avert catastrophe. In order to prevent such a scenario, the top UN climate official warned, “three quarters of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.”

Greg Boyce, a member of the board at Washington University in St. Louis, disagrees with the global scientific community; he thinks what the world needs to burn much, much more coal. As CEO of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, Boyce may have the largest carbon footprint of any living private citizen (coal-fired power is the single largest source of global-climate-changing emissions). According to Boyce, climate change isn’t a problem. “For too long,” says Boyce, “we’ve been focused on the wrong priorities…the greatest crisis we confront is not an environmental crisis.” Instead, Peabody Energy has determined that inadequate access to energy is “the world’s number one human and environmental crisis,” and Boyce has hired the world’s largest PR company to cast Peabody Energy as a kind of international aid organization that trots around the globe benevolently building coal plants for the world’s poor (according to the Guardian, Peabody’s public relations consultant is infamous for serving “governments with poor human rights records and corporations in trouble”; its former clients include the tobacco industry). We are asked to presume that Peabody’s huge advertising budget reflects primarily Boyce’s zeal for serving the global poor and ignore the fact that a “more coal ASAP” policy is enormously for Peabody. Never mind that, according to the IPCC, building more coal infrastructure will cook the planet, create new “hotspots” of poverty and hunger, and increase the gaps between rich and poor. Boyce and his mouthpieces, like Washington University’s Chancellor Mark Wrighton, are hoping that we will choke down their inevitable argument about global coal expansion if they slather it with phony smarm about caring for vulnerable populations (you should be able to watch Wrighton recite his lines this week). Do you really believe that Greg Boyce’s coal expansion dreams are motivated by empathy instead of a desire to lock in profitable coal infrastructure before carbon regulations set in?

Speaking of carbon regulations, Greg Boyce and Peabody Energy are explicitly against them. On Peabody’s website, you can find a toolkit replete with anti-Environmental Protection Agency talking points alleging that carbon regulations will have “no impact” on climate change and brilliantly observing that U.S. coal contributes “only a fraction” of global emissions (in 2010, coal-fired power contributed 28.3 percent of U.S. carbon emissions in a country with the highest per-capita carbon totals). Under Greg Boyce, Peabody is not only pushing for suicidal investments in new coal infrastructure, the company is actively campaigning against any government action that would begin to constrain carbon pollution. Shamefully, Boyce has been able to purchase Washington University’s academic integrity in order to advance his deadly farce. For $5 million from Peabody Energy (with matching grants from Arch Coal and Ameren), Washington University has been willing to lend its academic credibility to the misleading advertising slogan “clean coal,” a misnomer for carbon capture and sequestration technologies that don’t exist. In a September 2013 press release, Peabody Energy obliquely referred to Washington University’s research into carbon capture technology as a justification for opposing common-sense carbon regulations. Peabody Energy argued coal’s carbon emissions should not be regulated until pie-in-the-sky carbon capture technologies are available, even while admitting that these options are “simply not commercially available and not able to satisfy America’s need.” With this cynical ploy, Greg Boyce’s exploitation of our university reached a new, shameful low.

Simply put, Peabody Energy is a rogue corporation bent on undermining science, damaging the climate past the point of no return and blocking meaningful action that could avert climate catastrophe. Maintaining Gregory Boyce as a member of the University’s board is beyond the pale, and continuing to associate with Peabody Energy is unconscionable for Washington University. Clearly, Peabody Energy is beyond reform, but Washington University in St. Louis may not be. Boyce has only been member of our board since 2009 (back when Peabody successfully conspired to defeat an early climate bill). Students at the Brookings sit-in understand that their action won’t solve climate change, but they are telling the truth: Greg Boyce is undeserving of reward or recognition for his criminal behavior. Through their action, students are taking a stand against what amounts to a university-sanctioned war on ecology and society by Greg Boyce and Peabody Energy. The students have drawn a bright moral line, which means neutrality is no longer an option at Washington University. Do you stand with the students or with the CEO of Peabody Energy, Greg Boyce?