Op-ed: Academic expertise or coal money?
Richard Axelbaum’s article—“Idea of 100 percent renewable energy isn’t feasible”—was a concerning article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Nov. 14, 2017. It was particularly concerning because, as the director of Washington University’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU), Axelbaum failed to disclose a glaring conflict of interest. Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Ameren, as prominent sponsors of the CCCU, are all heavily invested in the continued use of coal, as is Axelbaum, who has written multiple times about its “reliability.”
The coal industry wants to be seen as relevant in a changing world: If they can convince the public that coal, dirty from cradle to grave, can be made “clean,” they will continue to profit while others push for real climate solutions. Now, the industry can write as many op-eds as it likes to further that agenda, but these motivations must be disclosed. Hiding behind the prestige of a research institution is a gross misuse of Wash. U.’s platform, which Fossil Free WashU will not stand for.
The same fossil fuel interests seek to represent energy policy beyond St. Louis on the world stage, similarly cloaked in language of “climate mitigation.” As the only country in the world refusing to implement the Paris Accords, the White House’s only public programming at Conference Of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Convention on Climate Change hosted a panel of fossil fuel executives. Peabody Coal, alongside natural gas and nuclear companies, was chosen to represent the U.S.’s energy interests, while a federal energy policy advisor insisted that coal needed a “level playing field.” While fossil fuel companies sell polluting energy as “clean” from the halls of our universities to international forums, frontline communities must fight for their voices to be heard. Some joined the U.S. People’s Delegation to disrupt the event, refusing to be represented by the fossil fuel industry. They declared, as St. Louis has, that we can still move forward with a progressive, equitable and renewable agenda. Fortunately, the international community has effectively ignored White House and corporate efforts to stall innovative policy change. Negotiations have moved forward with business as usual. Just as the fossil fuel industry can’t represent the values of the U.S., fossil fuel interests at Wash. U. don’t represent the interests of the entire University, even if they have the power to present themselves in such a way. This is why it’s critical that students and faculty speak out—corporations do not, and cannot, represent our collective knowledge.
Nor can Axelbaum, backed by these corporations, speak for those communities, in America or across the world, who face the highest stakes from climate change or the deadliest impacts from coal. They claim renewable technology isn’t ready, and that resources aren’t sufficient, yet promote in daily work and funding an expensive process to attempt to reduce coal emissions, all while completely ignoring its extraction. Axelbaum writes that any 100 percent renewable target is a “tragedy” which “misleads and misdirects the public,” while claiming that coal can be “clean.” It is irresponsible to ignore the devastating impacts that coal extraction has on many communities in our region, while insinuating that renewable infrastructure is a great burden upon society. Debates about how we will achieve total renewable energy are important, but the key to an honest debate is informed discourse, not refusal to consider the possibility. When the city of St. Louis has collectively decided through our political process to move in the direction of a sustainable future, all challenges considered, refusal to aid in that process is not helpful nor necessary. When a city, historically known as the “Coal Capital of the Midwest,” believes that renewable energy must be prioritized, it is regressive and inaccurate to claim coal is a “reliable friend” which will meet our region’s needs.
St. Louis has made a commitment—alongside scores of other cities—that is necessary now more than ever, as our federal government refuses to participate in constructive, critical climate policy-making. As of now, corporate interests are leveraging the name of Wash. U. against this progress. Yet politicians on both sides of the aisle are betting against coal and investing in a better future as its market grows more unstable. Students and faculty across the nation are pushing their universities to do the same. Fossil Free WashU is asking the University to divest from fossil fuels, to cut our hypocritical financial ties with the industry. It is time for us to take a stand.