According to The Times of London, two students at St John’s College at Oxford University wrote to Professor Andrew Parker, the principal bursar, this week requesting a meeting to discuss demands, including that the college “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels”. They claim that St. John’s, the richest in Oxford, has £8 million of its £551 million endowment fund invested in BP and Shell.
The Times of London’s Ben Webster asks, “How do you respond when placard-waving students occupy your 15th-century quadrangle and refuse to leave until you sell the college’s shares in oil companies? As this is Oxford, naturally you present them with a philosophical dilemma.”
Professor Parker’s reply came as a shock to the two students, “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote. “But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”
One of the students replied to Parker’s offer and accused him of not taking them seriously. Professor Parker responded to that note saying, “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).”
“Fergus Green, the organizer of the wider protest, who is studying for a master’s degree in physics and philosophy at Balliol College, said: “This is an inappropriate and flippant response by the bursar to what we were hoping would be a mature discussion. It’s January and it would be borderline dangerous to switch off the central heating.”
Yes, it would be rash and “borderline dangerous” to do something like that.
Now step back and take notice how closely this small debate at one college is a microcosm of the larger debate taking place around the globe. The teenage face of the anti-fossil fuel movement, Greta Thunberg, recently demanded “real zero” emissions starting right now. Following her advice would be the equivalent of cutting off the gas that heats the campus in the middle of winter. It wouldn’t just be “borderline dangerous” it would almost certainly be catastrophic for millions of people. Despite this, I bet protest organizer Fergus Green thinks she’s part of a “mature discussion.” In any case, a lot of people like him seem to think so.
Professor Parker’s response focuses the mind on the fact that this isn’t a game. There are significant costs to real people associated with eliminating fossil fuels. Natural gas, for instance, isn’t something we can simply cease using overnight or even in ten years. If we’re not careful about how we proceed, a lot of people could get hurt. So a fair response to people demanding an end to the use of fossil fuels is the one the professor put to these protesters: You first.