For a Puerto Rican, the words “climate action” increasingly induce an inescapable cynicism. Topping the Global Climate Risk Index also means the landscapes you knew and loved are forever changing or disappearing, that “home” is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and that your loved ones risk being left to die after the next catastrophe. Hence, I was among those raising eyebrows last September after President Salovey announced a task force to figure out when Yale could achieve net-zero carbon emissions, in addition to the Carbon Offset Laboratory (COLab) — Yale’s newest climate action shiny object.
While an all-white team for the task force wasn’t surprising, the COLab was disconcerting to many, particularly when the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — where the COLab is based — is still coming to terms with its troubling history with eugenics and its roles in the displacement of Native Americans and resource extraction.
To those supporting environmental justice and the broader divestment movement, the formation of the COLab was a tone-deaf doubling-down on that very same legacy, once more postponing doing the right thing for business as usual. Carbon offsetting, when firms compensate their emissions by limiting them elsewhere, isn’t a silver bullet, and prioritizing it — as policy colleagues have pointed out — ignores the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report’s urgency regarding emission reduction.
The complexities of creating markets for carbon offsetting are well-known to some students. They encompass everything from leakage of carbon emissions and access issues with carbon storage projects to the ongoing killings of indigenous peoples and environmental activists in land use conflicts, to name a few.
Yet many in business and the environment career paths still seem oblivious to their colleagues’ concerns. To some of them, the COLab was even anticipated. One former classmate even acknowledged working on the project all summer. Such differences in perception speak to a deeper chasm among students and faculty alike.
The elephant in the room is that two opposing worldviews are in direct conflict. On one side are those who recognize capitalism as intrinsically unsustainable to people and the environment. On the other are those like the supporters of the new COLab, who believe that all corporations — be it oil, mining or chemical companies — can do good to people and the environment. The supposed effectiveness and legality of market investments is also deployed as an excuse to postpone divestment from fossil fuels, Puerto Rican debt and other morally dubious assets.
There are gradients in between these two poles, certainly, but there’s also a large contingent finding itself confused and lost between these two alternate realities. They are mostly career academics and researchers still entrenched in the remnants of scientism, the belief that science is unbiased and apolitical. They believe that science “says” objective things that need “translation” for those who don’t understand them, that facts alone will make us free and that the scientific method is the only way to understand and communicate a universe supposedly experienced in the same way by all.
These people lost between the two positions I outlined — this middle camp — are the Robert Muellers of environmental science: They long for a world where policymakers feed on their findings and politicians fly them to Washington, D.C. for congressional hearings or to co-author bills. They didn’t get the memo that their world is on a long hiatus, if not already over. Their inertia feeds market reformers who find their work useful, at least in internalizing market externalities to create marketable commodities. They will surely be better funded by corporations who, like Yale, are invested in maximizing revenue without assuming the costs of actually making things better.
In the face of a constitutional crisis and the fallout of neoliberalism, net-zero emission programs are starting to look like institutional versions of buying a Prius. That is why the Green New Deal and its transformational imagery captures the minds of people so readily. And yet, it is the market reformers who are better positioned to muster corporate guilt to fund their worldview — that is, a pipe dream of a world that can be fixed, but not replaced by a better one. It has come to the point where it may be worth renaming the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies to just the School of Business & the Environment.
There’s a place for the environment in business — we need things, after all — but capitalism, by definition, is against the environment. Whatever its name in the future, a school unable to recognize that paradox is destined to fail. Being nestled in an institution invested in the systemic exploitation of people for profit — and that insists on remaining so — will only make that recognition harder.
For now, it would do us a favor to call our differences what they are, a face-off between anti-capitalists and capitalist reformers, with a confused middle in between that lacks the tools to understand the world is changing — with Yale or without it.
JAVIER ROMAN-NIEVES graduated from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2019. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .